In this parsha we read about the blessings of the twelve tribes. In the blessing of Reuben Moshe says: “Let Reuben live and not die …” This statement is quite puzzling but even more surprising is the Targum[1]: “Let Reuben live and not die a second death”. What is the meaning of the second death?




Obviously many levels of interpretation are possible but we will only concentrate on the words of Mekubalim regarding the “second” death mentioned here. One of the deepest mysteries is hinted in this statement for this is one of few places where Chazal hint to the concept of gilgul[2]. Today this concept had become quite well known and even in our sidurim we find references to it, like a statement that we forgive everyone who did anything bad to us whether it happened in this gilgul or in another one. However throughout ages the concept of gilgulim was carefully hidden and not discussed except through hints[3].


Before we start the discussion regarding ten of the sons of Yakov let’s describe some general principles. The basis of the extremely complicated system of Divine reward and punishment is the fact that a person can come to this world more than once[4]. Everything is clearly measured, carefully considered based on the previous lives of an individual. Besides the possibility for a soul to be born again in this world, it can also join an existing person temporarily. This may happen when someone does a rare mitzvah and a particular soul that never had a chance to fulfill it needs to join. It may also happen when a certain soul needs to participate in suffering according to the decree of Devine Justice.


To understand the rectification of the ten sons of Yakov, we need to understand the well known Midrashim[5] dealing with the “Aseres Harugei Malchus” (ten sages killed by Roman government). We are told that after the sale of Yosef, the Accusation always remained before Hashem’s Heavenly Court[6]. The general assumption is that the souls of ten sons of Yakov were these ten martyrs in their next gilgul. The Zohar[7] however states that the souls of Yakov’s sons only temporarily joined the ten sages in order to experience their suffering and atone for their sin. The sages themselves however were coming from ten drops of zera (sperm) that came out of Yosef when he was enticed by Potifar’s wife[8]. Yosef could have had twelve children just like Yakov, but he lost ten of them when struggling with temptation[9]. 


We can now discuss the hint of Moshe’s blessing to Reuben. “Let Reuben live and not die a second death”, meaning the soul of Reuben will not need a similar atonement like the rest of the brothers. Reuben’s soul joined Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol[10], one of the greatest students of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai. The Talmud (Avoda Zara 16b) tells us during the Roman persecutions Rabbi Eliezer was caught and thrown in a pit. However on his trial the judge misunderstood his response to accusations and let him go[11]. The soul of Reuben thus received a fair punishment. He was thrown into a pit just as he suggested to throw Yosef into a pit[12].


The judgment of Hashem is very precise and fair. People come and go but the accounts are not settled and they have to come back[13]. In the end everything has to be compensated. May we deserve to rectify all our previous transgressions and clear all our balances and live till the coming of Moshiach.


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[1] Arameic Translation of Unkelos based on traditions from Mount Sinai. 


[2] In the Zohar we find many discussions about giligulim, but the Zohar had been a hidden book for many generations. The Midrashim, the Talmud and other works of Chazal almost never discuss gilgulim, and when they do, they only use hints.


[3] See for instance Ramban on Iyov 33:17; on Bereyshis 38:8 and on Devarim 25:6; Rabeinu Bachye Bereishis 2:17; Shemos 34:7; Devarim 33:6; Kad Hakemach 73b and our words to parshas Metzorah. Indeed some early Jewish philosophers considered the general concept of gilgulim a non-Jewish concept coming from the eastern religions. See Rav Yitzchak Eizek Chaver (Magen Vetzina 4:33) that the main reason for this approach had to do with the belief of some people that a person can be born into an animal or a tree. Indeed this concept is totally foreign to Judaism. Even though the word gilgul is also used it is incorrect to think that a person can become a plant. Rather this is a type of punishment for certain sins to be imprisoned in fauna or flora. Just as Gehinnom (Hell) is a way of punishment, so too there are other punishments after death. The person is not “born” into an animal; rather his soul is stuck in an animal for a time period decreed by Divine Justice. Thus even though the word “gilgul” is also used, the concept is very different from what we normally call a gilgul. Generally a gilgul means a new life with new opportunities, another chance to rectify and to assemble more mitzvos. Indeed according to the GR”A the whole dispute between Beis Shamay and Beis Hillel (Eiruvin 13b) regarding whether it’s better to be born or not is only with regards to the second gilgul. On the one hand there is a new opportunity to do more miztvos, but on the other hand one can also assemble more transgressions.


[4] Indeed it’s possible to explain why some righteous people suffer while wicked prosper without the concept of gilgulim. After all the main reward and punishment is in the afterlife, and a believing person knows that ultimately all the good deeds and bad ones will be properly compensated. It is similarly possible to explain why a person may be born with defects like blindness, lack of limbs etc. We could say that Hashem knew that for this particular person this is the best. Had he been born normal he may have abused his powers, but now that he is handicapped he can better concentrate on doing good. It is harder to explain why some child dies before reaching the age when he can perform even a single mitzvah. Even though his death can serve a punishment to his parents, it would be difficult to understand what happens to his own soul. However, once we know of a concept of gilgulim, everything becomes understandable. A particular death is not the end of activity in this world. The soul may have been here before and may need to come more times until it achieves its’ rectification. A person born with various defects may be suffering for what he did in a different life. Moreover, various statements of Chazal become much each easier to understand. Our sages said that the one who pretends to be handicapped in order to collect charity, he will actually end up being handicapped and indeed this will happen though not necessarily in the same life.  


[5] See for example Midrash Tehillim, 9.


[6] This is very well known Midrash that the sidurim and machzorim bring in the notes to the famous poem “Eile Ezkera” recited during the holiest prayer of the year: repetition of Musaf on Yom Kippur. Some commentators explain that these ten sages lived in different times, because they assume that two of the people killed: Shimon and Yishmoel were the first Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel and the first Rabbi Yishmoel ben Elisha. However according to Doros Harishnim the ten sages all lived in the same generation and were killed during prosecutions of Hadrian. One of the strong proofs is the fact that Shmuel Hakatan predicted when he was dying that Shimon and Yihsmoel will be killed and since Shmuel Hakatan lived in Yavne after the destruction of the Temple these could not be the first Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel and the first Rabbi Yishmoel ben Elisha. 


[7] In Zohar Chadash, end of Ki Sisa; see also the GR”A in Yahel Ohr on Hechalos of Zohar 2:255a.


[8] The case of these ten martyrs was thus a special situation of a death without a sin that warranted it. Even though these ten sages had some minor misdeeds (see Tana Debe Eliyahu Raba, 30) their death together with the further deaths of Jewish martyrs was in a way a korban, preparing a way for the final rectification (see Shaar Hagilgulim, 36th preface, Ramchal, Kinas Hashem Tzeva-os starting with Maamar: Asara Harugei Malchus, in the standard edition of Ginzey Ramchal it’s on page 103).


[9] See also Ramchal (Kinas Hashem Tzeva-os starting with Maamar: Yosef Veeshes Potifar, in the standard edition of Ginzey Ramchal it’s on page 102) that Yosef was almost ready to have relations with Potifar’s wife thinking this would be a Tikun falling in the category of sin leshem shamaim, see also our words on Parshas Vayechi.


[10] The reason he is called Hagadol – “the elder” is because Reuben was the oldest brother.


[11] See Rashi on this Gemorah, see also Rabeynu Chananel and Shaarim Hametzuyanim Behalacha for a different explanation of why Rabbi Eliezer was caught.


[12] Reuben is therefore not counted together with the ten martyrs, but Yosef is! The reason is that he was the one who was talking badly about his brothers which ultimately caused their hatred.


[13] See for instance the GR”A on Mishley (14:25), that if one steals from another and does not return the stolen object, they come back in a gilgul, so that restoration can be made.