I dislike the concept of Karma. Often it is the easy way out when a moral dilemma is presented. When a person commits a crime, be it against humanity or against an individual, often he or she manages to escape punishment. This is bad in itself, but I feel that people add insult to injury when they say, “Never mind that he/she escaped. Karma will get all criminals in the end.” To me, this is cheapening the trauma of the victims, trivializing their suffering.
I am not interested in punishment in another life. First of all, I am not at all persuaded that reincarnation exists. Perhaps it does, and then again, perhaps it doesn’t; there is no proof either way. Most of the believers in Karma don’t even consider such ambiguity with proper seriousness, and it becomes a catch word, a cliché. But supposing Karma does exist, what of it? I am not really interested in the punishment of someone who is no longer the criminal, who has clothed his soul in a totally innocent body.
In addition, Karma makes it easy to blame victims for their misfortune. I have actually heard people say that “If he was hurt, he probably hurt other people in another life.” I call that callous. None of the people who say that, can ever bring proof that the victim was someone else in that “other life” which may or may not have existed.
This is why I like the story about the floating skull and Hillel’s reaction to it. You must remember that the afterlife was not important to Jews at that time. Death was death, and you obeyed God not because of the fear of Hell or the longing for Heaven, but because obeying God was your duty and your privilege. So when Hillel makes the comment which you will see below, he means that the drama and its aftermath happened in this world and that time.
Once Hillel saw a skull floating on the surface of the water, and said to it: “Because you drowned others, you are drowned. In the end, those who drowned you will also be drowned.”
In this short story Hillel reveals his views of divine justice. Of course, we don’t always witness it. As said above, some murderers get away with it, and we do not see their punishment. But often they are punished – here and now, measure for measure.
Hillel saw himself emotionally close to Aaron, the brother of Moses; he might have had a vision of precedence to such an act of justice, tied to Aaron’s life. Traditionally, the scholars of Hillel’s age saw the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea during the Exodus as punishment for a specific act – the drowning of the Jewish babies that were cast by them into the Nile. God might have killed them in other ways, but drowning served as a symbol for their crimes. The moral order of the world, dictating that he who lives by violence dies by violence, is beautifully expressed in both of these tales, told with such deceptive simplicity and covering many layers of thought and emotion.