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ome people will just shrug and tell you it’s all about gilgulim. A bochur is obsessed with Maseches Chagigah? Maybe he already learned the whole Shas back and forth in his previous life except for that particular tractate. A man goes through a terrible business experience where his partner cheats him out of an entire year’s work? Perhaps he had owed the fellow a substantial amount of money in a prior life.

Gilgulim. Tough to understand even for the most revered mekubalim.

And yet for Yehudah, it was oh, so clear. After all, this was the fellow who had his first psychotic episode back one winter in yeshivah ketanah and had burned down the tree at the city’s “Holiday Display.” In his hyper-religious and grandiose furor, Yehudah believed he was a gilgul of Yehudah Maccabi and it was incumbent upon him to stand strong against the assimilationist culture.

While he certainly had some backing, no one had any qualms with him being taken to the hospital and treated for his symptoms — which also included the inability to sleep, a profound commitment to taanis dibbur, and delusions that his family members were mostly imposters.

As Yehudah came out of his psychotic episode, most of his symptoms abated and he returned to a stable place, albeit with many shadows hanging over him.

Coming from a shtark chassidishe family in England, it was devastating to return home with all of the challenges associated with mental illness and medication treatment. Real or perceived, Yehudah felt like his family “didn’t believe in mental illness” and without their unflinching support, he was unable to commit to treatment. Yehudah had a number of subsequent episodes in which he was hospitalized and treated for exacerbations of psychosis.

“It must be that I’m the gilgul of a serious rasha,” he would tell whoever had the patience to listen. “Why else do I need to be locked up all of the time and treated like a piece of trash? I think I’m probably Bilaam and really need to suffer this time around.”

As he became older, years of being sick did a number on Yehudah’s brain and left him with quite a few chronic delusions.

I first met Yehudah after he’d been brought by the family to live in an assisted living facility in Jerusalem. His parents were aging, and one of his brothers, a prominent chassidic rav in the city, had the idea to find a group home and supportive environment for Yehudah in Eretz Yisrael. It was a great idea for many reasons, but Yehudah remained stuck even after the move.

“I’m telling you, I know I’m Bilaam,” he told me. “I really deserve to suffer and that’s why I get shots every week and need to be locked up sometimes. It’s a kaparah for my neshamah from previously gilgulim.”

Yehudah was broken — and these delusions trapped him and prevented him from maintaining any sort of productive schedule. His brother tried to help him, and the program staff were good, G-d-fearing Jews, but the young man had given up on life and wouldn’t leave his bedroom.

“Gilgulim. End of story, Dr. Freedman. I deserve to suffer.”

I didn’t know much about gilgulim but I knew that this was the kind of delusion that medication alone wasn’t going to fix. We needed to find good evidence to counter the delusions that were causing him profound suffering. I felt this was something Cognitive Behavioral Therapy could address, but after a few weeks even that wasn’t getting us anywhere.

“Dr. Freedman, why are you trying so hard?” he said at one of our appointments. “What can you do to help me, anyway? I already told you, I’m Bilaam and I need to suffer.”

“Yehudah, how about if I took you to an authentic mekubal and he tells you something else?”

“Well, what if he tells me that I’m a gilgul of Bilaam and I deserve to suffer? Will you all leave me alone then?”

“Yes, Yehudah,” I reassured him. “Then I’ll agree to stop bothering you and let you suffer.”

Rav Erez was a real lamed-vavnik, a direct descendant of a famous Moroccan tzaddik, and a real-deal mekubal with whom I was in contact after one of his erstwhile students had flipped off the deep end. It was pure Hashgachah pratis that his office was right across the street from Yehudah’s group home.

I called up his gabbai, explained the situation, and as it turned out, Rav Erez was more than happy to schedule a meeting with the two of us.

And yet Yehudah looked broken as ever as he entered the mekubal’s humble office. But Rav Erez paid no attention. In fact, he seemed tremendously impressed.

“This is a very special neshamah, Dr. Yaakov,” he said as he looked at Yehudah and offered us a seat. If I didn’t know him better, I could have suspected Rav Erez was making fun of my patient. But Rav Erez was too serious for jokes and was known to never waste a single word.

“This is a very special neshamah,” he repeated out loud again and again until Yehudah began to cry hysterically.

“I’m no one, I’m worse than no one, I’m Bilam!” he screamed.

With a penetrating stare through eyes that could see beyond physicality, Rav Erez took Yehudah’s hand and told him, “No. You are a special neshamah. Maybe even Yehudah Maccabi.”

Both Yehudah and I were shocked into silence as Rav Erez continued, “You need to be proud of being a Jew. That’s your tikkun. Nothing else. Don’t suffer, don’t torture yourself. You are a special neshamah.”

Yehudah’s face was filled with tears of joy. “How can you know? That’s it? No Bilaam? No suffering?”

“Exactly. No wild things like lighting fires. Just be a proud Jew,” he said as I became even more amazed with this tzaddik. I had no idea that it was possible, but Rav Erez clearly had tremendous reach, and his CBT skills, lehavdil, were infinitely greater than mine.

Rav Erez suddenly stood up and said, “Yehudah, we are all set. No worrying, no suffering. Listen to Dr. Yaakov and be proud to be a Jew. You are more Yehudah Maccabi than Bilaam. Just be careful of kilayim.”

I couldn’t contain myself and asked, “How do know all of this, Rav Erez?” as he escorted us to the door.

“Kilayim? Everyone should be careful. Plowing with two different kinds of animals is an issur de’Oraita.”

It wasn’t the answer to the question I was asking but it was the answer I somehow needed to hear and decipher. Baruch Hashem, Yehudah had heard his answers too.  

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 738. Jacob L. Freedman is a psychiatrist and business consultant based in Israel. When he’s not busy with his patients, Dr. Freedman can be found learning Torah in the Old City or hiking the hills outside of Jerusalem. Dr. Freedman can be reached most easily through his website www.drjacoblfreedman.com.