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Parashat Ki Tetze 5778 — 08/25/2018

Parashat Ki Tetze 5778 — 08/25/2018

Deut. 21:10 – 25:18

When brothers dwell together and one of them dies and he has no child, the wife of the deceased shall not marry an outsider. Rather, her brother-in-law shall come to her, and take her to himself as a wife, performing a levirate marriage. It shall be that the firstborn brother – if she can bear children – shall succeed in the name of his dead brother, so that his name will not be obliterated from Israel. (25:5-6)

Reincarnation has been an accepted principle of Jewish belief, handed down through our ancient kabbalistic sages, from the time of Moshe. Ramban cites support for it in his commentary on the verse But Onan knew that the progeny would not be his … (Gen 38:9).  Onan’s brother Er had died childless. Though Onan subsequently married his sister-in-law, Tamar, he refused to consummate the marriage properly since he didn’t want the offspring to be considered merely a reincarnation of his deceased brother. Ramban states that this idea is one of the fundamental principles that governed human society even before the giving of the Torah, because it was understood how important levirate marriage was to the soul of the deceased childless brother. The offspring of the deceased’s wife and brother would be as similar as possible to his own child and would thus provide for the continuity of his own soul. In effect, the offspring would become the bodily container for the soul of the deceased brother.  (Abarbanel, as summarized by R. Kasnett)

I don’t have Abarbanel’s original in front of me, but my guess is that he is not as uncomfortable with the idea of reincarnation as this excerpt indicates.  Reincarnation, the idea that the soul can take several bodies as it evolves closer to perfection, has always been a normative idea, both in Western and in Eastern thought. It is not until very recently, as our knowledge of the spiritual dimensions of life has declined, that non-measurable phenomena were swept under the rug, and “naturalistic” explanations for everything mentioned in the spiritual literature (“we don’t eat pork so we don’t get trichinosis”) have proliferated. We have taken the position, as a society, that if we can’t measure it, it is not real. I am a scientist and I don’t devalue the program of science by any means – measuring things and discovering the laws of nature connecting them is a valuable enterprise that has lengthened our lives and made them much easier and less “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Nonetheless, it is very chutzpadik to think that everything there is to know is within the boundaries of measurement. There are some things that can only be experienced directly on the level of consciousness – the transcendent being the most important of all. The infinite cannot be measured.

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao; The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth. The named is the mother of ten thousand things” (Tao Te Ching)

There is a reason why the Name of Gd is not spoken.

Abarbanel does consider the question why reincarnation should take place. He gives three reasons:

  1. Gd gives man additional opportunities to perfect his soul in this world (i.e. by having additional lifetimes and different bodies with different challenges) so that he can be rewarded more fully in the next world.
  2. The person gets a chance to correct his errors from the previous sojourn on earth.
  3. The person may be given a chance to expiate his sins in this world (e.g. by reincarnating as an animal that suffers) rather than in the next world, where the expiation is more difficult and painful.

Left unsaid is the answer to a related question: Why does the soul have to take a body in the first place? We have answered that question on several occasions by pointing out that the body is the soul’s mechanism for interacting with the material world, in order to perfect both the material world and itself. Each soul is given a particular task, and the tools to accomplish it. Those tools are our talents, our material resources, etc. Sometimes that task may extend over several lifetimes, with a piece of it accomplished in each one. For example, some say that each soul must perform every mitzvah in the Torah – but, for example, some are incumbent on kohanim while others are incumbent only on non-kohanim, so it is obviously impossible to do all of them in one lifetime. Nobody living today can perform the mitzvot that require the presence of the Temple. However, even if it is not required to perform all the mitzvot, sadly, most of us don’t even complete the tasks that we are assigned. And certainly, very, very few of us actually perfect ourselves. As R. Yisrael Salanter once said, “It takes a lifetime to rectify one bad character trait.”

For all these reasons, it is often necessary to go through the cycle of birth and rebirth until we reach a level of life where we are free of that cycle. What that level is we will leave for another day. But there is another kind of passing the torch, and that is through our offspring. Our biological offspring carry half our DNA, which means they have at least some of the tools that we have, and are therefore in the best position to carry on our mission. This is why, in Torah Law, the children, and especially the sons, inherit their father – so that the resources the father acquired for his mission will be available to the son(s) to continue their father’s work.

If the father dies childless, this process is interrupted. The soul of the departed brother will need a new body, and Torah provides a mechanism where one can be produced that will be very similar to his own, as his brother shares, on the average, half his DNA, and by which the child/reincarnation of the dead brother inherits the material resources to continue the father’s work. Incidentally, only a brother from the same father may perform the levirate marriage – a man’s half-brother from his mother and a different father is barred from every marrying his half-brother’s widow under any circumstances. The process is not perfect, but it provides some possibility for the soul to find a comfortable vehicle in which to continue its journey.

There are some who claim that we only get one chance in this world, and then spend eternity enjoying whatever we  accomplished in it. As Abarbanel points out, reincarnation is an example of Gd’s love and mercy, which gives us many chances to perfect ourselves, rather than simply throwing us to the wolves and hoping we figure out what to do. I’m with Abarbanel on this one.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parsashat Ki Tetze

Where do we find Teshuvah in this parshah?

The parshah begins with “when you go out to war with the enemy….and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire her….”.

It ends with “…you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under Heaven; you shall not forget.”

In between these statements are about 72 commandments, emphasizing kindness — for example, in the treatment of the captive woman and of the escaped slave who may not be returned — and purity — for example, in the requirement that we not be rebellious against our parents.

With so many commandments, it is easy to get lost in details and to forget the Oneness. But the habit of kindness and the habit of purity, respect tune us into the Oneness. For it is from the Oneness that we draw our ability to be kind, to be pure.

From the side of Gd, the Oneness, Energy and Love are always flowing to raise us up, to return us, to dissolve the veils that hide us from Oneness, our own Self.

The haftarah for this portion, Isaiah 54:1-10, gives an example: “For the mountains may depart, and the hills be removed, but My Kindness shall not depart from you, nor shall My Covenant of peace be removed, says the Lord who has compassion for you”. (Kabbalistic Bible, Rabbi Yehuda Berg).

This Kindness is always dissolving the veils that hide and revealing the Oneness that is Real, that is All: Teshuvah.

Good thoughts to have as we come close to Rosh HaShannah, our New Year and Yom Kippur, our Day of At-Onement.

Baruch HaShem