What is déjà vu? Some believe it’s an echo of recognition resonating through the curtain that separates one incarnation from another. For one brief moment, two separate but interconnected lives make contact through a flicker of metaphysical commonality.
Maybe that’s true; maybe it isn’t. But a recent article in Learning-Mind cited a study of reincarnation by Dr. Ian Stevenson supporting the belief that our souls do in fact return to this world after we die.
In the article, Nick Harding offers a sampling of far-eastern and new-age explanations for reincarnation. But the earliest references are found in biblical narratives and are elucidated by the classical religious philosophers.
BAD THINGS, GOOD PEOPLE
One of the most persistent dilemmas in spiritual philosophy is why bad things happen to good people, followed closely by its sister conundrum, why good things happen to bad people. If we believe in Divine justice, why does our world operate according to a system in which justice seems to be the exception rather than the rule?
The earliest appearance of this question confronts us in the Book of Job, perhaps the most disturbing and impenetrable narrative in the entire Bible. Although Job is described as a righteous man, the Almighty – for reasons that go unexplained – gives permission to Satan to torment Job with all manner of human suffering.
One fine day, Job receives simultaneous reports that all his possessions have been carried off by marauding hordes or destroyed by heavenly fire, and that all his children perished when an unnatural storm caused the roof to collapse upon their heads. Suddenly bereft of all that was his, Job replies stoically, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”
Not content, Satan lobbies God to harass Job further and receives permission to afflict him with painful boils all over his body. This proves too much for Job, who finally questions whether there is justice in the world.
For nearly 40 torturous chapters, Job debates with companions who try to argue against the apparent injustice of Job’s fate. And when, finally, the Almighty does reveal Himself to Job, it is not to explain His actions but to reprove Job for the arrogance of thinking that he should be able to fathom the mysteries of the Divine plan.
In the end, Job is at least partially consoled by the restoration of his health, his fortune, and more children.
But the questions remain, and not without good reason. Why should Job have had to endure such apparently purposeless suffering? And what was the purpose of God’s ultimate revelation if not to answer that very question?
THE STORIES OF OUR LIVES
Maimonides, the great 12th-century Talmudist, offers a seemingly simple explanation: reincarnation. Sometimes our souls are sent back to this world to finish unfinished business, either to correct wrongs committed in previous lives, to complete jobs left undone, or to atone for transgressions and thereby escape eternal punishment in the next world.
But that solution still does not satisfy. How does it benefit me to suffer for sins I can’t remember? And how does this explain the prosperity and tranquility of the wicked?
Even among theologians, few can claim true understanding of the human soul. According to the 18th-century kabbalist Moshe Chaim Luzzato, the human psyche comprises three distinct components which, together, make us who we are.
The first is called the nefesh, or animal soul. All of our base drives and instincts are functions of the nefesh, which seeks food, warmth, shelter, safety, and reproduction – all the fundamental needs for physical survival – as well as immediate physical pleasure. The nefesh lives in the moment, with little thought of the future and no interest in a higher purpose.
The second component of the human being is called the ruach, inadequately translated as the spirit because it mimics, rather than describes, spiritual yearning. The ruach seeks long-term satisfaction and cultivates more refined pleasures, eschewing immediate physical gratification in favor of long-term fulfillment from loftier pursuits such as literature, music, and communal involvement. But the ruach is still self-serving; it willingly forgoes visceral satisfaction for the more enduring rewards of power, recognition, and intellectual enlightenment.
Inevitably, the nefesh and the ruach are perpetually at odds with one another, with the former lusting after immediate pleasure and the latter attempting to suspend indulgences of the flesh in anticipation of more profound gratification later. Only through some outside arbitrator can the two ever be prodded into cooperation.
This is function of the soul, the neshoma, the Divine spark through which man can elevate himself to a level of Godliness by harnessing the opposing impulses of the nefesh and the ruach and forcing them to work together toward the fulfillment of a higher purpose. When the soul succeeds, it unifies the spiritual and the physical in an orchestration of ethereal harmony and, by doing so, achieves the purpose for which it was created. The three disparate components of nefesh, ruach, and neshoma become fused into a single entity, producing a perfected consciousness able to transcend this world and enter into the next, ultimate phase of its existence.
FALLING SHORT, FALLING BACK
But when the soul fails to control the baser aspects of the human being, it allows spiritual dissonance to prevail. In order to fulfill its destiny, the soul needs a second chance to restore divine harmony. And so it must make the tortured journey back into this world to try again.
If we failed to take advantages of past blessings then, measure for measure, we may have to live lives of profound loss or deprivation. If we inflicted pain on others, we might have to learn to live with pain ourselves. If we stood idly by indifferent to the suffering of our fellows, we might have to experience loneliness and abandonment to restore the balance of our souls. In the end, we have to learn to trust that not only is justice blind, but that we are blind to the workings of Divine justice.
The final tikkun, or rectification of our souls, cannot be compared to editing a flawed manuscript or altering an ill-fitting garment. If we knew exactly where we had failed and why we were here, our job would be all too simple. Instead, we have to grapple with uncertainty, groping our way through spiritual confusion, guided only by the echoes of conscience and our desire to navigate the storms of earthly existence. Only a very few are given memories of their past lives, for reasons that may remain a mystery to all but the One who returned them to this world for another chance.
And what of the wicked who prosper? This may be the most frightening aspect of reincarnation altogether.
What can be done for the soul that has been given chance after chance and failed time after time? Such a soul may be given one final opportunity to recognize its true purpose. Unmoved by tribulations, the soul’s final transmigration may take the form of undeserved comfort and ease, providing the ominous prospect of payment in this world and forfeiture of eternal life. Nothing should frighten us more than a life of repose disconnected from any evident merit. The last hope for such a soul will be that it may finally respond to the realization that the Master of the Universe has given up hope that it will ever choose to save itself.
But few of us are so far gone. And few of us have memories of past lives. And so the best formula we have for spiritual success is to heed King Solomon’s concluding words in Ecclesiastes:
The sum of the matter, when all has been heard, is to stand in awe of the Eternal and keep His ways, for this is the entirety of Man.
The more we seek truth and justice, the more we can influence the world to become faithful and just, and the more quickly we will enable our souls to move forward toward their spiritual destiny.