2381 Kabbalah and Reincarnation


Death of children is perplexing, cruel and seems so senseless. How do we deal with it? Visions of other worlds do not alleviate the pain of heartbroken parents who lose a child, especially a young child who never had a chance to experience life.

Our friends, Yakov and Miriam asked us to be the godparents of their firstborn son, Hanoch. At his circumcision, something caught my attention. Normally, the quick surgery results in a fair amount of blood. The infant cries for a few seconds until a cotton ball dipped in wine is placed between his lips. But Hanoch bled only a slight amount and hardly cried at all. It was as if he knew something the rest of us had missed.  

This same day his mother Miriam was quite ill. We thought it was post-partum weakness, but a year later we found out that Miriam had AIDS. This was before the general public knew much about the disease. She had been a medical professional and somehow had come in contact with infected blood, probably via a needle stick before the inception of the meticulous procedures common today. Miriam died six months after that. Hanoch tested HIV positive. He may have been the first child in Israel with this disease. He died when he was eight years old.

Everyone who has been involved in the serious illness or death of a child experiences a test of faith in the core of her or his being. If life has purpose at all, what is the meaning of a child's death? Moreover, once we personally experience the grief of a loss so terrible, we cannot help but wonder about the suffering in the world. Why is there so much starvation, so many senseless deaths, so much cruelty? Why have there been wars throughout history, plagues, disease, tyranny, poverty, torture and murder? What kind of a God oversees this?

Clearly, nobody has adequately answered questions such as these. Spiritual traditions however do attempt to offer cosmologies that raise insight regarding things like fate, karma, reincarnation, and soul journeys. The teachings of Jewish mysticism begin with the premise that life and death as we know them are reflections of other realities. What we see as beginnings and endings are merely segments of something without boundaries.

The teachings of reincarnation are of value when we have nowhere else to turn in the tragedy of a death. Whether it is the death of a young child, or a young adult in his or her prime, sometimes we can find solace in understanding that the task they came to do was completed and they had to move on. Indeed, there is a teaching that says, "the good die early so that they do not risk being corrupted, and the wicked live longer so that they have more chance to repent."


Once a man named Baruch went to the Baal Shem Tov with a long list of complaints. Life really had not treated him well. He never got a good education because from a very young age he had to support his family. He had difficulties with women. He could not keep jobs for long. People treated him poorly, and his reputation was always on the rocks. What happened? What did he do to deserve this fate? And what could he do to change it?

The Baal Shem Tov listened carefully, stroked his beard, and then said, "Baruch, I want you to go to the city that I will write on this piece of paper. In that city, you must find Yishai ben Shabbtai. Keep looking until you do, for when you find him you will understand everything."

Baruch went immediately to the town. He went to every shul looking for Yishai ben Shabbtai. He asked the butchers, the merchants, the town tax collector. Nobody had ever heard of this person. Baruch searched for weeks. He could not believe that the holy Baal Shem had sent him on a wild goose chase.

Finally, he was exhausted. He ended up in the local graveyard talking with an old, wrinkled grave digger. He told the old man his story. The grave digger looked at him from behind shaggy eyebrows and asked, "Did you say Yishai ben Shabbtai?" Baruch nodded and the old man began to chuckle.

"Amazing," he said, "He was buried in the first grave I ever dug, fifty years ago, and since that time not a single person has inquired about him. You see, he was the stingiest, meanest, cruelest man that ever lived."

The old grave digger guided Baruch to the other side of the cemetery where a small stone marked the grave of Yishai ben Shabbtai. The grave digger said, "Here he is, but I must tell you that he would never have helped you; he would have spit in your face like he did to everyone else."

Baruch was confused. He returned to the Baal Shem Tov and told him the story of his search. "Why did you send me to find someone who died before I was born?" he asked. The Baal Shem Tov looked deeply into his eyes, and said, "Baruch, look inside yourself, for you have the reborn sparks of the soul of Yishai ben Shabbtai, and this is the answer to your question. Every problem you face raises another spark that he caused to fall."


As with all the mysteries surrounding death, the question of reincarnation has been highly controversial in mainstream Judaism. Even today, when I tell hasidic tales that include the idea of transmigration of souls, people often approach me from the audience saying, "I did not know that Judaism believes in the doctrine of reincarnation."

Actually many Jewish texts discuss the issue. Moreover, "in contrast with the conspicuous opposition of Jewish philosophy, metempsychosis [reincarnation] is taken for granted in the Kabbalah."

 The Bahir (12th century), one of the earliest books in Kabbalah, refers to reincarnation, and Chaim Vital (16th century) wrote a number of books on the subject. The most comprehensive work available today is the excellent book, Jewish Views of the Afterlife, by Simcha Paul Raphael (Aronson, 1994).

Early writers on the subject typically viewed reincarnation as a punishment. Later, the Jewish approach to reincarnation was influenced by Lurianic Kabbalah, which suggests that sparks from root souls can be collected into individual souls. As has been discussed, one of Luria's primary doctrines suggests that the task of humanity is to redeem the fallen sparks of primordial humankind. Each root soul must therefore raise up the 613 limbs that represent Adam and Eve. This is called the Shi'ur Komah, meaning the "measurement of the body."

The Shi'ur Komah is a metaphysical measurement, despite the misunderstanding that it was a literal attempt to measure the body of God. Indeed, this doctrine was one of the most secret parts of the early kabbalistic teachings as it used metaphors that were likely to be misunderstood by uninitiated readers. For example, physical dimensions of God are estimated at 236,000 parasangs--about 600,000 miles. This naturally caused outrage among rational readers, but was actually a reference to a typical kabbalistic interpretation of a verse in Psalms.

The true teaching of Shi'ur Komah is actually quite profound. Following the idea described in the opening of this book that creation resulted from the Shattering of the Vessels, we can see that all of the fallen sparks collectively represent the body of God, so to speak. If these sparks were gathered together, they would merge into the light of the Divine. Thus, all of creation is the metaphorical body of God, and every person in the creation embodies the potential to return divine sparks to their point of origin.

Jewish mystics say: "The shape of humans corresponds to the mystical shape of the Godhead... Everything in the human body, each of the 248 limbs and 365 sinews corresponds to a supernal light as they are arranged in the primal shape of the highest manifestation of God. The human task is to bring our true shape to its spiritual perfection, to develop the divine image within ourselves. This is done by observing the 248 positive and 365 negative commandments of the Torah, each one of which is linked to one of the organs of the human body, and hence one of those supernal lights."

There are actually thousands of laws within the scope of Jewish observance. Attempts have been made to isolate 613 from the Torah, but there are many variations in these listings, which often include a significant percentage of laws that only apply to priestly activities in the Temple. From the mystical perspective, the number 613 represents archetypal categories into which the laws could be organized. This is a metaphor of the design of the universe, and is equated hypothetically with the "body of God," so to speak. The language of the Zohar says that there are the 613 organs that give us insight into our souls.

In simple terms, the meaning of this teaching is that everything we do in life is a key that enables us to peek at a part of the soul, and some things allow us to look more deeply than others. The only way we connect with the soul, however, is through insight. Our gentleness as well as our anger, our compassion as well as our fear, are wonderful teachers if we can see the sparks hidden within them. 

The trick is to learn to observe closely how and when key personal traits reveal themselves in our lives. When we are able to note how they affect us and those around us, we gain insight. Through insight we open new gateways. We discover that all of our personality quirks, habits, behaviors, conditioning, and individual characteristics form a template, like a pattern on a curtain. When we shine a light through this pattern as an observer, we can perceive aspects of our own soul. Under close scrutiny, the pattern reveals to us what the soul is and what it needs to do. Through this process, according to Kabbalah, the source of life makes Itself known.

From this perspective, reincarnation has a vast potential. It is not a punishment for "sin" as much as it is an opportunity to raise any of the sparks that have not yet been redeemed in a root soul. As the Tikkunei Zohar says, "If there is even one organ in which the Holy Blessed One does not dwell, then the person will be brought back into the world through reincarnation because of this organ, until the person becomes perfected in all of her or his parts, that all of them may be perfect in the image of the Holy Blessed One."