Two people can have similar personalities and go through the same events and traumas, and one will take the high road while the other will take the low road.
It seems that there are differences at the soul level. Obviously, someone like the Arizal was born with a particularly lofty soul while others possess a not-as-lofty soul even though it is still a holy one.
Certainly, classic Jewish sources discuss the idea of how the right kavanot pull down holy souls for conception. A Jewish couple who come together in genuine love and respect will pull down a higher soul. There are stories of tzaddikim whose kavanot pulled down very special souls into their children.
At the same time, our Sages also discuss how certain states pull down blemished souls. A child conceived while the mother is niddah, with a non-Jewish partner or any other forbidden partner, while either parent is angry or fantasizing about someone else or drunk, or if the woman is coerced…any of these will pull down a blemished soul.
And what of cases in which we have several generations of Jews conceived in niddah? What kinds of souls are these? And it doesn’t just affect Jews from secular upbringings. FFBs can make mistakes in taharat hamishpacha, or conceive children in any of the forbidden states mentioned above.
In other words, there are no guarantees regardless of yichus.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the soul is condemned to lowliness for life. A blemish can certainly be cleaned and purified.
Such a soul simply has more work to do to get it up to par. Tanach and midrashim contain stories of very great people who were conceived in less than ideal circumstances.
A lot of hard and sincere spiritual work can rectify a soul and bring it to its innate full potential.
(As far as I know, the blemish of the mamzer, a child born of an adulterous union between a married woman and her partner, is one that cannot be rectified within the mamzer's lifetime. The state of mamzerut remains and can be passed on through one's children unless certain measures are taken to prevent this.)
A Convert's Soul
Yet there are others who are quite tepid in their observance, seemingly trying to hold on to as much of the non-Jewish stuff as they can, or to revert back to their non-Jewish ways when the going gets rough (though most deal somewhere between these two extremes).
Some female converts told me that upon going to the Israeli Rabbanut to sort things out before their upcoming marriage, they are shocked to learn of something possibly amiss in their conversion certificate or experience, and are directed to undergo another immersion in the mikveh just to make sure everything is 100% kosher. As odd as it is to go in for a conversion a week or two before your marriage and after you’ve been fully observant and in a very frum seminary for the past few years, such converts also express a feeling of reassurance.
“Because my child’s Judaism will be defined through me,” say the female converts, “it’s essential that my own status be unquestionable.”
And they also relate that they were able to immerse and say the blessing with even more kavanah now that they had learned and experienced even more about Torah Judaism.
So what’s up with that? Did they receive a whole new soul…again? Or was the Jewish soul they originally received upon the first conversion immersion strengthened or re-purified?
Really, I have no clue and I don’t even know where to start looking. But it is interesting!
A Bit of George, Plus a Bit of Alexis, Plus a Bit of Etta Equals...Chavi!
Erev Rav Souls vs the Jewish Souls of Yisrael
In the Tanya of Lubavitcher chassidus (Igeret Hakodesh, Chapter/Epistle 26), it explains that after Mashiach comes (but before Techiyat Hametim/Resurrection of the Dead), the Jewish souls will merit to taste from the Tree of Life (i.e. the penimiyut of Torah) and thus will automatically know the revealed mitzvot in the same way that Avraham Avinu intuited the revealed mitzvot long before the Torah was actually given on Har Sinai. And because in this state, they will no longer suffer forgetfulness, they’ll have no need to review as we do now. Instead, Jews will occupy themselves with the deeper hidden aspects of Torah.
However, the Erev Rav, who will not taste from the Tree of Life, will need to occupy themselves with Mishnah (all the laws deduced from the Torah) in order to weaken the power of the Sitra Achra (the Dark Side, so to speak). Apparently, even after Mashiach comes, the Erev Rav will still be caught up in their inclinations to sin and will need to hold on tight to Torah learning in order to strengthen themselves against the Yetzer Hara—just as regular Jews do now.
Rivka Levy’s book Unlocking the Secret of the Erev Rav: The Mixed Multitude in Jewish Kabbalah, goes into this more, but apparently the Erev Rav souls are Jewish, but they’re a few steps behind the souls of a Yisrael—a Jew. So if I understand the Tanya correctly, after Mashiach comes, the Erev Rav will ascend to the level where regular Jews are holding now, and regular Jews will be on the level of Avraham Avinu.
May such a time come soon!
(You can also find out more about what traditional Jewish sources like the Kli Yakar say about the Erev Rav by clicking on the “Erev Rav” option in the "Categories" section in the sidebar on the mid-to-upper right.)
Different Souls with Different Goals
Sometimes, a person’s soul is so lofty, its light shines through all its owner’s grime. You sometimes see secular Jews who behave with greatness and light. You also see struggling or downtrodden frum Jews who seem to have something special to them, like a great soul that hasn’t yet realized its potential.
On the other hand, you may also see highly respected Orthodox Jews in important positions, but when you look them in the eye, it’s opaque as if there’s nothing there inside. Or they are surprisingly superficial or shallow (even if they are academically very intelligent or possess sharp administrative skills) or cynical or quarrelsome or snobby.
Because of this, we all need to have a lot of patience both with ourselves and others.
We don’t know what kind of soul we have and the long road of rectifications necessary for our soul.
We also don’t know what other people are dealing with and what they are meant to be doing.
Of course, we know that, for example, every Jew must keep Shabbat. But we don’t know exactly how that is supposed to be expressed for a particular soul.
For example, does this particular soul need:
- …to take out Shabbat at the regular time or the later Rabbeinu Tam time?
- …Shabbat meals that consist of lots of divrei Torah or lots of singing zemirot? Or both?
- Lots of salads or lots of desserts or lots of kugels?
- Heavy on the meat or heavy or the fish or heavy on Cornish hens?
- A dignified formal meal served on fine china or a lively meal eaten from disposable dinnerware?
- Gefilte fish or spicy fish?
- Going all-out for big melaveh malka bash or taking 10 minutes for a piece of chocolate and a hot freshly made cup of coffee?
Furthermore, even if we know where someone is supposed to arrive (at mitzvah observance), we don’t know HOW they’re supposed to get there. For example, I’ve known young women who started off their mitzvah observance with Shabbat and learning the laws of lashon hara while still wearing pants. Others started off with Shabbat and wearing long skirts, but only focused on lashon hara later.
Rectifying Ourselves and Others
Because there is so much that we just don’t know.
Praying for others works.
If they have souls of Yisrael, then davening for them is a great act of sisterly or brotherly love and helps them to come closer to their soul's potential, which also sweetens harsh judgements and helps bring Mashiach faster.
If they have Erev Rav souls, then davening still helps. The Komarna Rebbe has said that davening for the Erev Rav to do teshuvah actually nullifies their power because the one holy spark that was holding them up gets sucked out (elevated out of them?) and they are rendered totally powerless.
This is described here and more fully in this book You are What You Hate.
(Disclaimer: While I have read many articles on that site, I have not actually read this book, although I would really like to.)
Yet as Unlocking the Secret of the Erev Rav posits, even that's not so simple because the Erev Rav soul-sparks seem to be mixed up within the souls of Yisrael.
So it's best to just use the most powerful weapon we have: heartfelt prayer.