Why Jewish reincarnation matters (even if you don’t believe in reincarnation) - a dvar Torah for Parshas Pinchas
Do you know what Judaism teaches about reincarnation? Many people are surprised to hear that this is even part of our worldview.
I read on Chabad.org that the reason we aren’t aware of previous incarnations is because if we were, we wouldn’t be able to have complete free will.
Because of this, learning what Judaism teaches about reincarnation might seem useless, since it has no practical benefit. Also, there’s an idea that these mystical concepts can easily be misunderstood, or carried to misleading conclusions. That, it said, was “why this and similar subjects are only hinted at in scripture.”
So what does this all have to do with this week’s parsha?
Everything. Because those hints are there, once you start looking for them.
This week’s parsha starts with a throwback to last week’s parsha. The parsha is actually named after a guy who did a really brave but slightly shocking thing in last week’s parsha. His name is Pinchas, and he killed a man named Zimri.
Who the heck are these people?
Pinchas appears first, and the parsha is named after him. He was the son of Eleazar, the son of Aharon who became kohein gadol (high priest) in last week’s parsha. Aharon, of course, was a descendent of the tribe of Levi.
The man he killed was Zimri, the son of Salu, and he was from the tribe of Shimon. In fact, to be entirely accurate, he was the leader of the tribe of Shimon. A pretty important guy.
But anytime you see these two tribes, shevatim, interacting, you’ve got to stop and think for a minute.
Where’s the first time we see Shimon and Levi working hand in hand?
It’s way back in Sefer Bereishis (Genesis), when Dina is abducted and taken away to Shechem. Shimon and Levi get together all right then. They raid Shechem to get Dina back, viciously attacking the 24,000 men of the town and creating a disproportional response for which they were ultimately punished.
When Yaakov gives out brachos to his sons, he tells Shimon and Levi that they’re not getting one. He says they should be scattered “among Yaakov and [dispersed] throughout Israel.” That’s pretty bad. In fact, we see hints that Yaakov was right, and that Shimon and Levi never changed their nature, even as they got older.
In the story of Yosef, when he’s the ruler in Mitzrayim (Egypt), Yosef asks his brothers to go back and bring Binyamin, but takes Shimon hostage to make sure they’ll come back. Some commentaries suggest that Yosef chose Shimon as his prisoner because he worried that if Shimon and Levi were together, they might destroy Egypt, just the way they’d destroyed Shechem.
They’re already much older than they were at the time of Dina’s abduction, but Yosef still fears their combined power, their ability to join for the wrong reasons.
And now, they’re back.
Here, in our parsha, we meet Shimon and Levi together again, or rather, their descendents, Zimri and Pinchas.
And this time, something’s different. Both of these men still possess the strong, zealous fighting spirit of their ancestors. But here, Pinchas, from shevet Levi, is fighting Hashem’s war, and doing what’s right. Whereas Zimri, from shevet Levi, has shacked up with a harlot and totally isn’t.
Even as far back as the book of Bereishis (Genesis), even though Yaakov disapproved of Shimon and Levi’s action and wrote them off when he was giving brachos, Aish.com says that Yaakov “saw in that trait a potential that could be used for a very positive purpose, spreading Torah amongst the Jewish people.”
Here, we can see that middah, that attribute, playing out along two very different paths: Pinchas, a member of the Tribe of Levi, channeled his zealousness to Hashem’s will. Zimri, a leader of the Tribe of Shimon, expressed this zealousness of his ancestor in a forbidden way, breaking forbidden boundaries.
By the way, a midrash tells us that Zimri may have thought he was doing the right thing. Bilam and Balak, who we met in last week’s parsha, were very clever, and sent Midianite women to tempt the men of bnei Yisrael. Zimri figured, this midrash says, that it would be impossible to stop the men from doing this.
By letting them take these women into their own tents, he thought they could avoid the greater aveira of idol worship, which they would inevitably do if they went to the Moabite camps. As I read on one website, “instead of going to Moabite territory to ruin their lives, Zimri proposed that the Jews ruin their lives right at home.”
Shimon didn’t get it right, and it seems like, several generations later, his descendent Zimri doesn’t have it right either. But fortunately, that wasn’t the end of the line. Sometimes, it takes more than one lifetime for people to change. And that’s the first reason reincarnation is an important principle in Judaism – even if you don’t believe in reincarnation.
Reincarnation teaches that we may never get it right – at least, not in one lifetime.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Indeed, it’s one reason, perhaps, that the Torah perspective on reincarnation isn’t better known. Knowing you’ll have a second chance could lead to a lazy attitude, to not doing your best in this lifetime, knowing there’s a “do-over” in your next life.
But it can be a comfort, in a world where we’re all fallible. Where we all do our best, but occasionally, mislead ourselves as to our true purpose. We all mess up: it’s inevitable.
Like Zimri. He was wrong, of course, and his justification is as transparent as that window over there. His actions were not driven by a desire to do Hashem’s will, but rather, a desire to take the woman he wanted immediately. Anything he might have said to rationalize it was just that: rationalization.
Pinchas saw this immediately. He stepped in to make things right, albeit in a gory kind of way.
But this is not the end of the story. This is a story that takes more than one lifetime to unfold. In Israel, no matter what you’re trying to do, people say “le’at, le’at,” “slowly, slowly.” Nothing is accomplished in a hurry over there.
“Savlanut,” they say. It’s used to mean “patience,” but actually means “suffering.” Because we do suffer, when we’re trying to be patient. It’s very, very hard to be patient, but it’s also key to understanding how Hashem runs the world.
Reincarnation teaches us that Hashem’s plan takes time.
We may never see how things work out in our lifetime…but that doesn’t mean they won’t work out.
This week’s parsha is not the end of the line for Pinchas and Zimri. Through his zealous defense of Hashem’s will, a midrash tells us, Pinchas merited to come back, many years later, as the navi (prophet) Eliyahu (Elijah). The connection here is clear: Eliyahu, too, was zealous to carry out Hashem’s will, at a time when many other leaders had fallen off the path.
To understand what became of Zimri, we have to know one of the most basic Jewish teachings on reincarnation. According to the Ari z”l, every Jew must fulfill all 613 mitzvot, and if he doesn’t succeed in one lifetime, he comes back again and again until he finishes. So reincarnation, known as “gilgulim,” gives us an opportunity to perform mitzvos we were unable to carry out in an earlier lifetime.
Clearly, Zimri had some mitzvos to make up, big time, for his attempt to lead so many Jews astray. To do it, he’d have to come back as a leader again, with many followers, just as he had before. Only this time, he’d have to be an influence for good.
Who was it?
One tradition suggests that Zimri returned to life many years later as Rabbi Akiva. Many times, stories teach us, he was tempted with the same types of licentiousness that occurred with the Moabite women. Another hint is that the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died in a plague correspond to the 24,000 men of Shechem who were impulsively murdered by Zimri’s ancestor Shimon. And, according to Aish.com, “If there is one thing we know for certain about Rabbi Akiva, it is that he taught his students to love one another as themselves. He preached tolerance and inclusivity.”
At the end of his life, we’re told, Rabbi Akiva merited to be carried directly to heaven by
none other than Eliyahu, who was, of course, the same Pinchas who had – in an earlier gilgul (incarnation) – slain him for his bad behaviour.
This kindness, this mercy, reflects a final essential truth about the Jewish view on reincarnation:
Reincarnation teaches us that Hashem is infinitely kind and patient.
No matter what you may personally believe about past lives, the long view shows us, over and over, that Hashem is in it for the long haul. He has only good in store for each and every one of us.
We Jews are often slandered by Christians for the rigid bloody mindedness of our “Old Testament” God. This week’s parsha, they might say, is a great and classic example. What about forgiveness? they might ask. What about turning the other cheek? Which, by the way, was in our Bible first. It says in Eicha (Lamentations, 3:30), “Let him give his cheek to him that smiteth him, let him be filled full with reproach.”
Although Pinchas was rewarded by coming back as the great navi Eliyahu, he still had a lesson to learn as well. Sometimes, zealousness is what’s called for, and sometimes, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of England, points out in his dvar Torah for this week, what’s called for is a “still, small voice.” As Pinchas, he could charge right in with his spear and slay the evildoers, but as Eliyahu, he learned that sometimes, a leader must lead with compassion and sensitivity as well – even for those who are going against Hashem’s will. “In turbulent times,” writes Rabbi Sacks, “there is an almost overwhelming temptation for religious leaders to be confrontational.”
Whatever they may say, Judaism isn’t about Hashem’s wrath. It’s about seeing the big picture and hunting for his mercy. Looking everywhere, backwards and forwards through generations, until we find it. It’s about seeing Pinchas killing Zimri AND Eliyahu carrying Rabbi Akiva to shomayim as a reward for his leadership.
We may never see things work out in our lifetime… but that doesn’t mean they won’t work out.
You don’t have to believe in reincarnation for it to work
We may not all see and understand the complex inner workings of reincarnation, the way our lives and our generations split apart and join together, past and present weaving inexorably, intermixed like DNA. You don’t have to.
In fact, that’s kind of the point. If we could see it in action, it would very likely strip us of our free will. And Hashem wants us to have free will, the ability to mess up our short little lives. But every once in a while, we get a chance to “reincarnate” ourselves in an earthly way, to bring our lives more in line with Hashem’s plan.
Two summers ago, my family and I moved to Israel. We are literally different people there: we have new names (though we haven’t changed them in Canada, so technically, you can call us whatever you want).
We had to leave behind our wonderful community, which was so terribly difficult. And we had to leave behind family – words cannot describe how difficult that was.
But every single day that I wake up in eretz Yisrael, every single day I breathe that air, every single day I feel raindrops nourishing that holy soil, I am so, so happy to be there.
Many of us who live there believe we can see Hashem’s plan unfolding, though even there, it is often frustratingly hidden behind veils of politics, terror and just the mundane idiocies of life in a Jewish state.
This state itself is a reincarnation, a gilgul, we hope, of the ancient Biblical land, where Eliyahu walked, where miracles were felt every single day, where Jews lived and died by a kind of living Torah we can only dream of. Like any one of us, it isn’t perfect. But day after day, life after life, those of us who walk our dalet amos on its soil daily are working to perfect it.
It’s true that Hashem is infinitely kind and patient and forgiving. He takes a long-range view of things, even if we don’t see it as it plays out.
But we are not infinite. He has handed each of us only a single human lifetime – that we are aware of – to accomplish whatever we can. I am so grateful to be able to use the life he has given me to help rebuild His land and return His people from exile.
May we each merit – as it says in Pirkei Avos – to make Hashem’s will our own, so that – as it says in Pirkei Avot – Hashem will make our will His own, and we will live to see all our zealous dreams come true, one generation, one lifetime after another.