Midrash Tanchuma presents a fascinating, detailed account of what the soul is shown before it is forced into the drop that will impregnate the woman. This includes a glimpse into the consequences of leading a moral and immoral life. Even where the body will die and be buried:
ַמ ְז ִהירוֹ ַה ָקּ ָבּ’ה.וּ ְמ ַטיֵּלאוֹתוֹ ַה ַמּ ְל ָאךְ ִמן ַהבֶֹּקרוְ ַעד ָה ֶעֶרב,וּ ַמְר ֶאהלוֹ ָמקוֹם ֶשׁהוּא ָע ִתיד ָלמוּתבּוֹוּ ָמקוֹם ֶשׁהוּא ָע ִתיד. .ְלִהָקֵּברבּוֹ,וְאַַחר ָכּךְמוִֹליכוֹוְּמַטיְּלוֹ ַעל ָכּל ָהעוָֹלםוַּמְרֶאהלוֹ ֶאת ַהַצִּדּיִקיםוְֶאת ָהְרָשִׁעים,וַּמְרֶאהלוֹ ַהכֹּל
“The Holy One, Blessed Be He, then warned (the soul) concerning everything that would transpire, and the angel leads it about from morning until evening. It is shown where it would die and where it would be buried. Then the angel leads it about and walks with it through the world, showing it the righteous and the wicked and everything else (it needs to learn).”
The Midrash also mentions the well known idea found in the Talmud (Niddah 30b) that the soul learns Torah in utero. Both the Torah and moral lessons are forgotten when the angel touches the baby on the lip prior to birth.
Why learn Torah we are forced to forget
Let’s examine some of the answers given for why we forget the Torah we learned in utero and see if it applies as to why the entire journey of the soul provided by the Midrash is forgotten as well.
The commentaries say that we had to forget the Torah we learned, otherwise it would interfere with our free will. That is certainly true of the moral lessons that the angel taught the soul. Furthemore, having learned Torah once makes it easier to learn it the second time, after we are born. The commentator, Be-er Ha-amarim, on Midrash Tanchuma adds that it would not even be possible to learn Torah had we not had this “head start” in utero. This could likewise be true when it comes to acquiring our sense of right from wrong.
Perhaps I am influenced by the current pandemic, it seems the great Sephardi luminary – The Ben Ish Chai – describes the Torah we have learned in utero as an immunization [not his words] against the Yetzer Hara (the evil inclination) that is about to become a reality of life outside the womb. Therefore, the stark lessons on morality that the soul experienced can be seen as an even more effective vaccine against all future manifestations of the Yetzer Hara.
A more exalted meaning of “returning to the womb.”
There is a psychological theory that throughout our lives we yearn for the safe environment of the womb where all our needs were taken care of. Perhaps the Talmud and Midrash add a new layer of meaning to this theory. Although the body may be yearning for to have our physical needs met, the soul yearns for an exalted spiritual state and the moral awareness it once had.