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One of life’s greatest challenges is to understand “why?”

Often when faced with crisis, trauma, or bereavement, we intuitively search for meaning and purpose. Cold realization that we may never fathom circumstance leaves us numb.

One avenue in which Kabbalah refreshes our faith is in its presentation of reincarnation and soul migration. Although no overt reference is made in the scripture to the subject, however the greatest Kabbalists—notably the Arizal as quoted in the work Shaar HaGilgulim (Gate of Reincarnation), expound clearly its principles.

The soul is eternal, a spark of the Divine, or as the prophet Job calls it “a part of G‑d above.” The soul exists before it enters the body and it lives after the body is laid to rest. Though the soul’s place of origin is in the higher worlds, there is something that the soul can achieve in a body that it cannot achieve in the heavenly realms. It has already been explained that the purpose of creation is to make an abode for the Divine in this world. Although higher worlds are glorious in terms of revelation and offer the best reward for a soul after it has achieved its earthly mission, the heavenly realms are not the purpose of creation. It was G‑d’s desire to create a world where His presence would be acutely concealed and darkness and evil would prevail. He charged his children with the task of creating a home in this world, and the soul fulfills that mission by its adherence to Torah and Mitzvot.

Kabbalah explains that the soul is comprised of 613 channels, which parallel the 248 limbs and 365 blood Vessels of the body. These 613 channels attain eternal elevation when all 613 Mitzvot are fulfilled by a soul in its earthly descent.

Usually a soul does not manage to fulfill all the commandments in one descent, and the Arizal writes that every soul must be repeatedly reincarnated until it has fulfilled all 613 Mitzvot in thought, speech, and action. In the previous chapter, the notion of purification through Gehinom was introduced.

Here the soul is cleansed in order to be elevated to the Garden of Eden. How is this concept reconciled with the possibility of reincarnation and a return to our world? The Kabbalists explain that when a soul returns to this world, the part of the soul that was elevated by its Torah learning and Mitzvah performance is not reincarnated, rather it is only the other parts of the soul that were not affected by the first incarnation that return. The possibility of a soul being divided and part of a soul being reincarnated is discussed at length in Kabbalah. The original idea stems from the fact that the soul of Adam was composed of all future souls, and the soul of Jacob was comprised of 70 parts which were then further subdivided into the 600,000 souls of Israel. These 600,000 were then subdivided further into another 600,000. Through various reincarnations all parts of the soul are elevated and once the entire soul has been elevated the soul is no longer reincarnated. This explains the strange phenomena of why certain people engage in a specific Mitzvah in which they excel. It could be that the person’s soul descended again for sake of that specific Mitzvah.

Souls may also be reincarnated to complete a certain task, repay a debt, or rectify a sin. In fact the concept of reincarnation as rectification for sin is well documented by the Kabbalists.

Most fascinating is the study of soul migration, which is how a soul from a previous generation is reincarnated in a later generation into a specific set of circumstances which are tailored to engineer a rectification of a previous sin. Of the hundreds of examples, we shall quote one here which is documented in the book Shaarei Teshuvah (Gates of Repentance), written by Rabbi Dovber of Lubavitch, a foremost Kabbalist and chassidic Rebbe. When we take a look at the period in history of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, we stand perplexed as to why that generation had the awesome task of deciding between apostasy and burning at the stake. Why was it at this particular junction of Jewish history, Jews had to endure such horrible torture and exile at the hands of the Inquisition?

Rabbi Dovber writes the following:

In the times of the first Temple, they served G‑d and did not cast from themselves the yolk of heaven, except in certain idolatrous practices for which they had tremendous desire, so much so that there were only left 7,000 people that had not succumbed to Baal worship in the days of Ahab. All the Kings who served these idols were great men, and they were tainted with this heinous sin of idolatry. All these generations, who were most elevated souls, did not receive their rectification and elevation until the times of the philosophers in the time of Rashi and the Rambam until the time of the Arizal, which was from the year 4856 (1096) in the days of Rashi until the expulsion of Jews from Portugal in the year 5252 (1492), and until the time of the Arizal in 5333 (1573). The Arizal explicitly stated that in his time, the period of destruction that had swept the Jewish world for the last nearly 500 years had ended. All those who had sacrificed their lives in sanctification of G‑d’s name in their thousands, and tens of thousands in each generation, all of them were souls of the first Temple. Their sin was that they had previously served idols and had nourished the Kelipot and therefore their rectification was to give up their lives in sanctification of G‑d’s name with simple faith which transcended any logic or philosophy.

Imagine a soul that entered the heavenly realms in the days of the first Temple that had been tainted by the grave sin of idolatry. The soul would greatly anticipate and appreciate an opportunity to descend once again to rectify its mistake. Any momentary pain involved, including the murderous moment of being burned alive is worth it to gain eternal elevation. Hence the soul descended to a body in a later generation for rectification.

Although the body of the Spanish Jew could not comprehend why he was being hauled through this torture, what was happening was essentially a kindness for it was the key to eternal elevation. In fact, the Kabbalists point out that the Hebrew word for “reincarnation”—Gilgul—has the same “numerical value” (gematria) as the word Chessed—“kindness.” Such presentations however have their limitations. Could one explain the Holocaust with reincarnation? The Lubavitcher Rebbe was of the opinion that although the concept of reincarnation may be a component in explaining the events of the Holocaust, one could not possibly think of such a hideous crime that would warrant such atrocities. It would be arrogant even to suggest a reason for such merciless extermination and brutality. Rather, one must take the humble position that such tragedy is beyond us. In the words of the prophet, “My ways are not your ways and My thoughts are not your thoughts says G‑d.”

Though not all sufferings can be explained by reincarnation, there may however, be help in explaining tragedies such as the deaths of people taken suddenly in accidents, illness, or war. It could be that their souls needed to return to this world for a certain amount of time in order to fulfill a certain purpose, and when that purpose had been achieved, the soul could return to its eternal abode. This may also give comfort to some couples who are devastated by infertility. It could be that a couple has already fulfilled the Mitzvah of procreation in a previous incarnation, and is therefore not required to have a birth child to fulfill the Mitzvah. It must however be noted that calculations of reincarnation should never deter one from doing all that is necessary within the parameters of Jewish law to procreate.

“The hidden matters are for G‑d, and the revealed aspects for us and our children.” One should walk simply before G‑d, and it is beyond the vision of mere mortals to figure out whose reincarnation one may be. However, in times of challenge and specifically when we feel out of control, it is good to know that all has been meticulously planned and executed in the Divine kaleidoscope.

A Final Comforting Word:

There is a verse in the book of Samuel: “For die we must, like water flows on the ground and that cannot be gathered up again; and G‑d favors not a soul, but He devises means that he that is banished be not cast away from Him” (II Samuel 14:14). Citing the closing phrase of this verse as an assurance that no one banished from G‑d by his sins will remain banished, Rabbi Schneur Zalman writes that every Jew will eventually return to G‑d, either in this incarnation or another.

Rabbi Nissan D. Dubov is director of Chabad Lubavitch in Wimbledon, UK.
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Anonymous U.S. November 15, 2016

Reincarnating from the Holocaust I am not born Jewish in this life-my mother is not Jewish though my father was Jewish but I have such a deep connection to Am Israel and the state of Israel from the age of 18 on now to age 58 that I feel that I was Jewish in my recent past life and other lives where I may have died as a martyr for the Jewish people.
For many reasons that I can't go into here I believe that I died as a child in the Holocaust and that is why I still maintain a very deep connection to the Jewish people.
I believe that I carried over some of the trauma and sadness from my past life time and that I've even found the person who was my mother in that last life who is still a religious Orthodox Jew.
I believe that the holocaust occurred so that the state of Israel could be created and that perhaps many of the souls such as myself voluntarily chose to die for the Jewish people and for the creation of the state of Israel. Reply

Menachem Posner March 13, 2016

RE: Death and Reincarnation It seems that reincarnation is not limited to Jews. On the contrary, the classic sources talk of many instances where non-Jewish souls come back to earth. Reply

Deborah May 9, 2017
in response to Menachem Posner:

Approximately a third of the world believes in reincarnation. Buddhism takes reincarnation seriously, and my understanding is their lamas (their priests) are chosen because it's believed they are the reincarnation of the past lamas. Reply

Kevin McQuoid New Zealand June 28, 2015

Reincarnation is something I used to feel was the case, I don't know why this feeling was with me, but at the time I was not a man of G_D at all. my thoughts were that we had a spirit, it entered into the body of a newborn child within a certain time, the body and the spirit within lived the life of trial on this earth; on death of the body the spirit left it,and if all did not go well during that life, if the spirit was not worthy, then it was sent back to enter another new born child, and for further trial and testing.
Since those days, the spirit within me was crying out and independent of my thoughts, crying out to our creator, who heard, since then I have had the Holy spirit of G_D working with me, very strong, no doubts, and much spiritual, but this one thing I notice, of all the revelations, Knowledge and understanding of It given me, there has been no mention of any form of reincarnation! even in the visions of the future G_D has given me.----- Just thought I'd share this Reply

Kyle November 12, 2014

I'm sorry I don't have time to discuss this in detail, but let me make this provocative response. You really missed the point of Ex. 34:7 & grossly misinterpreted it, presuming a clear deviation to scripture. Reply

Yehuda Shurpin for February 24, 2014

Re: Better vision is needed The irony of the claim that the Jews got the idea of the resurrection from the ancient Egyptians is that other detractors of traditional Judaism (already 2000 years ago…) made the completely opposite claim i.e. that the concept of the resurrection of the dead was a fabrication the rabbis concocted many years after the exodus and the giving of the Torah, and was not part of traditional Judaism up until that point. In other words, regardless of the fact that there actually are allusions to the resurrection in scriptures (contrary to that claim), the topic becomes more explicit in Judaism the further away from Egypt and the exodus you get, not the closer (which should have been the case had this claim any merit…).

As for reincarnation in Judaism, I would refer you to Why & When Does Reincarnation Occur? and Where is reincarnation found in G‑d's word Reply

Anonymous CA February 21, 2014

Better vision is needed Traditional Judaism borrowed the idea of Resurrection from the Egyptians. Later Hassidim borrowed the idea of Reincarnation from Hindus for the same reason it was invented in the first place - to help the masses deal with the fear of death and their miserable conditions. Now is the time to move on to a better understanding what the World to Come is all about and away from these self-serving mythologies of afterlife. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma March 6, 2012

Another way of seeing Journey of SOUL It could be G_d had no choice, in making man, knowing we had to be part of G_d and never separate. So G_d put into a deterministic frame, since we could never be truly separate, a learning curve, that was about tikkun, in that man, in becoming emergent, in going through life, would find meaning, and increasing meaning, or elevation of soul, through the wrestling with conscience, with suffering, with the need for tikkun, and thus perfect, and climb. But the learning curve itself, and ladder of choice, is, on another plane, fixed, and G_d has to know all that's going to happen, as if and truly, G_d is the master storyteller, and we move through e.. motion, towards these heights of understanding and do transform in this way. The events of our lives are deeply connected to the potentials of the letters, the aleph bets, and these events are coded within the words and letters themselves. It is hard to explicate this in limited words, but this is what I'm gifted to see and write. It's all G_d Reply

Ed Coconut Creek, Florida June 23, 2011

Reincarnation After reading a review of reiincarnation...does that mean that we are put back on this earth to try to complete more mitzvahs and to amend for the ones we didn't amount to? Reply

Jeremy Winston-Salem, NC September 28, 2010

reincarnation Not to change the subject, but I wish to make a note about my above post about the rebuilding of the temple. I am a bit perplexed and still studying in prayer the words of Jeremiah. Jeremiah 3: 14-18 (paraphrase) Return children to the L-d ..v15 feed you with knowledge and understanding. No more ark of the covenant,.. v16 neither miss it anymore neither shall it be made any more....v18 In those days Judah will walk with Israel. The meaning to me so far is no more temple, but returning to the land as one nation combining all the tribes. I am still studying his words. Reply

Anonymous Montreal, Canada September 27, 2010

A question about rectification The concept of rectification is most interesting. How a soul can come back to the world or another under a specific set of circumstances to ''purify'' themselves by correcting a past error or sin if you prefer. But can the opposite of rectification be also true where a soul did something very good and has to come back to the world to continue it's mission or the soul has reached a certain level of maturity so he comes to the world with certain leaderships skills or autority to do something that God or Providence consideres important for human developement or for the next step of human evolution. Reply

Anonymous Winston-Salem, NC September 19, 2010

Wrong verse There is a verse in the book of Samuel: “For die we must, like water flows on the ground and that cannot be gathered up again; and G-d favors not a soul, but He devises means that he that is banished be not cast away from Him” (Samuel 2:14).....
Is Actually 2 Samuel 14:14 Reply

Jeremy Winston-Salem, NC September 19, 2010

Reincarnation Although no overt reference is made in the scripture to the subject, ....I disagree
here is a verse that we should study.
Gen 38:8 And Judah said unto Onan: 'Go in unto thy brother's wife, and perform the duty of a husband's brother unto her, and raise up seed to thy brother.'
Gen 38:9 And Onan knew that the seed would not be his; and it came to pass when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest he should give seed to his brother. JPS Reply

James Smith Yonkers, ny June 14, 2009

Philosophical Question Hi: Thanks for your writing. In esoteric areas, such as astrology and reincarnation, I have not become a strong believer. Antagonism is not my goal either, yet I wish to be true to my feelings and thoughts. Thus I write.

From a metaphysical basis, there is little that points me toward reincarnation. I find the possibility mildly interesting. Yet, all the descriptions of various states, such as the soul of Adam comprising all souls, or being divided into 70 parts through Jacob, or 600,000 to all of Israel seems to provide some basis for further explanation without any firm basis in any known reality.

From an epistemological point of view, it seems that the value of reincarnation is more explanatory than valid. With the utmost respect for your response, I also note that their may be alternative and more immediate to the difficulties reincarnation tries to address. One alternative could simply be the evolution of knowledge and how people best interact.

Jim Reply

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