The Secret of Reincarnation / Parashat Mishpatim

God provides man with laws so that he can use them to manage the justice system, and man's failures return that privilege to God, who must intervene and correct the injustice that man creates.

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Yakov Z. Meyer

The results of the granting of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which was depicted in last week’s Torah portion, are documented in this week’s Parashat Mishpatim: a detailed list of mishpatim (ordinances) that God gives to the Children of Israel and around which they must mold their lives.

This detailed system of laws is intended to solve an existential problem: the problem of injustice. There are cases of people who are forced to sell themselves into slavery; some sell their daughters into bondage as servants, some kill others intentionally and some kill accidentally. The law is meant not to prevent such things from happening but rather to address them in a manner that will limit the degree of injustice inherent in them, and prevent it from becoming overwhelming.

Thus, the slave will be sold for a period not exceeding six years, and in the seventh year will be set free; the daughter sold into servitude will also be entitled to enjoy certain privileges; the individual guilty of homicide will be punished; and the individual who has committed manslaughter will be entitled to escape to an “ir miklat” (city of refuge) where he can take shelter from those who seek revenge for the killing he was accidentally
responsible for.

Although a murder victim can never be brought back to life, the law is aimed at creating a certain partial, moral balance, using the very same means by which the ordinance was violated. Thus, if chaos was created by means of violence, the law will also apply a measured degree of violence: A murderer will be executed, whereas a thief will be required to return what was taken and to pay a fine, and so on.

However, this attempt which is limited by its very nature to shape and discipline the chaos, actually emphasizes the injustice that is inherent in man’s daily reality. After all, it can be asked, why was that person murdered to begin with? How does an individual become so impoverished that he is forced to sell himself into slavery? Why is someone killed accidentally? The law is not interested in the answer to these questions, but instead attempts to supply those who suffer because of these questions with a solution that will enable them to continue with their lives.

The Zohar, commenting on this week’s Torah portion, seeks to remove the veil from the range of metaphysical reasons that lead to injustices: “It is written: ‘Now these are the ordinances which thou shalt set before them’ [Exodus 21:1] ... these are the arrangements of reincarnation, the laws of souls that are judged, each and every one of them, in accordance with their respective punishments” (Zohar, Mishpatim, pg. 94a).

Injustice which, according to the Zohar, is inherent in the human world is simply the expression of a cosmic order that God creates by means of reincarnation: If a certain individual has committed a sin, his soul will be transmitted to another individual, who will suffer in a manner that will “cancel” the sin that the first individual committed. From the standpoint of the victim, the injustice appears to have been committed against him for no reason whatsoever; however, if he knew the real reason for the injustice, he would understand that what is in fact taking place constitutes authentic justice.

The system of reincarnation serves as God’s court of justice. The Zohar’s method for providing meaning to an injustice is to describe it as a verdict that was passed for a crime that is concealed from our eyes.

According to this scenario, the world has not deteriorated into chaos, hence there is no reason to attempt to prevent such chaos by means of the law. The world operates in accordance with a profound equilibrium: People violate this balance through their evil deeds and God restores its by means of suffering.

In this scenario, human law plays no role whatsoever: It is not meant to correct or regulate an injustice. In effect, the verdict of a judge has no impact whatsoever. Man’s work is totally swallowed up within God’s metaphysical system of justice.

There is someone, however, who brings human law back into the worldly scheme of things, and in a highly radical manner. A well-known Hasidic tale relates how Rabbi Yisrael Ben Eliezer, known to posterity as the Baal Shem Tov (or by the acronym “Besht”), explains to his disciple, the Maggid of Mezerich, the “secret of reincarnation,” according to the Zohar.

“The holy rabbi of Mezerich requested of his teacher and master, the holy Baal Shem Tov, of blessed sainted memory, that he tell him the explanation that the holy Zohar gives for ‘Now these are the ordinances’ that is, the secret of reincarnation. One day, the Baal Shem Tov told the Maggid of Mezerich to travel to a certain forest, where he would see a tree and an adjacent spring, and to stay there until 6 in the evening, whereupon he should return to his home. The
Maggid traveled to the forest and saw a man, who was armed and was mounted on a horse.

“The man, who was exhausted, sat down to eat and drink, whereupon he remounted his horse and continued his journey, forgetting his wallet, which contained many gold coins. Afterward, another man appeared. He lay down to rest for a while and, on discovering the wallet with the gold coins, took it and went on his way.

A little while later, a third man who was exhausted appeared. He was poor and broken in spirit. He ate the flat bread he had with him and drank from the water of the spring, whereupon he lay down to rest and fell asleep.

The first individual returned to this place and asked the beggar: ‘Where is the wallet with the coins that I forgot?’ The beggar had no idea what he was talking about. Yet, in a short time, the poor man received his ‘reward’: The traveler who had forgotten his wallet beat him savagely and left him lying by the tree, seriously wounded. Afterward, the Maggid of Mezerich returned to his home and told his teacher and master, the Baal Shem Tov, everything he had seen.

“The Baal Shem Tov told the Maggid of Mezerich that the first man had [in another life] owed the second man the sum of money that was in the wallet, but did not have the means to repay his debt. The first man appeared before the third man (who was a rabbi and a judge in a previous life). Without conducting any inquiry or making any investigation of the matter, the judge passed his verdict, which exempted the debtor from repaying his debt.

Now, thanks to the reincarnation, the first man repaid his debt to the second man and the judge (the third man) received his punishment and repaid his ‘debt.’ Said the Baal Shem Tov: ‘That is what the holy
Zohar writes about “now these are the ordinances”: This is the secret of reincarnation’” (Baal Shem Tov al ha-Torah, Parashat Mishpatim, citing “Devarim Arevim,” p. xviii).

The Besht thus provides the Maggid of Mezerich with an example of how the “secret of reincarnation” actually works. He sends the Maggid to see an incident of seemingly absolute injustice, and when his disciple returns, the Baal Shem Tov reveals to him the hidden realm of reincarnation. With his new perspective, the Maggid realizes that what he thought was injustice was actually the meting out of true justice, and that the real injustice had been committed in a past that had been concealed from him.

What is fascinating about this story is the reason for the ostensible injustice inflicted against the beggar in the forest. According to the Baal Shem Tov, the injustice originated in the human system of justice! The judge erred in the verdict he handed down, exempted the debtor from repaying his debt and sent him on his way. For this reason, God had to summon the reincarnated souls of the three men in the forest, to create a situation that only appears to be an example of injustice, and to restore the world to its previous state of harmony.

As the Besht interprets it, Parashat Mishpatim depicts not the manner in which man corrects the natural injustices in the human world through the earthly system of justice, but rather the precise opposite: It depicts the way in which God corrects the injustices that man creates through unsuccessful attempts to correct reality.

The Baal Shem Tov creates a reverse picture of the granting of the Torah at Mount Sinai. God provides man with laws so that he can use them to manage the justice system, and man’s failures return that privilege to God, who must himself intervene and correct the injustice that man creates. The Baal Shem Tov defines man’s work as mental activity, that is, as work that is carried out in the realm of thought. It is not man’s purpose to try to mete out justice in an active manner; instead, man must realize God’s power to mete out justice, and must recognize injustice as an expression of supreme justice.

"The Covenant Confirmed," by John Steeple Davis (1844-1917).