What Makes a Soul?
We are told that three are involved in the creation of a human being. The partners are a father, a mother and God. As with other animals and plants, the two biological parents each provide half of the genetic material, ensuring biological uniqueness to the offspring. In humans, parents provide more than just genes and chromosomes. It varies culturally, but parents also provide elements of status which cannot be procured from any other source -- it is something you are born into. For example, you are a Cohen or a Levi only if your father was one (and your mother Jewish), royalty is usually inherited (sometimes grabbed), you are only Jewish if your mother is Jewish, and in India, you are unable to change the caste of your forebears. (Ants and bees are also born into inescapable castes, though they share the same mother. Most of the animal kingdom does without social class structures, depending more on the survival of the fittest than on the elitest.)
What does the third partner, our Father in heaven, bring to the party? He provides the crucial ingredient which makes us human as opposed to animal. He provides the soul, an element of divinity mixed with the biological material to produce a speaking, communicating living being, one being capable of recognising and communicating with the Divine.
But what is this soul? No scientific method can isolate it; indeed it cannot exist in our world in isolation. A body is an empty vessel without a soul, but a soul's actuality is impossible in our sphere without a body. A soul must occupy a body in order to manifest itself in our worldly reality.
But is this soul unique? There are many ideas, in Jewish thought, and among the religions, that a soul-body combination is not unique: transmigration, reincarnation. Terms that indicate that a new body, a newborn baby, may not always contain a unique, brand new soul. That new, cute baby may have a soul that has occupied, two or maybe three previous incarnations.
One theory is that each soul created must complete a set of preassigned tasks, in order to be elevated to its predetermined level. If it does not complete this in one lifetime, it is given another, and another. And what if completion takes place in a relatively short timespan in the final body -- does it immediately discard its earthly shell? Can a second round soul lower the score with which it started?
If I were to know that my soul is close to reaching its quota, would this effect my attitude to life? What if found out that my soul in his last manifestation was housed by the most evil beast that ever walked the earth? Has my soul been tainted? Does this effect the new body, my body, me?
My soul certainly last came into this world in 5713/1953 in the Exile of Australia. But it may have also come into the world some thirty years earlier, in a different place, but during the same long Galut.
It was placed inside a little body, born to a poor family in a shtetl somewhere in the middle of Poland. I barely learned to speak the Polish language and I received no secular education. From the age of twelve, I worked as a cleaner. I cleaned the factory on the outskirts of the next village, and I cleaned our local study hall. At least then I was able to spend a little time in the Beth Midrash. I could listen to some words of Torah, even though by the time I arrived there I was very tired, ready for my evening morsels, ready to fall asleep, in order to start another day of futility.
And when I was nineteen years old, they came to get us, all of us. They came in their shining black uniforms. They moved us into a ghetto in the nearby big town. I had never been to this town. The small ghetto was crowded, pathetic. We had little food and nothing to do all day. People were losing weight, people were bored, people were losing their minds, people were dying in the street, people were wretched -- were these walking shadows still people or walking corpses? What was happening to their corpses? Why did we deserve this? What had we done? Like our father Abraham looking down on Sodom, I asked, God, WHY? Why were these bodies bearing souls, people who had suffered all their lives, being tortured in this way?
Then one day we were taken to the nearby railway line. A wretched line of walking corpses was squeezed into a cattle car -- and the train driver blew his whistle -- a human cargo was pulled out of the station.
My soul may also have entered this world in 5240/1480, as Moslem rule was waning in Galuth Spain. I grew up in a well-to-do Jewish family. We had servants and lived in a house with many rooms. My father was a merchant, with a very good business. Every shabbat we would go to the Beth Knesset down the road. Father sat in the front row. I still remember the sweet sound of the choir singing with the cantor. But one day father came home without saying anything. He took mother into another room and shut the door. After a few minutes she came out as white as a sheet.
We never went to the synagogue again. Instead we started to go to the Church at the top of the hill, on Sundays. One day I was sprinkled with water. They started calling me Isabella. I was confused, I didn't understand. I am Miriam I wanted to shout.
We had a little room downstairs. We would only enter this room when the servants had their day off. Here we lived our past lives, but only for fleeting moments, only on rare occasions, only under great tension. The songs no longer sounded the same.
I watched from our house as thousands of Jews left our city for the port, carrying whatever they could, boarding little ships, leaving Spain, forever. I did not understand where they were all going? Why were thay all suddenly leaving? Our synagogue stood empty.
But we were betrayed. There in our little room, living our past lives, we were betrayed. We were arrested, we were called dirty Jewish pigs. I was tortured in their dungeons. I was raped by a smelly, shrieking priest as I was tied to a rack. I was helpless. I did not survive that ordeal.
My soul may also have entered a body in the year 3811/51 CE, in Yerushalayim, a scion to a family of holy priests, who for hundreds of years had served in the Beth haMikdash, the Holy Temple. The last thing I remember is being knee deep in blood, but not in the blood of hundreds of thousands of lambs and kids brought by Jews from all over the Jewish world for the annual Pascal sacrifice. No, now a different sacrifice, a human sacrifice -- human sacrifice right here in the house of the Lord. With our bare hands we futilely attempted to fight off the mighty Roman army, to the end, literally to the bitter end . . . we drowned . . . in our own blood.
Now here I am, once again, in 5769/2009, hopefully at the other end of the long Roman Exile which commenced with the destruction of Yerushalayim and continues to this very day. Why am I here? Why was this soul returned to this earth, at this time? Is it possible for me to complete that which this soul has already seen, has already experienced? A soul that suffered. A soul that has demonstrated its purity on more than one occasion. A soul amongst the millions of Jews souls in the world today.
Is it possible that a soul exists today that didn't suffer at the hands of Jewish history?
It returns annually, like one of those bad movie reruns they show on television. Tisha b'Av just keeps coming back in the same, identical format. The promise of redemption is still just that -- a promise. All the tragedies that have befallen our people, the destruction of Temple, the Spanish Inquisition, the European shoa Holocaust, and countless, countless tragedies, continue to haunt us.
But surely we have made progress. We can see the progress, though many choose to ignore it. The words of the prophets read far more real today those of the biased, anti-Jewish, anti-Israel news media -- but you have to read them, you have to want to understand them in our context, you have to believe them.
Many of us will sit on the floor and mourn tonight. But most of us will be thinking about eating, weddings, celebrations, shaving, after the fast is over. How many of us will think about the souls who have passed through the Jewish world, how they yearn for the Bet haMikdash to be rebuilt, to provide the Jewish people the centrality, the focal point it needs? How many will think about our state of exile, that the very existence of Galuth desecrates the name of the God of Israel, the universal God?
How many will stand up tomorrow evening and say, I can do something to end the Exile, to rebuild the Temple. I am coming home, and if I am already in Israel, there's so, so much to do. We're still so, so far away, but all of us, realising that we are one nation, who requires our God to dwell amongst us, we can do it.
It is in our hands, and only in our collective hands.
I wish everyone a meaningful fast -- don't just let it pass by wishing people an easy fast -- please recollect Jewish history and think in terms of a Jewish future.
Please feel free to
and don't forget to stop by my site to look at my latest (and classic) photographs.