Tag Archives: Mitzvah

How to Receive God’s Blessing

This week’s parasha is Re’eh, which begins by stating:

Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, if you will heed the commandments of Hashem your God, which I command you today; and the curse, if you will not heed the commandments of Hashem your God…

God promises that a person who fulfils His mitzvot will be blessed, and one who does not will be cursed. The phrasing is interesting: we might assume it would be clearer to say a person who fulfills God’s mitzvot would be blessed, and one who sins or transgresses the mitzvot will be cursed. Instead, the Torah connects the observance of mitzvot with receiving blessing. What, exactly, is a blessing? And what does it have to do with a mitzvah?

Heaven Down to Earth

The Hebrew word for blessing, brakhah (ברכה), shares a root with two similar words. The first is brekhah (spelled the same way), which means a “pool” or source of water. The second is berekh (ברך), which means a “knee”. What do these seemingly unrelated things have to do with blessing?

Our Sages teach that a blessing is a source of abundance, like a well from which water can be drawn continuously, hence its relation to brekhah. Each blessing in Judaism begins with the words Barukh Atah Adonai, meaning not that we are blessing God (which is impossible), but that we recognize God is the infinite source of all blessing and abundance. The name of God used here is the Tetragrammaton, denoting God’s eternity and infinity, alluded to by the fact that the Name is essentially a conjunction of the verb “to be” in past (היה), present (הווה), and future (יהיה) tenses.

The blessing continues with the words Eloheinu Melekh haOlam. Now, the name of God switches to Elohim, referring to His powers as manifest in this world. Thus, he is described as Melekh haOlam, the “king of the universe”. That same ungraspable, ineffable God permeates every inch of the universe He created, controlling and sustaining the tiniest of details. And so, when we recite a blessing, we are stating that God is the ultimate source of all things, transforming the infinite into the finite, and showering us with constant abundance.

This is where the second related root of berakhah comes in—the knee. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains that the purpose of the knee is to allow a person to bend down or descend. Thus, when one recites a blessing, they are causing God to “descend” into this world, so to speak, and bless us. When we are blessing, what we are really doing is receiving a blessing. This is alluded to by the very root letters of the word for blessing, beit (ב), reish (ר), and khaf (כ), whose corresponding numerical values are 2, 200, and 20, respectively. These doublets represents the two-way nature of a blessing.

Plugging in to the Source

Our holy texts affirm that God is constantly showering us with blessings. Yet, oftentimes it may seem like our lives are devoid of blessing. What’s going on? Imagine walking out into a torrential rain and trying to catch the water with your bare hands. No matter how much water is pouring over you, it is unlikely that you will succeed. Now imagine doing the same thing with a bucket in each hand.

The same is true for blessings. One needs the appropriate vessel to receive the abundance. In this case, the vessel is the person. To receive holy blessings, the vessel must be made holy. This is accomplished through the performance of mitzvot, which are designed to rectify and sanctify the person.

On a deeper level, the purpose of the mitzvot is to bind a Jew directly to God. In fact, it is taught that the root of mitzvah actually means “to bind”. God is the Infinite Source of all things, and if one wants to receive from the Infinite, they must only tap into It and form the right connection. Once such a connection is made, there is no end to how much blessing can be obtained.

This is why the parasha begins by telling us that a person who fulfils the mitzvot will be blessed, while a person who does not fulfil them will be “cursed”, devoid of all blessing. It is also why Jews going to receive a berakhah from a great tzaddik are often given a blessing only on the condition that they take upon themselves some kind of mitzvah. The same is true in prayer, during which it is customary to give tzedakah, tying our requests with the fulfilment of an important mitzvah.

Every mitzvah that is done opens up another channel of Heavenly Light, and each time it is repeated that channel is widened and reinforced. In fact, our Sages speak of precisely 620 channels of light shining down into this world, corresponding to the 613 mitzvot of the Torah, and the additional 7 mitzvot instituted by the rabbis (or the additional 7 Noahide laws).

As we enter the month of Elul and begin a forty day period of heightened repentance and prayer, we should be thinking about which mitzvahs we can take on, which we might improve upon, and how we can further sanctify ourselves in order to become the purest possible vessel of divinity. We mustn’t forget that the blessing is always shining down upon us; we must only be prepared to receive it.

Everything You Wanted to Know About Reincarnation in Judaism

This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim, which is concerned with the first major set of laws that the Israelites received following the Ten Commandments. While the term mishpatim literally means “ordinances” or “judgements”, the Zohar (II, 94a) suggests a very different interpretation:

‘And these are the judgements which you shall set before them…’ These are the rules concerning reincarnation, the judgement of souls that are sentenced according to their acts.

The Zohar goes on to interpret the laws in the Torah with regards to the mechanisms of reincarnation. For example, whereas the Torah begins by describing a Hebrew servant who is indentured for six years of labour and must then be freed in the seventh year, the Zohar interprets that this is really speaking of souls which must reincarnate in order to repair the six middot before they could be freed. (The middot are the primary character traits: chessed, kindness; gevurah, restraint; tiferet, balance and truth; netzach, persistence and faith; hod, gratitude and humility; and yesod, sexual purity.)

While the Zohar speaks at length about reincarnation, it is the Arizal who systematically laid down the rules of reincarnation and explained the Zohar in depth. His primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital, recorded these teachings in a famous treatise known as Sha’ar HaGilgulim, “Gate of Reincarnation”. The following is a brief condensation of the basic rules of reincarnation that are defined in this tremendous text, answering many of the common questions people have about spiritual transmigration.

Why Do People Reincarnate?

At the start of the eighth chapter, Rabbi Vital writes:

למה מתגלגלים. דע, כי הנשמות יתגלגלו לכמה סבות, הראשונה הוא, לפי שעבר על איזו עבירה מעבירות שבתורה, ובא לתקן. הב’ הוא, לתקן איזו מצוה שחסר ממנו. השלישית היא, שבא לצורך אחרים, להדריכם ולתקנם… לפעמים יתגלגל, ליקח את בת זוגו, כי לא זכה בראשונה לקחתה

Why do people reincarnate? Know that souls reincarnate for several reasons: The first is that one transgressed one of the prohibitions in the Torah, and returns to repair it. The second is to fulfil a mitzvah that one lacks. The third is in order to assist others, to guide them, and rectify them… Sometimes one reincarnates to marry their soulmate, which they did not merit to do in a previous life.

The Ari explains that people mainly reincarnate in order to atone for sins of past lives, or to fulfil mitzvahs that they didn’t do previously. Later, in Chapter 16, we read that people who return do not have to fulfil all the mitzvahs in one lifetime, but only have to accomplish those that their souls are still lacking. Some reincarnate not for their own rectification, but to assist others. We are told elsewhere that these are usually very righteous individuals who agree to return to this world in order to help others.

Fresco of the Resurrection of the Dead from the ancient Dura-Europos Synagogue

Some also reincarnate because they either did not marry, or married the wrong person. They must return to reunite with their true soulmate. The Arizal teaches that, unfortunately, some people are so deeply mired in kelipot, negative spiritual “husks”, that they are unable to find their soulmate in this world. These people will reunite with their other half only in Olam HaBa, the “next world” at the time of the Resurrection. With regards to finding soulmates, this is directed particularly at male souls, for it is primarily a man’s responsibility to find his soulmate.

On that note, the following chapter tells us that female souls actually reincarnate very rarely. To begin with, female souls are more refined than male ones, and are unlikely to require more rectifications. What does happen more commonly is that male souls are reincarnated into female bodies! This opens up a number of fascinating scenarios which Rabbi Chaim Vital describes.

What Do People Reincarnate Into?

In Chapter 22, we read that people can reincarnate not only into human bodies, but also animals, vegetation, and even inanimate matter. For example, a person who feeds others non-kosher food reincarnates as a tree; one who sheds blood reincarnates into water; those who transgress various sexual prohibitions reincarnate into bats, rabbits, and other animals; while proud people and those who talk too much reincarnate into bees. (We are told that this is what happened to the judge Deborah who, despite her greatness and wisdom, had a bit of pride and was required to reincarnate into a bee, hence her name devorah, which literally means “bee”!)

It is important to mention, though, that an entire human soul does not fully reincarnate into another organism. Rather, souls are complex entities made up of many different interacting sparks. It is only those sparks that require rectification that return to this world (Chapter 14). Interestingly, the Arizal teaches that when two people really dislike each other, and are constantly in conflict with one another, this is often because the two are sharing sparks from one soul!

How Many Times May One Reincarnate?

Sha’ar HaGilgulim records that a person can reincarnate thousands of times—but only on the condition that they improve at least a little bit in each incarnation. If they fail to improve, they can only reincarnate a maximum of three times. After three strikes, that particular spark is sent to Gehinnom (loosely translated as “hell”) where it will be purified. However, the souls of those who regularly learn Torah are never sent to Gehinnom, and always merit reincarnation. This is one of the incredible protective powers of regular Torah study.

In multiple places, the Arizal teaches about the reincarnations of Abel, the son of Adam. Abel (הבל) had a good side and a bad one. The good side was represented by the letter Hei (ה) of his name, and the bad by the Beit and Lamed (בל). The bad part needed to be rectified, so it reincarnated in Laban (לבן), the wicked father-in-law of Jacob. Laban didn’t do much better, so he was reincarnated in the gentile prophet Bilaam (בלעם). He, too, was an ungodly person, so the Beit-Lamed soul was reincarnated for the third time in Naval (נבל), the ungrateful man who rejected David. Naval was strike three, and that Beit-Lamed soul no longer returned in a reincarnation.

We see from the above how a person’s name may offer tremendous hints as to their soul sparks, previous lives, tests, challenges, and character traits. When we read about the above individuals in the Tanakh, we see how similar they were. All three were very wealthy, famous, and participated in divination and sorcery. All were cunning, greedy, and deceitful individuals. The Arizal explains in detail what rectifications each was supposed to do, and how one life affected the next, weaving together these three seemingly unrelated Biblical narratives that span nearly a thousand years into one beautiful tapestry.

Which Body Will A Person Have at the End?

Perhaps the most famous question: if a soul has so many different bodies over so many different lifetimes, which body will that soul inhabit in the afterlife, or in the world of Resurrection? Rabbi Vital writes:

וכן הענין בכל נשמה ונשמה, וכאשר יהיה זמן התחיה, כל גוף וגוף יקח חלקו של נשמתו, כפי חלק הזמן שלו באיזו מדרגה היתה

And with each and every soul, when the time of the Resurrection comes, each and every body will take its corresponding soul, according to the part that it had at that particular time.

Thus, each part of the soul will have its own body, and all reincarnations will exist simultaneously as individuals in Olam HaBa!

Breaking Free from Materialism

In Chapter 23, Rabbi Vital suggests that the most important thing to take from all of this is to live a meaningful, spiritual life. When a person is mired in materialism, and cares only for their physical aspects, they become so attached to their bodies that they cannot exist without one. And so, when that person’s body dies their soul is in complete disarray; frightened, pained, and unable to ascend onwards. Angels must come and quickly place the soul in a new body. As such, this person can never free themselves from endless reincarnations into this imperfect, difficult world.

However, those who in their lifetimes tap into their souls, and are comfortable with their spiritual side, are able to simply take off their dead bodies like an old garment, and move on. For such people, their wonderful portion in Olam HaBa is not too far away.

How Charity Can Save Your Life

This week’s Torah portion is Terumah, which is primarily concerned with the construction of the Mishkan, or holy tabernacle. God relays to Moses the instructions for properly constructing the tabernacle, and its purpose: “And they shall make Me a sanctuary, so that I shall dwell in their midst” (Exodus 25:8). God does not state that His presence will dwell in the sanctuary, but rather in the midst of the people. The sanctuary was only there to facilitate this process; to elevate the people so that they would be worthy and holy enough to have God in their presence.

A Modern Mishkan Replica in Timna, Israel

A Modern Mishkan Replica in Timna, Israel

To build the Mishkan, God commanded Moses to ask the people to donate the necessary materials. There were 7 categories of resources: precious metals of gold, silver, and copper; cloths that included dyed wools of blue, purple, and red, as well as linen and goat hair; leathers of rams and tachash (a species whose identity is no longer known, but speculated to be an antelope or rhinoceros); lumber of acacia wood; oils; spices; and precious stones. Over a dozen different precious stones were required – primarily for the High Priest’s breastplate – which we have discussed in the past. There were also 11 main herbs and spices in the Ketoret, the special incense used in priestly rituals, as we read daily in the text of the morning prayers.

Interestingly, in the command to bring the materials, God phrased it in such a way that it suggested a voluntary donation: “…and have them take for Me an offering [terumah], from each person whose heart is generous…” (Ex. 25:2). And the people did indeed give generously, so much so that Moses later had to tell them to stop their contributions! Moreover, the term used for this voluntary offering is terumah, which appears to share a root with the verb to elevate. Why was this offering considered an elevation?

Throughout Jewish texts we see descriptions of the great significance and power of donations and charity. One Talmudic passage (Bava Batra 10a) even states:

Ten strong things were created in the world: mountains are strong, but iron cuts through them; iron is strong, but fire melts it; fire is strong, but water extinguishes it; water is strong, but clouds bear it; clouds are strong, but wind scatters them; wind is strong, but the body contains it; the body is strong, bur fear breaks it; fear is strong, but wine dispels it; wine is strong, but sleep assuages it; and stronger than all of these is death. But charity saves from death, as it is written [Proverbs 10:2], “And charity shall save from death.”

Why is charity so praiseworthy, and so potentially life-saving?

Your Money and Your Soul

To be able to survive, one needs to earn money. Without money, one cannot afford the necessities of life, such as food and shelter. Therefore, money is the tool that keeps one’s soul active in this world; otherwise, the soul departs the body. And to earn money, one must expend their time and energy through work (at least, in most cases). Since without the soul, the body is inanimate, it is ultimately the efforts of the soul that bring one an income. This establishes a fundamental soul-money cycle. In fact, our Sages point out that the gematria of the Torah word for money, shekel (שקל), has the same value (430) as the word for soul, nefesh (נפש). In this world, the two are very much interdependent.

Therefore, our spirit is deeply bound within our finances – which is why many people find it so hard to part with their money. (A famous Bukharian rhyming proverb illustrates this well: jonam geer, pulam ne geer – “take my soul, just don’t take my money!”) The important thing is that because of this intrinsic connection between spirit and money, by using our money for holy purposes, we are directly elevating our souls. Thus, by donating their wealth to produce the holy tabernacle (and by toiling in its construction), the Israelites received an incredible spiritual elevation, and merited to have God’s presence dwell in their midst. This is why the offering was called a terumah, an elevation.

The same is true for us today. If we only spend money on material goods, there is little benefit to our souls. However, when we invest spiritually in donations, charitable acts and charitable organizations, mitzvot, and the like, our money is elevated, and takes our souls with it. The old Jewish adage is pertinent: if a person has $10 and they donate $1, how much do they have left? While most people are quick to answer $9, the real answer is $1, for it is only that $1 mitzvah that the person takes with them to the next world, while whatever material possessions they have remain behind in this world.

The Kabbalah of Earning Money

Kabbalistically, the exile of the Jewish people was little more than an opportunity to gather the fallen spiritual sparks trapped all over the world. In the Kabbalistic model, God had originally created a perfect world – so much so that it shattered into tiny spiritual fragments scattered all over the material world. The purpose of the Jew, and of just about every mitzvah a Jew fulfills, is to free those trapped sparks from their kelipot, “shells”, and elevate them once more to a perfected state.

In the same way that reciting a blessing before consuming food is said to free whatever sparks lie within, so too does acquiring wealth and spending it on spiritual things elevate the cosmic sparks embedded within those riches. Perhaps this is the deeper reason why Jews have been so prosperous historically, wherever they may have been.

“Charity Saves from Death”

1896 Illustration of King Solomon Drafting the First Temple

1896 Illustration of King Solomon Drafting the First Temple

For the same reasons, King Solomon writes tzedaka tatzil mi’mavet, “charity saves from death”. One explanation goes like this: since our wealth is tied to our souls, shedding our wealth towards positive goals is like shedding our souls for a positive purpose. For whatever reason, a person may have a Heavenly decree upon them for their earthly life to come to an end, and their soul to be taken away. By giving charity, it is as if they are voluntary giving away a part of their soul, thus soothing the Heavenly decree, and prolonging their life.

Several years ago, I was driving down a major street and pulled in to the left lane to make a turn at the intersection. A panhandler was walking up and down along the dividing barrier. For a moment, I hesitated giving him money, since a group of the same panhandlers were working a number of intersections along the street, and I was starting to get a little annoyed with them. At the end, I rolled down my window and gave the guy some change, then drove on to make the left turn.

Suddenly, a massive dumpster truck was coming right towards me, unable to brake on the slippery roads. Despite my right-of-way, the truck plowed right through the intersection, and I had only an instant to slam on the brakes. He missed me by an inch. The first thought that came in to my head was that had I not stalled to give the panhandler some charity, I may have been minced meat. And immediately King Solomon’s words popped into my head: utzedaka tatzil mi’mavet…