Reincarnation. I will be back!
We will go back to the Hebrew Bible later. For now, I am going to hit the pause button and shift gears.
I think for that first year, as I sat during daily services, all I did was try and recognize words and stay on the right page. I would read the English once in a while, but most of the time, I was in a fugue state, shut down and shut off. Whatever feelings I had were shoved down so deep I couldn’t have accessed them if I had wanted to. I knew I was in synagogue to heal from my grief, and I guess that happens differently for different people.
At home, I tried to act normal. And the normal me always had plenty to say about other people. Whenever I would say something judgmental or nasty about someone in my life, my husband would ask, “Want to tell me what you are getting out of synagogue?”
How could I tell him the truth?
I was simply taking up a seat.
Then one morning, I read a prayer that included these words: Who sustains the living with kindness, resuscitates the dead with abundant mercy. At first, I thought I had read it wrong. Resuscitates the dead? Brings them back to life? Did that mean if I prayed hard enough, I could bring my father back, my mother? I knew that was ridiculous, but what did it mean?
When my granddaughter, Emma, was born two months after my mother passed away, we all felt sure she had my mother’s soul. When my daughter gave birth to Jacob, three months after my father passed away, we all felt that connection again, this time with my father’s soul.
I have always believed that death is like birth. Imagine a baby floating and growing inside its mother’s belly. It is safe, warm and well fed. But soon the baby begins to outgrow its home and knows that there is only one way out. Imagine how terrified that baby is. It looks down the birth canal and thinks; there is no way I am getting out of here alive.
Conversely, every day that we live takes a toll on our bodies. We all know that someday our bodies will no longer be able to sustain us. We know that death is inevitable, but we find this truth hard to grasp. We don’t know what will be coming next. I have always chosen to believe that death is simply a rebirth.
This morning I told the rabbi that I was writing about reincarnation and angels.
“Let me show you something,” he said, taking out two Artscroll Siddurs, the Orthodox prayer book.
I am a bit ashamed to admit that my first thought was, Ok Ellen, you have officially gone over the edge. Next thing you’ll be doing is quoting scripture!” Then I let go of the image that had flashed in my mind and found myself really enjoying the discussion with the rabbi. It was pretty cool. (I know that expression dates me. But it is from my generation and it is the perfect expression for what was taking place.)
The rabbi had me turn to the Bedtime Shema (prayer). I grew up saying: “Now I lay me down to sleep.” I had never read this one before. It was beautiful.
“I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me or who sinned against me-whether he did so accidentally, willfully, carelessly, or purposely, whether through speech, deed, thought, or notion; whether in this transmigration or another transmigration– I forgive. . .Page 289 of the Artscroll Siddur for the rest of the prayer.
Transmigration: I certainly had never heard the word before. Transmigration is a translation from the Hebrew word gilgul, referring to the doctrine of transmigration of souls, or the recycling of souls, if that makes it easier to understand. The idea comes from one of the most mystical doctrines in Kabalistic literature. It refers to the soul reincarnating for physical life on earth.
The Talmud alludes to a mystical school of thought. Just like the Oral Torah, these teachings were not written down until the Middle Ages when Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai wrote the Zohar. The Zohar is a mystical book that is an integral part of Kabalistic literature yet, I venture to say that most of us had never even heard of Kabbalah before Madonna came on the scene and made it so popular.
Reincarnation is a Kabalistic belief system embraced by Orthodox and Ultra- Orthodox Jews. Having never been taught anything about reincarnation makes me feel left out—as though I was given a taste of a delicious piece of cake but was not allowed to finish it.
I think it is important that we have a clear understanding of Orthodoxy before we move ahead, since they are the ones who have held staunchly to this belief of reincarnation.
Orthodox Jews believe they are the authentic Jews. I am not going into what that makes the rest of us who are not Orthodox. It does not matter to me. I respect this group for carrying on the religion in the manner that they do. It is not an easy life. So, I say mazel tov and wish them all great blessings.
There are two distinct groups in Orthodoxy. One group believes that their lives can be compatible with the society around them. They will live among us while maintaining their religious and cultural values. This group includes Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionists.
The second group is known as the ultra-Orthodox (Haredim). They see present day culture as a direct threat to their way of life. They will work beside us, but their communities are separated from our society. Their lives are filled with Torah study, prayer and family. There is no television, movies, Internet or secular reading. The ultra-Orthodox men dress in black suits and black velvet yarmulkes or black hats and they have beards and payot (sidelocks). Women dress very modestly and once married they cover their heads with wigs, hats or scarves.
Now, back to reincarnation. Below are a few scriptural passages that allude to reincarnation. Let’s look at the Book of Job (we will get to examine this book later).
Behold, all these things does G-d do—twice, even three times with a man—to bring his soul back from the pit that he may be enlightened with the light of the living. (Job 33:29)
Does this refer to G-d allowing a person to come back from death and try again?
Another example from the bible is in Daniel 12:13: now go your way to the end and rest, and you shall arise to your destiny at the end of days.
According to the Zohar 1186b, As long as a person is unsuccessful in his purpose in this world, the Holy One, blessed be He, uproots him and replants him over and over again.
You decide what you believe. But let me share with you the philosophy of the Orthodox and see if it resonates with you. The best way to do this is for me to just give you a direct quote from the Zohar:
All souls are subject to reincarnation; and people do not know the ways of the Holy One, blessed be He! They do not know that they are brought before the tribunal both before they enter into this world and after they leave it; they are ignorant of the many reincarnations and secret works which they have to undergo, and of the number of naked souls, and how many naked spirits roam about in the other world without being able to enter within the veil of the King’s Palace. Men do not know how the souls revolve like a stone that is thrown from a sling. But the time is at hand when these mysteries will be disclosed (Zohar II 99b).
Reincarnation is seen as an opportunity for the soul to achieve what it did not achieve in a previous life. It can be a time of reward for fulfilling one’s mission or a time of punishment. I guess this gives us good reason to try and live an honest life.
There are many Jews who are going to read this entire section and perhaps, see it as nonsense. That’s fine. Just don’t get mad at me because I love the idea. In fact, I have always believed in reincarnation, even though I have no idea why or even where that idea came from. It must just be a part of my soul memory (smile).
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