Jewish Journal

Did I recognize your soul?

Parashat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9)

by Rabbi Zoë Klein

Posted on Jul. 5, 2011 at 5:40 pm

Rabbi Zoe Klein

Rabbi Zoe Klein

Um, excuse me, have we met? I’m sorry. There was a faint bell in the recess of my … are you sure we haven’t? I thought perhaps we were once together. I remember a sturdy tent, with desert flowers outside the door, glowing coals inside, a shadow moving toward the door. Was that you?

In our Torah portion, the wicked prophet Balaam is on his way to curse the people of Israel when a sword-wielding angel blocks his path. Balaam doesn’t see the angel, but the donkey he is riding does. The animal swerves to the side to avoid the angel, crushing Balaam’s foot against the wall.

The Targum, the Aramaic translation of the Bible, claims that Balaam is the reincarnation of Laban, the father-in-law of Jacob. Rashi (Sanhedrin 105a) also mentions this. What is the connection between Balaam and Laban? And since when do Jews talk about reincarnation?

Do I know you? The curve of your cheek, the bouquet of creases by your eye, the way you breathe the steam off your tea …

In Genesis chapter 31, Jacob and Laban build a heap of stones and agree that neither one will pass over it to harm the other.

Midrash suggests that Balaam is the reincarnation of Laban and that the wall against which his foot is crushed is the same heap of stones. The soul of Laban is being punished for intending to pass over it to curse the descendents of Jacob.

Does this sound unusual? Un-Jewish? Judaism believes many things.

Judaism is monotheistic but not monolithic.

You smile at me and your eye glimmers. My neck feels warm. I see a well, a flock. A mountain in the distance. Do you remember it at all?

Nachmanides believed reincarnation was the underlying principle behind the biblical commandment of Leverite marriage. Leverite marriage is when the brother-in-law of a childless widow procreates with her.

Nachmanides wrote that the act of the surviving brother replaced the deceased husband so that he would reincarnate in the soul of the offspring.

Jewish mysticism holds that through physical re-embodiment, the soul can mend the wrongdoings of previous lives and attain further wholeness.

Zohar speaks of reincarnation, calling it the transmigration of souls. It says, “All souls must undergo transmigration.”

Isaac Luria taught that reincarnation was an essential vehicle for repair of the world. Luria believed that every person has a soul composed of a package of soul sparks that originated with Adam. Our goal in this life, Luria taught, is to purify and elevate our soul sparks in order to heal a fallen Adam and bring a messianic harmony.

The Baal Shem Tov believed knowledge of past lives offered insight into one’s purpose in this life. In the Chasidic movement, it was part of any great rebbe’s spiritual mastery to be able to see a person’s previous lives by looking at them, to know how to help a soul meet its potential in this lifetime.

The rabbis say Jacob sinned when he bowed before his brother, Esau, and Jacob’s soul was repaired when he was reincarnated into Mordechai, who refused to bow to Haman, the reincarnation of Esau.

Aaron, who sinned by cooperating with the crafting of the golden calf, was reincarnated in the high priest Eli, who in the book of Samuel, died by falling off a chair, and was finally purified when he was reincarnated into the prophet Ezra, who aided the exiles’ return.

Moses is understood by the rabbis to be the reincarnation of Abel, and Cain was reincarnated as Korach. When Cain slew Abel, God said, “The voice of your brother’s blood is calling to Me from the ground.” The punishment to Korach was that he was swallowed up by the ground.

In the traditional prayer book, during the bedtime Shema, the words read: “Master of the Universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered me … whether in this transmigration, or in another transmigration.”

However, reincarnation is not mentioned directly in the Torah. Medieval Jewish philosophers rejected it. Saadiah Gaon, in the 10th century, called it madness and confusion.

I’m sorry, perhaps I am wrong. Just another déjà vu. It’s silly. Go back to your tea, I to mine. Wait, are you crying? I can’t shake it either, that sense. You and I shared something. A catastrophe of sorts that has become a kind of dark matter, nebulous, intangible, but it registers, it charts, even though I know, it’s absurd. An ether. A puzzlement. But maybe, if I could sit with you, are you sure? I take honey. Please, use my stirrer. I think I knew your name once, and it was different than the name you use now. The steam is weaving, lavender and chamomile. We could help each other, without ever pinning why. We could help each other heal from what we’ve both forgotten.

Zoë Klein is senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah (templeisaiah.com), a Reform congregation in West Los Angeles, and author of the novels “Drawing in the Dust” (Simon & Schuster) and “Scroll of Anatiya” (Wipf & Stock). She’s online at zoeklein.com.

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