In the previous posts, we’ve been exploring how the Erev Rav came into being, how they got attached to Am Israel, some of the enormous spiritual problems they’ve been causing us, how they typically behave, and how traditionally, our Sages have issued a number of dire warnings about the need to split ourselves off from them.
But, as we also started to learn, there are some massive barriers to actually doing this, namely:
It’s practically impossible, in our day and age, to identify who the Erev Rav really are, as they could even be members of our own family, religious leaders, or people with externally ‘perfect’ lives and morals.
And if you were reading the list of negative character traits carefully, you may also have spotted another huge problem with what we’ve currently set out vis-à-vis how to identify and deal with the Erev Rav, which brings us to the fifth secret of the Erev Rav.
THE FIFTH SECRET OF THE EREV RAV:
Today, most of us have at least a few of the ‘Erev Rav’ traits ourselves.
Does that mean that everyone who has these traits are ‘Erev Rav’, or is there something else going on here?
The rest of the book will be devoted to answering these questions, and giving you more of the secrets of the Erev Rav.
Before we continue, let’s set out the problem very clearly:
- It’s impossible for us to know who is ‘Erev Rav’ and who isn’t.
- Today, almost all of us have at least some of the traits typically identified as belonging to the ‘Erev Rav’.
- If we can’t identify who the ‘real’ Erev Rav are in our midst, we certainly can’t split off from them or stay away from them.
- Even if we had 100% clarity that some of the people we know are bona fide Erev Rav, if those people were our close family members or friends, we would probably still find it almost impossible to ‘split off’ from them.
Which is probably why the Erev Rav have continued to pose such an enormous spiritual problem to Am Israel, as it appears that we really can’t win. But now, we’ve reached the sixth secret of the Erev Rav, that’s about to change the whole picture:
THE SIXTH SECRET OF THE EREV RAV:
There are no true, 100% ‘Erev Rav’ souls today. Each and every Jewish soul is a composite of many different soul sparks, including some from the Erev Rav.
To understand what’s really going on today, we first have to learn a little more about the principles of Jewish reincarnation, and then later, dip into one of the most important teachings of the famous Chassidic master, Rebbe Nachman of Breslev.
The Jewish Concept of Reincarnation
In recent times, there has been a great deal of confusion in the Jewish world as to whether the concept of reincarnation applies to Jews, or is even a Jewish idea.[i] Most people are aware of the basic principle of reincarnation as taught primarily by the Eastern religions, namely that the spiritual soul is ‘incarnated’ into a different physical body again and again, in order to give it the opportunity to work on, and ‘fix’ issues and character traits that it failed to rectify in its previous incarnations.
That’s the mainstream, non-Jewish view of reincarnation, but as you might expect, Judaism has a great deal more to say on the subject. But before we get into the technical details, be assured that reincarnation is a fundamental tenet of the Jewish faith – so much so, that in the ‘Hamapil’ prayer that we traditionally recite before saying the bedtime Shema, we say that we:
“forgive anyone who angered or antagonized [us], or sinned against [us]….whether deliberately or in thought alone, whether in this incarnation or in another incarnation…”
This prayer can be found in every orthodox Jewish prayer book the world over – even Artscroll! - so reincarnation is accepted in the mainstream orthodox Jewish world – although not everyone is aware of this.
In his fantastic book Return Again (published by Devora Publishing) Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman explains that:
“Among Torah scholars in our day there is no opposition to the teachings of reincarnation. Chassidic teachings are replete with references to it, and even…the Vilna Gaon, who himself authored a number of important Kabbalistic commentaries, acknowledged its existence openly.”
The five parts of the Jewish soul
Until Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, the Arizal, the famous mystic and father of Kabbalah appeared on the scene in the 16th century, our understanding of the mechanism of reincarnation had for the most part been lost or forgotten, partially as a result of our long exile, and partially due to external pressures from the other ‘monotheistic’ world religions who do not believe in reincarnation, and who pressured the Jews to keep their ‘heretical’ ideas to themselves.
With the emergence of the Arizal, the Jewish concept of reincarnation was refined and renewed, and reclaimed its original place in Jewish theology. In contrast to Eastern traditions that teach that the same soul gets reincarnated again and again (and which generally don’t talk about God being part of the reincarnation picture at all) the Arizal taught that each Jewish soul is made up of five different parts or levels, called (in descending order):
The first two of these soul-parts, the Yehida and the Chaya, are kind of kept tucked away in the Heavenly realms; they are still attached to a person, and can still influence them, but crucially, the person’s bad actions and negative behavior can’t tarnish or sully these parts of their soul. You can picture this concept as a sort of spiritual one-way mirror, where these upper levels of the soul can ‘see’ and influence the person they belong to, but usually not vice-versa.
They will still benefit from, and participate in, that person’s good deeds, but they can’t be harmed or destroyed by their bad deeds. In some ways, they are our ‘collective soul’ that belongs to Am Israel, and also the part of our soul that is 100% rooted in the spiritual realms, and which isn’t affected by the world’s materialism and corruption.
So the real work that happens in this world usually involves the other three parts of the soul that all of humanity has, and that we’re all down here on planet earth to work on, as follows:
Level 1 Soul: Is called the Nefesh, in Hebrew, or animal soul. You get this level as soon as you’re born, and it’s the soul that’s responsible for what’s often described as the life force or will to live. Biologically, it’s associated with the so-called ‘primitive’ brain functions including eating, sleeping, breathing and procreating, and anything else associated with the basic notion of survival and staying alive.
Level 2 Soul: Is called the Ruach, in Hebrew, or spirit. This is the soul level that’s associated with your emotions and feelings, and physiologically, it’s connected to the aptly-named ‘emotional brain’ or limbic system. The brain’s limbic system is responsible for things like perception, and your subjective feeling of experiences. It’s the part that tells you whether you think something is good or bad, nice or nasty, scary or reassuring, dangerous or safe.
Level 3 Soul: Is called the Neshama, in Hebrew, or Divine soul. This soul is the bit of you that only wants to do good, that only wants to stay close to God, that only wants world peace, good relationships with everyone, and an end to suffering and starvation in the world. It’s usually associated with a person’s intellect, or mind, particularly the neocortex or frontal lobes of the brain.
Physiologically, when the frontal lobes are working properly, the mind is in control of the more knee-jerk emotional reactions, or selfish lusts and ‘self-preservation at all costs’ impulses being generated by the primitive brain and the limbic system. This is the area that enables human beings to be compassionate, to communicate, to think lofty thoughts, and to really connect to God, and the urge for good, and the ‘higher self’ that the Neshama embodies.[ii]
(You can learn more about the link between human physiology and the human soul, and how they both mirror each other, in APPENDIX 1 at the back of the book.)
So far so good? Great! Because it’s about to get even more complicated. Each one of these five soul levels contains five levels, to make a total of 25 levels. For example, Soul Level 1: Nefesh will contain the following levels (starting from the bottom, up):
- Nefesh: Nefesh,
- Nefesh: Ruach,
- Nefesh: Neshama,
- Nefesh: Chaya and
- Nefesh: Yehida
Before the main soul level of Nefesh can be considered truly ‘fixed’ or rectified, spiritually-speaking, a person will have go through each of these five levels in turn, fixing each one as they go.
As our Sages teach that it’s easier to learn the whole of the Talmud, in some ways, than to fix even one bad character trait, we can see how we’ve really got our work cut out for us. We can’t skip levels, and we have to rectify them in order, working from the level of ‘Nefesh: Nefesh’, on up.
Once again, this is a very simplified version of the ideas explained by the Arizal, but it gives you the basic framework of the Jewish concept of reincarnation.
No-one can fix everything in one go
These days, it’s impossible to blast through all the rectifications in one go, so it’s considered good going, spiritually, if we manage to fix just one of these 25 soul levels in any given lifetime. (Although exceptional people can and do manage to fix more.)
If you fix one level, then you are given life experiences, circumstances and personality characteristics in your next life that will help you to work on the next level up.
As long as you’re making the effort, doing the work and moving in the right direction, even if you haven’t actually completed the job, God will give you up to a thousand more lifetimes to finish what you started.
But if you’re not fixing your soul levels, and you’re even doing the opposite, and causing even more spiritual blemishes and issues than when you started off with, then God gives you three chances, or lifetimes, to get your act together, before He splits your soul up into its various components, and starts recycling them.
What that means, again very simplistically, is that God sees that Mikey Cohen still needs to fix his Soul Level 1, or Nefesh, and that Linda Abrahams still needs to fix her Soul Level 2, or Ruach, and that Eli Strauss still needs some work on his Soul Level 3, or Neshama.
So then God creates a new body called Susan Freeman, whose soul now contains bits of all these other people, and He gives her the job of finally fixing the mess the other people made.
Here is the crucial thing to remember: while the different components of Susan’s soul are all ‘old’, and have all been down here many, many times before, the spiritual soul entity that is Susan’s soul is completely unique. Those different soul sparks have never been put together before, and they will never be put together again.
So while the soul is old, it’s also completely unique – God doesn’t do the same thing twice.
Everyone today is an ‘old’ soul
At this stage in history, there are no ‘new’ souls. Every single Jew walking around today has a soul that’s made up of different bits of different people from the past. That’s part of what makes modern life so confusing, intense and ‘heavy’, because there’s so much spiritual unfinished business going on.
This has profound implications for what it means to have an ‘Erev Rav’ soul, as we’ll discover in a moment. But before we get there, there's a few more things you should know about the Jewish concept of reincarnation.
Some more facts about Jewish reincarnation
Jew’s do believe in purgatory (what’s often incorrectly referred to as ‘hell’), but not in the mainstream way that you typically find in the West. Jewish purgatory typically only lasts a maximum of 11 or 12 months (with some notable exceptions)[iii] and only atones for the bad stuff a person did in relation to God. If you didn’t keep the commandments between ‘man and God’ the way you should have, for example, like observing Shabbat (the Sabbath day), or keeping kosher, or fasting on Yom Kippur, then purgatory pays down that debt.
But purgatory doesn’t atone for any of the bad stuff you did to people. If you stole something and didn’t repay it – some part of your soul will probably need to get reincarnated to take care of that debt. If you hurt someone badly and never apologized for what you did – some part of you may need to come back again, and this time you could be the one that’s on the receiving end of some pretty nasty behavior, to even things up spiritually.
If you treated your spouse very badly the last time around – chances are high that in this lifetime, you’ll be married to someone who literally makes your life hell.
As soon as you understand that reincarnation is a basic tenet of the Jewish faith – albeit in a far more complex and complicated form than we’ve set out here – it also suddenly starts to answer a whole bunch of those difficult questions about why apparently ‘bad’ things happen to apparently ‘good’ people.
We often can’t understand WHY we have to endure many of the difficult things that all of us have to go through in our time down here, on planet earth. But once we know that we were here before, and that we did a whole bunch of stuff that now requires fixing, it can make the hard things we have to go through so much easier to bear.
The reincarnation angle to the Erev Rav
It’s now been more than 3,300 years since the Egyptian Exodus. Those original souls of Bnei Israel and the Erev Rav have now been reincarnated, spliced together, reincarnated, re-fitted, reincarnated so many times now, that it’s very unlikely that there is anyone alive today who has all five parts of an 100% ‘Erev Rav’ soul.
On some level, at some stage, the Erev Rav souls were all intermingled with the souls of Bnei Israel – which is another explanation as to why things appear to be so mixed-up and confused today. Once we understand that different soul sparks are coming from different places, it makes it much easier to grasp why someone who appears to be completely irreligious can truly have a heart of gold and treat other people so morally; and also, why someone who appears to be so learned in Torah and so externally pious can have so much work to do when it comes to the more basic facets of acting like a mensch.
Today, if we try to judge people (including ourselves) by the measure of whether we’re acting like the Erev Rav, in some way, nearly all of us are going to fail the test. This person will learn Torah assiduously, but still be treating their friends like dirt. That person will give charity generously, but still be living a completely immoral, ‘unkosher’ lifestyle.
(As an aside, I heard a story firsthand that illustrates this point to a tee: One of my Rabbis was acquainted with one of the big mafia bosses in Israel, who was personally involved in organizing the supply of hard drugs into the Holy Land. Every week, the man would religiously tally up his profit on a Thursday morning, and then use that money to (anonymously) pay for food baskets to be sent to hundreds of religious families, so they would have what to eat on Shabbat. He continued doing this for years, until he was eventually murdered by one of the competing drug cartels.)
That’s not to say that the process of rectification is going to be easy. Clearly, the more ‘Erev Rav’ soul sparks a particular person has, the harder it’s going to be for them to rectify everything they need to, spiritually. But the key point is this: today, there are no more 100% Erev Rav souls. On A fundamental level, every single one of us has a spark of the pintele yid, or eternal Jewish soul, inside of us, and every one of us can make teshuva.
Which brings us to our seventh secret:
THE SEVENTH SECRET OF THE EREV RAV:
Even if someone only has a 1% soul spark from Am Israel, that’s still enough to rectify the other 99%, and to return the whole soul, in a completely rectified state, back to God.
It’s about traits, not people
Instead of pondering about whether so-and-so is ‘Erev Rav’ or a ‘real’ Jew – which has only managed to lead us down some very bleak spiritual dead-ends, as described above - the discussion must now evolve into one of Erev Rav traits that need to be identified and fixed, and away from Erev Rav people.
But how do we actually do that? You’ll find out in the next few posts.