You wouldn’t think that the Jewish tradition was big on transmigration of souls — but it is. I’m not even sure this concept is taught much anymore in more mainstream non-Orthodox and Hassidic circles. But what do I know? I’ve not set foot in a shul for a very long time. And even then, it was to study Zohar in a study group run by Danny Matt, not for services. I have no idea if rabbis give sermons on the transmigration of souls, or if Hebrew Schools teach it —
But I was raised on the transmigration of souls. I am the tzaddik’s daughter.
And it’s not like he sat me down and taught me. No. He took me on adventures. We’d head up to the Gold Country. The Motherlode. In the lower and middle Sierra range. We’d be looking for Jewish cemeteries of the early settlers from during the Gold Rush. He’d teach me to read graves. And to clean the stones. We’d weed. The cemeteries had been abandoned long before we found them.
What I didn’t know at the time, being a kid and all, was that he was slowly finding donors to purchase all the cemeteries. He started a Jewish Cemeteries commission to oversee them and take care of them. And when a new Jewish community grew up in the Motherlode and wanted the cemetery for their own, he’d relinquish it and the local community would take it on again. A living cemetery again.
What a tzaddik he was.
No. It wasn’t book learning. It was the long drives heading from the bay through the delta and up into the mountains. He’d tell me stories.
The essence, really, was about the five souls. And their travels.
He’d start with Chayah — חייה
Chayah was what he called me half the time. Wild animal. Wild animal soul. A soul with a beating heart, free to run,free to just be. The Chayah soul is our animal nature. Maybe what Freud would call our id impulses. But the tzaddik never made it sound quite as dreadful as Freud did. Nevertheless, it was clear that he was invoking actions on the part of his daughter that might not have been in her own best interest. She was a bit of a wild child. I think the tzaddik liked that. It was a bit of a thrill to be called a Chayah, at least the way he said.
Then he’d go to Yechidah —יחידה
The Yechidah soul makes us individuals, he would say. But it also bound us to others. We have distinct personalities and characteristics. Unique qualities. Okay, fine. He didn’t dwell on this one, and neither will I. So much for psychiatry. I guess he and I were never terribly impressed by the uniqueness of personality. He was a very unassuming tzaddik, after all. Modest and soft spoken. A collectivist at heart.
Ah, but then there was Nefesh — נפש
The tzaddik was all about Nefesh — as in נפש יהודי קדימה — which is hard to say even for me, without breaking into song. Nefesh yehudi, kadimah. The Nefesh of the Jewish People marches forward, might be a loose translation. It’s a phrase inside the Hatikvah — the Israeli song of Independence. So, Nefesh is the soul that we have that we share with all of our People. Capital letters are important when it comes to Nefesh. This is our bond, our identity — all the way back through time. to Abraham. To Creation. It’s the Wise Son at the Seder who speaks up and asks “why do we do this” — what makes him wise (at least in the Haggadah) is that he identifies with his People. Nefesh is a very big deal. But Nefesh consciousness dawns slowly inside the individual. It takes, as far as I can see, a certain amount of indoctrination and collectivity and exposure to ‘our ways’ as opposed to theirs. Nefesh is a thoroughly ethnocentric notion, when viewed this way. There are other ways of construing Nefesh, but for brevity’s sake, I’m not going there.
Ah! My favorite soul remains Ru’ach — רוח
I love the way it rolls off the tongue and dances in the back of my throat. I could say it forever. It’s particulary good during allergy season, to soothe the back of your very itchy throat. Roooooooooo (breathe out) / aaaaaaaaaaaaaaach (breathe in). And the ‘ch’ of it is very very light. So don’t do the heavy stuff. Ru’ach is the first of the souls that we encounter in the bible. ורוח אלוהים מרחפת על פני המים which could be translated as ‘and the spirit of God blew over the water’s surface.’ Can’t you just feel it blowing, and see the beautiful ripples in the sea? Ru’ach is all about breath. When you hear the term ‘Holy Spirit’ this is the one they’re talking about. Though Jews are a little (aka a lot) nervous about saying ‘Holy Spirit” in mixed (ie in goyische) company, for fear the goyim might think they’re talking about their Holy Spirit concept, rather than ours. Paranoid, yah, I know. But really, there’s nothing to worry about. Ru’ach is at heart a dynamistic notion. This breath / wind / spirit / soul is shared between us all plant / animal / human / god — all inhaling and exhaling life force in tandem. The reason I love Ru’ach so much is that you can’t hold on to it all by yourself. All you can do is share it. Try to hoard it by holding your breath — and you die. Try to get rid of it all — same thing. Share, children. What’s wrong with that?
And those are the basic four. And you’ve got them all coming and going, breathing and getting excited, and being unique and all that. Acting in concert. Or being obnoxiously idiosyncratic. But wait, there’s one more. Maybe. If you are very very good.
I wanted to be very very good. But I didn’t think I could manage it. Chayah, remember?
The last soul is Neshamah, beautiful Neshamah — נשמה
And, according to the tzaddik not everyone has a Neshamah, or at least not all the time. The Neshamah is a gift of the Shekhinah — the bride of God, the Queen of Heaven. A holdover from ancient Ugarit and Cana’an, really, but she’s our own feminine divine. And we love her. A bit prickly, she is however. A depressive over how badly we’ve mucked the planet up. It is our task to join together. Quell the discord, merge ourselves and harmonize. Celebrate the Sabbath, and have great sex that creates one being from the merging of two (okay— the tzaddik didn’t tell me that part. I was too young). (And to be truthful, not everything above was said by him, certainly not all in one long car — so of course I’ve come to use other sources…. Talmud’s good. Try that. Neshamah comes when we bring holiness into the world. Joy, and the bringing together of the fragments of the world. This is our primary task: Tikkun olam — the knitting back together of the universe. Healing all that pain by joining hands …
So. The souls come in one at a time into our bodies. A deli sandwich of souls, hold the pickles. We each have our own combination. And the souls, they leave at will, or slowly when we die. And the souls get pissed if we abuse them. The Bahir has some wonderful parables on such abuse and desecration! Reb Zalman, co-founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement, had a lot to say on the comings and goings of our souls. Go to him. And study. He’s very very very good. You’ll be transformed.
There are only so many souls that were made in the universe. Treat yours with great care and deep respect. And so, when a person dies and the souls head off into wherever they go. Excuse me, transmigrate — they recombine in new individuals, in new combinations. And this is where it gets really really interesting.
For these souls begin to recognize each other.
They’ve been embodied together before.
And you meet someone. And he or she feel so familiar. And you can’t put your finger on why or how powerful it is. And you’d swear that you must have met the person before. You just must have. But no — it’s not possible. That doesn’t work. So you come up with that default line we-must-have-known-each-other-in-a-past-life. And it feels slimy, but it’s still a good line. You’re trying to acknowledge the co-residence inside that shared body. Jewish theory teaches that there are only so many souls in the universe. So, of course they’ve met before.
And these souls are yearning for each other. Yearning to remember. Yearning to rejoin each other and feel again that bond. The thought hits you both so hard you can hardly breathe. You-must-be-meant-for-each-other, you surmise. It’s too uncanny. The resonance is so powerful and familiar.
And this is not just about humans, or people. We feel these feelings for our metier as well. A horn, for example — or the collection of the shards of history. Being drawn, heart and soul to what one does.
We have a word for this inside the Jewish tradition. Beshert it’s called, and it cannot be denied. It’s not that you’re meant for each other, no that’s too small. And that’s not it. Nor is it a website for hooking up young desperate Jewish would-be couples. It’s not a ‘perfect match,’ a husband-and-a-wife. No, no.
It’s the transmigration of two souls already connected. It’s an instrument that’s yearning for your playing. A manuscript whose characters seem already fully alive.
And the joy is not just union but reunion.
A thousand years. Two thousand years — there is no difference. A thousand miles. Across a bridge — there is no distance. Those souls, we don’t believe or give them credence. But when their fingers touch we feel their substance.
I don’t believe any of this, of course. But the tzaddik wasn’t a tzaddik for no reason. His meeting my mother feels the most beshert moment imaginable. Without that union, no museum, no cemeteries commission, no — all the other treasures that unfolded thereafter…