Dear Rabbi Fried,
I read your article on reincarnation and it was really interesting, and raised a couple questions: Does reincarnation explain why it is believed that we were all at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah? Secondly, how do you explain dreams…for example, Holocaust dreams? Is it a window to a previous life or just your imagination? Or when people who have died visit in your dreams? Is that just your imagination or something more; does that mean their soul is not back on earth?
This is enough for a few columns, but I’ll try to answer you concisely.
Technically, reincarnation, as the word implies, is the return of the soul to a second corporeal body after it has already occupied its first one. It does not apply to the first-time entry of a soul into a body.
The sages teach that all Jewish souls were present at Sinai to participate in the acceptance of the Torah by the entire Jewish people for all time. In this way, all Jewish souls endowed into Jewish bodies throughout history are included in the national and individual responsibility of upholding and fulfilling of the Torah. Since most of those souls at the time had never been contained within a physical body, you could not evoke the concept of “reincarnation.” The lessons inculcated into the soul at Sinai were done so as a soul alone, as of yet lacking the usual partnership between body and soul, which is normally encompassed by Torah study and fulfillment of mitzvot. You do, however, see from that event the ability of the eternal soul to receive messages and missions and take those with it when joining a body; this is the foundation of the concept of reincarnation.
The notion of dreams is a multi-faceted one in Judaism. The Talmud and kabbalistic writings refer to numerous categories of dreams. Some dreams, particularly for those on a very high spiritual level, can be a type of divine inspiration revealing a nearly prophetic type of message or intuition into the future. There have been rabbis, rebbetzins and other spiritual Jews who have received profound insight into concepts of Torah through dreams, some even on a steady basis. This is predicated upon the understanding of sleep; the partial detachment of the soul from the body to refresh itself in the higher, heavenly realms to have a “recharge”; to give it the strength to traverse yet another day in the physical world. While “up there,” the soul could receive heavenly insights not available in its normal, corporeal state.
The Talmud and other writings do discuss the rare visitations of lost loved ones or one’s rabbi through dreams, especially to send a particular message to save one from harm’s way. There are formulas in the Talmud and the siddur for dealing with certain types of ominous nightmares where vivid images of terrible things befalling the dreamer or others. There is a very moving prayer of “reversing the dreams” reciting during the Birchas Kohanim, the priestly blessing recited by the Kohanim on holidays, said to annul or overturn dreams dreamt by the beseecher about him/herself or about others, or that others have dreamt about them, transforming them “from curses into blessings.”
There have been many situations where vivid, intricate details were revealed to a child or adult about a person no longer alive in a series of dreams which could have only been known by the person they dreamt about. This certainly alludes to a reincarnation, and has been the stuff of much research by psychologists and others and is available to read.
Alas, the sages explain that most of our dreams are the product of our thoughts during the day, things we have read, and our unshackled imaginations running wild and unhindered with the freedom of unconsciousness and sleep. Pleasant dreams!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Rabbi Fried,