By Rabbi Seth Wax / Jewish Chaplain, Williams College
Among the most common questions that rabbis get, among the more challenging is when a person asks, “What do Jews believe happens to a person after they die?” It is difficult because often, the person asking the question has recently experienced a loss and seeks ways to stay connected to their loved one who has passed away. By learning about Jewish beliefs about life after death, those asking this question often want support in developing a relationship with the person who has died.
Another reason this question is difficult is because there is no easy and straightforward answer. Like with so many things in Judaism, there are many different ideas and theories about what happens when we die that are scattered throughout Jewish literature. In some ways, it can be easier to talk about what Jews don’t think about life after death, rather than what we do think. And even that is imperfect.
Against this backdrop are Jewish teachings on reincarnation. With roots in rabbinic literature, these teachings are infinitely intricate and confusing. But they are also imaginative, deep, and inspiring. When I first learned of them a number of years ago, I wanted to learn more. But I always found them opaque and difficult to penetrate. Fortunately, for the past seven months, I have had the privilege of studying Shaar HaGilgulim, the final volume in the collection of Kabbalistic teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria, as taught to his disciple Chaim Vital and arranged by Shmuel Vital. I have done this with a small group, under the guidance of my teacher, Rabbi Ebn Leader. Through taking part in a guided study of this text, our group has been able to encounter some foundational ideas about Jewish approaches to gilgul, or reincarnation. My understanding is still in its early stages, but I’d like to share some of the main ideas that I have encountered that I have found personally meaningful, with the hope that perhaps they might be helpful, or at least interesting, to others.
There is no I – only soul-sparks
According to Lurianic Kabbalah, as we come into the world, we enter as a particular configuration of soul-sparks. These soul-sparks come from an original source that is referred to as Nishmat Adam HaRishon, or the soul of the first human being. Drawing on a Talmudic teaching that the first human being stretched from one end of the earth to the other (BT Chagigah 12a), the Kabbalistic notion holds that at the beginning of time, there was only this one all-inclusive soul of Primordial Human. However, when the Primordial Human ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, their all-inclusive soul split into countless sparks and spread throughout the cosmos, many of which fell into dark places. Even since then, these soul-sparks have come into the world in a dazzling array of configurations, as different creatures and beings.
This pattern continues to play out for us. When we come into the world, we are constituted of a particular configuration of these soul-sparks. They are drawn from a dizzying array of locations in Adam HaRishon’s soul, along different dimensions of reality, and they manifest in different forms. So it’s not that each creature or person has one “soul.” Rather, according to this theory, each being is constituted by a conglomeration of this range of soul sparks. We don’t have a soul – rather, we exist as a being consisting of many different bits of soul-sparks.
Why soul-sparks come together: tikkun
When a collection of soul-sparks comes into the world as a living creature, they enter with a purpose: to bring about tikkun, or healing. This tikkun is limited, however, to the specific soul-sparks that have come together in a person. By engaging in certain religious practices, connecting with certain people, and living life in a certain way, a person can bring about this tikkun for their soul-sparks that need it. Each person has particular soul-sparks that need tikkun, and we don’t always know what they are and how to bring about tikkun. In fact, not every soul-spark is ready for tikkun in each incarnation. Spiritual guides can help us discern what tikkun we need to engage in, but it's not always so easy.
While we are on a mission to effect tikkun for the soul-sparks within ourselves, we are not the true beneficiary of that spiritual work. Rather, everything we do is for the tikkun of Nishmat Adam HaRishon. Which is to say, our spiritual work is to heal the all-inclusive soul from which all beings come – to engage in tikkun olam – through bringing healing to the parts of ourselves that we have been born into the world to heal. Our process of reincarnation is not about us: it is about bringing healing to the soul of Adam HaRishon.
No soul-spark is left behind
Since the point of our being born into the world and reincarnating, lifetime after lifetime, is not about us, but rather, the healing of the cosmic soul that includes all beings, nothing can be left behind. The grand project of tikkun is about healing the breaches within Nishmat Adam HaRishon. And that all-inclusive soul cannot achieve fullness until every single broken piece is healed and reintegrated back into the whole. That means that the process of tikkun is inconceivably long – it takes lifetimes upon lifetimes. But it also means that no parts of ourselves nor of others will ever be left behind. In order for the soul of Adam HaRishon to be healed, we all need to be healed. This means that all people, all creatures – everything – needs to be recognized, uplifted, and reintegrated into the whole.
What does this mean for us?
A downside of this way of thinking about people and souls is that it doesn’t offer an image of an enduring soul that exists across space and time, and that we can encounter in a heavenly realm. At the same time, I think it offers us a compelling image for what we are called on to do when we come into the world. We are tasked with doing our small part, in our own way, to bring healing to all beings. At the end of our lives, our soul-sparks will go off in different directions and take their place in new beings, with new work to do. My sense is that the parts of our personality endure in these new configurations, bringing our unique experiences to these new incarnations. I also think that this approach invites us to reflect on our work in this life, in this world. To ask, what are we being asked to do in this life? To reflect on what healing within ourselves we need to bring about, and how can we support others in their process of healing? It offers a way to think about tikkun olam while recognizing our limitations, while also inviting us into this cosmic task. May each of us reflect on this call and respond in ways that honor our own healing while also working for the healing of others.
Rabbi Seth Wax is the Jewish Chaplain at Williams College.