In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, in the last line of the proclamation of the 13 Attributes, we are told that God “does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.”
Why should unborn children be punished for the transgressions of their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents? In her book New Age Judaism, Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World, Mindy Ribner says Jewish mystics believe that this line has a much deeper meaning. They believe that “every third or fourth human generation, our soul returns to earth in a human body in order to do the work of t’shuvah and tikkun, of repentance and healing – to fix the karma – for the mistakes we made in that previous lifetime.” Kabbalah says that the sin is not passed on to innocent children, but it is the same soul who comes back in the third and fourth generations of the family to correct its deficiencies.
In his book Jewish Views of the Afterlife, Simcha Paull Rapheal tells us that over the course of centuries, the Kabbalists repeatedly spoke about how souls, once they have assimilated the spiritual learning of the highest heavenly realm, are subject to reincarnation. Through the process of physical reimbodiment, the soul can bring about a restitution for the wrongdoings of a previous life and attain further perfection. According to the Zohar, there are 613 commandments, each one sacred and requiring specific holy actions. The Zohar states the necessity to reincarnate to assure that the religious obligation of each will be completed.
There is an old Hasidic story of a young Rabbi named David Leikes. Reb David decided to spend Yom Kippur with the Baal Shem Tov. He started out in plenty of time to get to his holy master before Yontif, but delay after delay kept him from his destination.
Finally, it was only an hour before Yom Kippur was to begin, but if he hurried, he would make it on time. To be sure that the horses would not falter on the way, he stopped for a precious moment to water them.
In that moment when the horses were drinking, some people from the little village approached him. “Please, good man,” they said, “please help us. We are but nine Jews in this tiny village. We need one more person to make our minyan so that we can say our prayers on the holiest day of the year. Please stay here and daven with us on Yom Kippur.”
Reb David barely listened to their pleas. “What?” he asked incredulously. “Don’t you know where I am going? I am traveling to be in the court of the holy master. I’m going to daven Yom Kippur with the holy Baal Shem. I would like to help you, but how can I give up being with the holiest of all men on the holiest of all days?”
Chastened and saddened, the men stepped back, and Reb David grabbed his horses and rode away.
When he came to the holy Baal Shem’s court, the master was wishing everybody a “good Yontif.” When it came Reb David’s turn, the Baal Shem skipped over him. “It must be an oversight,” thought Reb David. “The Baal Shem just didn’t see me.”
When Yom Kippur was over, once again, the holy Baal Shem greeted all who had come to daven in his court, but once again he skipped over Reb David.
By the time Sukkot came and went and he had been skipped over time and time again, Reb David knew that it was no oversight, no accident, that the holy master had failed to recognize his presence, he cried out, “Please, Rebbe, please, holy master. Tell me what I did so wrong that you should ignore me like this.”
And the Baal Shem Tov looked deeply into Reb David’s eyes and said, “Tell me, David. Tell me how many hundreds of years, how many gilgoolim, has your soul been waiting to daven Yom Kippur with those nine men? You came into this world only to pray with them.”
Gilgool hanefesh calls upon us to practice kavanah with each and every moment of our lives. According to Jewish scholar Arthur Green, we must listen intently to that which is occurring around us and within us for evidence of what our soul came to earth to accomplish. This way of thinking spurns us to connect with the Godliness within ourselves, affording us the opportunity to elevate our souls and challenging us to connect with others and the world around us in the most compassionate way possible.
Let us conclude with the words of English poet William Wordsworth:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God who is our home.