By: Avner Friedmann
What connection is there between Rabbi Akiva and Zimri ben Salu?
There was a Roman governor in Eretz Yisrael during the time of Rabbi Akiva by the name of Turnus Rufus. He would challenge Rabbi Akiva on theological questions, but Rabbi Akiva always refuted him at every turn. One time after an argument, Rufus returned home in a foul mood. When his beautiful wife asked him for an explanation, he told her that it was because of Rabbi Akiva. His wife responded with a plan, “You know that the G-d of these people detests immorality and lewdness. Give me your permission and I will cause him to stumble into sin.”
One evening she adorned herself and wore very revealing clothing in order to seduce Rabbi Akiva. She “stumbled” into him as he was leaving the study hall. When Rabbi Akiva saw her, he had three reactions: He spat, he laughed and he cried. She asked him, “What is the meaning of your reaction?” He explained to her, “I spat because despite your present beauty, you came from a putrid prop. I cried because your beauty will one day rot in the grave.” He did not, however, reveal to her why he laughed. She begged him to tell her, and he finally said: “I laughed because you will eventually convert to Judaism and marry me.” As it happened, after her husband died she actually did convert and Rabbi Akiva married her. In doing so, she brought her great wealth into the marriage.
Now, was the meeting between Rabbi Akiva and the governor’s wife coincidental? Of course not! It was meant to be. This brings us to our Parsha;
Balak, the king of Moav, hired Bilaam to help him against the perceived threat from Israel. He hoped that Bilaam’s curses would enable him to defeat Israel in battle. Bilaam tried several times but was unsuccessful. Every time he opened his mouth to curse the Jewish people, blessings came out. After his failure, as the last hope, he devised a terrible scheme. Knowing that sexual morality is a foundation of Jewish holiness and that HaShem despises immorality, Bilaam advised Balak to send the daughters of Moav and Midian to seduce the Israelites. They seduced Jewish men to having relationships with them, and succeeded in causing them to sin, as it is written: “The people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Maov.” As a result, a tragic plague broke out.
In shocking exhibit of brazenness, a certain Jew brought a Midianite woman directly to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, in front of Moshe and the elders and sinned with her in public view. The Torah writes: “Pinchas, the son of Elazar son of Aharon the Kohen saw, and he stood up from amid the assembly and took a spear in his hand. He followed the Israelite man into the tent and pierced them both, the Israelite man and the woman… and the plague was halted from the children of Israel. Those who died in the plague were twenty four thousand.”
“The name of the slain Jewish mjan who died with the Midianite woman was Zimri the son of Salu, a tribal leader of the tribe of Shimon. And the name of the slain Midianite woman was Cozbi daughter of Zur, who was a leader in Midian.” This man was a leader of the tribe of Shimon (the son of Shimon and Dinah), and the woman was the daughter of Balak himself.
How are these two stories, which have over thirteen hundred years separating them, connected? The answer is reincarnation.
The Kabbalists reveal that Rabbi Akiva was a reincarnation of Zimri and the wife of Turnus Rufus was an incarnation of Cozbi. She was about to sin with him just like before, however this time, Rabbi Akiva overcame his inclination. When she came with the intention of sinning, he knew through Divine inspiration that Heaven had arranged for him to meet her once more. He had the merit to correct his past wrong doing, to have her convert properly, and marry her. She also corrected her past deeds and merited to support the yeshivah of Rabbi Akiva with her great wealth.
We can now understand another reason why Rabbi Akiva reacted to her in the way he did. He cried about not being able to withstand the temptation in his previous life when he was Zimri and he laughed because he realized that she too was about to rectify her previous transgression. From the desecration of HaShem’s name in their previous lives, they now succeeded in sanctifying HaShem’s name.
To a large extent, the plague which took twenty four thousand men in the Wilderness was Zimri’s fault. As we know, Rabbi Akiva, had twenty four thousands students. These were the souls of the same men who died in the desert during the plague. This time he gave them the life in the World to Come by teaching them Torah. This also gives us a deeper appreciation of why the students did not properly respect each other. It was because to some degree they still were affected by their previous lifetime in which they had sinned.
King Shlomo said: “A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth endures forever.” The “generation that goes” is the same generation that is reincarnated again. Souls come back with an opportunity to correct and complete their missions in this world. They are brought back into circumstances which are perfectly designed to complete their personal mission and to contribute their part to the general purpose and correction of the world.
May we use this lifetime wisely and merit seeing the true and complete redemption through our righteous Moshiach, speedily in our days.
 Rashi in Nedarim 50b. Avoda Zarah 20a.
 Balak 25:1
 Balak 25:7-9
 Pinchas 25:14
 All references to reincarnations are from: Chesed Leavraham Maayan 5, Nahar 25 who brings the teachings of Rabbi Chaim Vital from the Arizal, Yalkut Reuveni Balak and Erech gilgulim, and Rama Mipano Sefer Gilgulei Neshamot letter Kaf.
 Ecclesiastes 1:4