A Scholar Gone Astray
And you shall return to the Almighty your God, and shall obey His voice according to all that I command you this day, you and your children, with all your heart, and with all your soul. (Devarim 30:2)
One of the axioms of Judaism is the belief in the possibility of spiritual rehabilitation. No matter how mired in sin, man can lift himself up and return to God.
The Talmud tells of one man who believed that he could not return; he felt that he had forfeited that option, that the opportunity was lost. His name was Elisha, and his father's name was Avuya - but don't go looking for him in the Talmud; he is not easily found.1 His name has been removed, consciously and purposefully expunged. He is known only as Acher - the "other", and his tale begins with a mystical journey gone awry.
Our Rabbis taught: Four men entered the 'Orchard', namely, Ben 'Azzai and Ben Zoma, Acher, and R. Akiva. R. Akiva said to them: When you arrive at the stones of pure marble, do not say 'water, water!' For it is said: He that speaks falsehood shall not be established before My eyes (Tehilim 101, 7). Ben 'Azzai cast a look and died. Of him Scripture says: Precious in the sight of God is the death of His hasidim (Tehilim 116, 15). Ben Zoma looked and became demented. Of him Scripture says: Have you found honey? Eat as much as is sufficient for you, lest you be filled, and vomit it (Mishlei 25, 16). Acher uprooted that which had been planted. R. Akiva (entered in peace and) departed in peace. (Talmud Bavli Chagigah 14b)
Four great scholars embarked on a magical mystical journey. One died, one lost his mind, the third - Acher lost his faith. Only one, Rabbi Akiva, returned unscathed. What caused this extreme response? The scant details in the Talmudic account of this journey may help us understand what happened: The four scholars entered what is called Pardes, a word literally translated as "orchard" but interpreted here by the commentaries as "Paradise" - the Garden of Eden.2 These same commentaries debate whether this was a physical journey or one which transpired only in the psyche of the travelers; either way, the revelation was real: They glimpsed a higher world.3
One would assume that if any human being, all the more so a Torah sage of the caliber of these four, merited a glance of this higher world, of Heaven, of Paradise, the experience would be elevating, confirming. This would seem to be the experience of Rabbi Akiva.4 We may even venture to say that Ben Azzai and Ben Zoma did not necessarily have negative experiences in the Pardes: Ben Azzai departed this world because he attained a higher form of existence,5 and Ben Zoma reached such an elevated level of consciousness that he was no longer a "normal" man. He was incapable of assimilating this experience into normal human existence. As for Elisha/Acher, something went terribly wrong. What could have led to such a drastic about-face? What could have brought him to apostasy? The Talmud described his reaction as "kitzetz bneti'ot" (uprooted that which had been planted): Perhaps as an extension of the metaphor of the Pardes/Orchard, he is described as having cut down the saplings. He uprooted or defaced the new trees growing in the orchard; he attacked and destroyed the foundations. Rather than enlightenment, he embraced heresy.
What happened? The Talmud elaborates:
Acher mutilated the shoots. Of him Scripture says: (Kohelet 5:5) "Do not allow your mouth to cause your flesh to sin; [and do not say, before the angel, that it was an error; why should God be angry at your voice, and destroy the work of your hands?"]6 What does it refer to? - He saw that permission was granted to Metatron7 to sit and write down the merits of Israel. Said he: 'It is taught as a tradition that on high there is no sitting and no emulation, and no back, and no weariness. Perhaps, - God forbid!8 - there are two divinities!' [Thereupon] they led Metatron forth, and punished him with sixty fiery lashes, saying to him: 'Why did you not rise before him when you saw him?' Permission was [then] given to him to strike out the merits of Acher. A Bat Kol (Heavenly Voice) went forth and said: ' "Return, my mischievous children" (Yirmiyahu 3, 22.) - all but Acher.' (Talmud Bavli Chagigah 15a)
This passage is remarkable: Acher was on a sufficiently high spiritual level to ascend to Paradise, to witness the Heavenly Court at work, to see firsthand that every human action is, indeed, recorded - and yet he blasphemes! Surely, almost anyone else who saw what Acher was privileged to see would have immediately and unshakably confirmed his faith and clinched his fidelity to God. But somehow Acher's twisted, troubled mind saw scandal and not justice, he saw weakness and not strength. His conclusion is belief in dualism, though it is not easy for us to see how he drew this conclusion. Presumably, when he saw Metatron sitting down, he interpreted it as a sign of fatigue, and assumed that there must be another power capable of sapping the angel's strength. This conclusion seems preposterous to us, and forces us to conclude that before Acher entered the Pardes he already held this position; he embarked on his mystical quest seeking confirmation, no matter how contrived, of his own twisted beliefs.
Entering heaven can be dangerous; making a mistake, speaking falsehood9 in heaven proves spiritually debilitating. The angel who is in charge of recording the deeds of Israel is too formidable a foe. All of Elisha's deeds are ripped out of the book - this is the meaning of the verse "Do not allow your mouth to cause your flesh to sin; and do not say, before the angel, that it was an error; why should God be angry at your voice, and destroy the work of your hands?" (Kohelet, Chapter 5:5). The works of Elisha's hands, his good deeds and his scholarship, are expunged; his visit to the Pardes comes to an end as a voice reverberates from the heart of heaven which seems to seal his fate: "Return, my mischievous children - all except Acher." The window of opportunity for rehabilitation has closed. From heaven, God lovingly calls out to all sinners, His 'mischievous children', to return, to come home. But not Acher; he alone is cast out. The loving Divine Voice excludes the Tanna who has gone astray.10
Elisha is erased; Acher - literally an "other", a sinister being whose very name is not to be uttered, takes his place. And as his good deeds are dissipating like a cloud on the horizon, as the door of teshuva closes, Acher weighs his next step. He chooses to take a walk on the wild side:
[Thereupon] he said: Since I have been driven forth from that other world, let me go forth and enjoy this world. So Acher pursued evil ways. He went forth, found a harlot and demanded her (services). She said to him: Are you not Elisha ben Avuyah? [But] when he uprooted a radish from of its bed on Shabbat and gave it to her, she said: 'It is another [Acher].'
His conclusion is astonishing: He knows with certainty that there is a God; he has seen, with his own eyes, that there is a World to Come, and that all human actions are recorded for a final reckoning of reward and punishment. He also knows that he will not be permitted to repent, so he makes his calculations and embraces sin, pursues evil. He chooses to side with that other power, the power that pulls him toward the abyss. He seeks comfort in the arms of a wayward woman, and it is she who dubs him Acher.11
But the story does not end there. The Talmud tells us that Elisha ben Avuyah's greatest student, Rabbi Meir, does not abandon him. Ironically, Rabbi Meir's family has made their own journey: his father was born a non-Jew,12 a pagan, and he made his way to Judaism. Now his son's teacher takes a journey in the opposite direction. Remarkably, even after Acher abandons the path of Torah, Rabbi Meir clings to him. The Talmud records their conversations, which are peppered with debates on theological issues. Acher apparently tried to lead Rabbi Meir toward a belief in dualism by posing provocative, leading questions he thought would support his opinion:
After his apostasy, Acher asked R. Meir [a question], saying to him: What is the meaning of the verse: God has made even the one as well as the other? Kohelet 7, 14. He replied: It means that for everything that God created He created [also] its counterpart. He created mountains, and created hills; He created seas, and created rivers. Said [Acher] to him: R. Akiva, your master, did not explain it thus, but [as follows]: He created the righteous, and created the wicked; He created the Garden of Eden, and created Gehinnom. Everyone has two portions, one in the Garden of Eden and one in Gehinnom. The righteous man, being meritorious, takes his own portion and his fellow's portion in the Garden of Eden. The wicked man, being guilty, takes his own portion and his fellow's portion in Gehinnom. R. Mesharsheya said: What is the Biblical proof for this? In the case of the righteous, it is written: Therefore in their land they shall possess double. Yeshayahu 61, 7. In the case of the wicked it is written: And destroy them with double destruction. Yirmiyahu 17, 18. After his apostasy, Acher asked R. Meir: What is the meaning of the verse: Gold and glass cannot equal it; neither shall the exchange thereof be vessels of fine gold? Iyov28, 17. He answered: These are the words of the Torah, which are hard to acquire like vessels of fine gold, but are easily destroyed like vessels of glass. Said [Acher] to him: R. Akiva, your master, did not explain thus, but [as follows]: Just as vessels of gold and vessels of glass, though they be broken, have a remedy, even so a scholar, though he has sinned, has a remedy. [Thereupon, R. Meir] said to him: Then, you, too, repent! He replied: 'I have already heard from behind the Veil: Return you mischievous children - all except Acher.'
NO WAY HOME
Acher is brilliant, and not easily swayed.13 Entrenched in his position, he does not budge. But he is not only brilliant, he has a wonderful excuse: God does not want him back. He has heard a Heavenly Voice; he, who has seen heaven with his own eyes and heard a voice from heaven speak directly to him, feels the path back to heaven is forever closed. Rabbi Meir does not concur; he waits, looking for an opening to cajole and bring back his wayward teacher.14
Our Rabbis taught: Once Acher was riding on a horse on the Shabbat, and R. Meir was walking behind him to learn Torah from him. Said [Acher] to him: Meir, turn back, for I have already measured by the paces of my horse that thus far extends the Shabbat limit.15 He replied: You, too, go back! [Acher] answered: Have I not already told you that I have already heard from behind the Veil: 'Return ye mischievous children' - all except Acher.
Acher's excuse of "hearing voices" is not easily countered, but Rabbi Meir apparently does not believe this edict. He looks for another way to gain insight into the judgment of Heaven, for Rabbi Meir believes Heaven always leaves room for return. He continues to look for a sign, an understanding, an open window that will allow his teacher to regain his "place at the table." He turns to an "oracle" of sorts, travelling with his teacher from one study hall to then next, seeking the spark of divine spirit possessed by pure, innocent children engrossed in Torah learning:
[R. Meir] grabbed him and took him, to a schoolhouse. [Acher] said to a child: Recite for me thy verse![The child] answered: 'There is no peace, said the Almighty, unto the wicked' (Yishaiyahu 48:22). He then took him to another schoolhouse. [Acher] said to a child: Recite for me thy verse! He answered: 'For though you wash yourself with nitre, and take much soap, yet your iniquity is marked before Me, said the Almighty God (Yirmiyah 2:22). He took him to yet another schoolhouse, and [Acher] said (Talmud - Chagigah 15b) to a child: Recite for me thy verse! He answered: 'And you, that are spoiled, what do you, that you clothe yourself with scarlet, that you bedeck yourself with ornaments of gold, that you enlarge your eyes with paint? In vain do you make yourself fair… (Yirmiyahu 4:30). He took him to yet another schoolhouse until he took him to thirteen schools; all of them quoted in similar vein. When he said to the last one, 'Recite for my thy verse,' he answered: But unto the wicked God said: 'What have you to do to declare My statutes?( Tehilim 50:16). That child was a stutterer, so it sounded as though he answered: 'But to Elisha God said'. Some say that [Acher] had a knife with him, and he cut him up and sent him to the thirteen schools; and some say that he said: 'Had I a knife in my hand I would have cut him up.'
One after the other, the children deliver a disturbing, even ominous message of despair to Acher: his soul is sullied and cannot be cleansed. Acher, tormented by his own demons, vents his anger on the innocent. Had he merely threatened violence and abused the child verbally, the narrative would be upsetting, and our estimation of Acher greatly reduced. But the Talmud considers the possibility that Acher actually murdered the thirteenth child and sent his remains to the others as some type of ominous warning of his own.
THE ENEMY WITHIN
So many questions arise: How could this have happened? Why didn't someone stop him? How could he possibly get away with such violence? In a parallel source in The Jerusalem Talmud that tells the story of Acher, more details are shared, more background revealed. While the version of Acher's story in the Talmud Bavli contains a great deal of theological material, with the crucial scene being played out in heaven, the Jerusalem Talmud's approach is more historical, focusing on events which transpired here on earth. Despite some minor divergences, the two stories can be merged to create one complete picture.
The Jerusalem Talmud asks, "Who was Acher?" The answer is straightforward and shocking: "Elisha the son of Avuya who murdered teachers of Torah." Successful students had their lives cut short by Acher's maniacal attack on all that was holy; this is the Yerushalmi's explanation of "kitzetz bneti'ot" cutting down the "young plants". He entered the study-hall, surely flanked by Roman thugs, and uprooted the students - killing some, directing others to more "worthwhile" professions.
But this is not all, according to the Jerusalem Talmud: Acher joined the Romans, and used his Torah knowledge to insure that the Jews would publicly desecrate the Shabbat. When the Jews found a loophole in the law, he taught the loophole to the hated Romans, so they could erase Jewish identity and squash all hope of religious survival. It would come as no surprise to us to learn that the infamous Roman decree forbidding Sabbath observance was the work of Acher, the former Torah scholar. Elisha ben Avuya's was the ultimate fall: from Rabbi to executioner; from a teacher of great Torah scholars in their search for holiness, to teaching pagans who sought to extinguish holiness. The transformation of Elisha to Acher is complete.
The only question that remains is, can he return? Can he rekindle his relationship with God? Is teshuva a viable option for the rabbi who became a vile, ruthless criminal, the architect of the destruction of Judaism? Acher believes the answer is "no". His former protege, Rabbi Meir, thinks the answer is "yes". Heaven seems to side with Acher - at least in this argument.
R. Meir was sitting and expounding in the House of Study of Tiberias, when his teacher, Elisha, passed in the street, riding a horse on the Sabbath. It was told to R. Meir, 'Behold, Elisha, your teacher, is passing [riding a horse] on the Sabbath.' He went out to him, and Elisha asked, 'What was (the topic of) your sermon today?' He answered him, 'The verse, "So God blessed the latter end of Iyov more than his beginning (Iyov 42,12).' [' How did you explain it? ' he asked,] and he told him, '"Blessed" means that He doubled his wealth.' Elisha said to him, 'Your teacher Akiva did not explain it thus; but "So God blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning" means that He blessed him for the merit of the repentance and good deeds which were his from his beginning.'
It must have been humiliating for Rabbi Meir to be told that his teacher is desecrating Shabbat, riding by on a horse - the favored mode of transportation of the ruling Romans. Acher, in the role of an aristocratic Roman, tramples upon the holy Shabbat. Rabbi Meir closes his book and seeks out his teacher, and he engages him in a discussion of the Book of Iyov and its examination of theodicy: "Why do bad things happen to good people?" Rabbi Meir hopes to drive home the idea that the end of Iyov's life-story brings him full circle, and Iyov reaps the rewards of his righteousness; In the end, Iyov is blessed with more than what he lost, as if to say, 'all's well that ends well'. 16 This message must have been particularly poignant , coming from Rabbi Meir, who had known more than a fair share of suffering:17 He lost two sons,18 and his other teacher was martyred.19
Rabbi Meir did not choose a topic of conversation with Acher lightly; he directed their exchange toward the lesson he felt Acher needed to review.
R. Meir asked, And how do you explain, 'Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof'? He inquired, 'What have you to say on it?' He replied, 'You have, for example, the man who acquires a stock of goods in his youth and loses money on it, but in his old age he makes a profit out of it. Another illustration of 'Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof': You have a man who begets children in his youth and they die; he begets children in his old age and they survive. Another illustration of 'Better is the end, etc.': You have a man who commits evil deeds in his youth but in his old age performs good deeds. Another illustration of 'Better is the end, etc.': You have the man who learns Torah in his youth and forgets it, but in his old age he returns to it; that is an instance of 'Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof'. Elisha said to him, 'Not so did your teacher Akiva explain it; but his interpretation was: Good is the end of a thing when it is good from its beginning.20
Elisha/Acher claims that something can only be good in the end if it was good in the beginning, a deterministic position generally opposed by the Jewish idea of Free Will. In fact, the status and scholarship achieved by Elisha's adversary, Rabbi Akiva,21 whose humble origins are well-known, are a prime example of Judaism's rejection of Acher's thesis, as is the life of Rabbi Meir himself, whose father converted from paganism to Judaism. Yet Acher remains unconvinced; he explains why he was doomed to failure from the outset.
So it happened with my father, Avuyah, who was one of the great men of Jerusalem. On the day of my circumcision, he invited all the eminent men of Jerusalem to sit in one room, and R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua sat separately, in one room. After the assembled dignitaries had eaten and drunk, some recited songs and others alphabetical acrostics. R. Eliezer said to R. Yehoshua, 'They are occupied with what interests them, so shall we not occupy ourselves with what interests us?' They began with subjects connected with the Torah, then with the Prophets, and after that with the Scriptures. The words were as joyful as when they were given from Sinai and fire surrounded them; for were they not originally delivered from Sinai with fire, as it is said, 'The mountain burned with fire unto the heart of heaven (Devarim 4:11)? My father thereupon remarked, "Since the might of the Torah is so great, should this child survive I will dedicate him to the Torah." Because his intention was not for the Name of Heaven, my study of the Torah did not endure with me.
Elisha recounts the reason and circumstances in which his father, a wealthy and influential man, decided to dedicate his newborn son to a life of Torah scholarship: It was for the power. He saw a power in Torah which had previously eluded him. Attracted by this power, he sends his son to study. Acher feels that because of these tainted origins, his study was destined to fail.22
They continue the conversation; Acher rides on his horse on Shabbat, and Rabbi Meir follows by foot:
What do you say is the meaning of the verse, 'Gold and glass cannot equal it (Iyov 28:17)' - what have you to say on it?' R. Meir answered, 'These are the words of the Torah which are as difficult to acquire as vessels of gold and glass.' He said to him, 'Not so did your teacher Akiva explain it; but his interpretation was: as vessels of gold and glass can be repaired if broken, so can a disciple of the Sages recover his learning if he has lost it.'
Elisha then remarked, 'Turn back.' 'Why?,' R. Meir asked. 'Because this is the Sabbath limit.' 'How do you know?' 'By the hoofs of my horse [which tell me that he] has already gone two thousand cubits.' R. Meir exclaimed, 'You possess all this wisdom and yet you do not repent.' He replied, 'I am unable.' 'Why?' He said to him, ' I was once on my horse riding past the Temple on the Day of Atonement which occurred on the Sabbath, and I heard a Bat Kol crying out, " Return, my mischievous children (Yirmiyahu 3, 22), Return unto Me, and I will return unto you (Malachi 3:7), - with the exception of Elisha ben Avuyah, who knows My power and yet rebelled against Me!" 'How did this happen to him? He once saw a man climb to the top of a palm-tree on the Sabbath, take the mother-bird with the young, and descend in safety. At the termination of the Sabbath he saw a man climb to the top of a palm-tree and take the young but let the mother bird go free, and as he descended a snake bit him and he died. Elisha exclaimed, 'It is written, "Send away the mother bird, but the young you may take for yourself; that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days (Devarim 22, 7)." Where is the well-being of this man, and where is the prolonging of his days!' He was unaware how R. Akiva explained it, 'That it may be well with you in the World [to Come] which is wholly good,' And that you may prolong your days' in the world which is unending. Some say that it was because he saw the tongue of R. Yehudah the baker in the mouth of a dog and exclaimed, 'If it happened so with a tongue which labored in the Torah all its days, how much more so will it be with a tongue which does not know nor labor in the Torah!' He went on to say, 'If this is so, there is no reward for the righteous nor is there a resurrection of the dead.' Still others say that it happened because when his mother was pregnant with him, she passed by idolatrous temples and smelled [the offerings]. They gave her some of that kind [of food] and she ate it, and it burned in her stomach like the venom of a serpent [and affected him].
Elisha cannot completely divorce himself from Judaism, from the dialectic of learning. He seems aware of the power of God and Torah; rather than reject this power, he calls himself a dualist, for he sees and values two distinct powers. He enjoys the banter with Rabbi Meir, but only up to a point. When Rabbi Meir turns the tables on him, makes demands or raises expectations, it becomes uncomfortable and Acher rides on. When Rabbi Meir broaches the topic of repentance, of the ability to fix that which was broken, he is told to go back.
The version of their discussion recorded in the Talmud Bavli focused on a philosophical exegesis of the verse regarding vessels of gold and glass; the version of their discussion recorded in the Jerusalem Talmud adds the dimension of a living, breathing, real-life encounter. Two men are travelling together on Shabbbat, discussing a critical point of faith; the apostate teacher, in a symbolic gesture, "coincidentally" notices that they have reached the permitted boundaries for Shabbat travel - at precisely the moment Rabbi Meir has asked him to return, to come home, to abandon his horse, his Roman clothes, his new- found friends and the prestige they have bestowed upon him. Acher protests; he cannot return, for his fate is sealed. He has heard a Heavenly Voice denying him the ability to return. In this version of the story, the voice emanates from the remains of the shattered walls of the Temple in Jerusalem.
What brought him there? Are we to believe that he "happened" to be riding, and he "happened" to arrive at the holiest place for Jews, on the holiest day of the year? His journey has purpose, the day on which it occurs is significant, and there is meaning to the location.
Elisha/Acher was raised to embrace Torah because of its power, but that power seems to have vanished. Shattered, burned ruins replace the glory of the Jewish people - the House of God. Acher looks at the ruined Beit Hamikdash, and concludes that there is another power, something even greater, which destroyed the Temple. He embraces that power, and seeks to align himself with the Romans who now seem more powerful than the Jews. Is this not the lesson that his father always wanted him to learn - to follow the power, to align himself with the most powerful force he could find? When he sees the martyrdom of the great Torah sages, he aligns himself with the executioner; he chooses 'ruthless murderer' over 'rabbi'. Rabbi Meir read Acher's inner thoughts accurately: It was, indeed, the problem of theodicy, "why bad things happen to good people," that led Acher into the embrace of the evil Roman Empire, the epicenter of the most glorious power mankind had ever known. Elisha cannot reconcile an all-powerful God with the martyrdom of the scholars, the exile of the Jewish People, the destruction of the Kingdom of God on earth. He turns away, to the polar opposite, in search of that greater power that he believes has overcome the God of Torah.
Acher's words display a great deal of anger. He seems to lament the years he "wasted" on Torah study, and he tries to "save" others from a life of holiness and Torah study. It is his anger which leads him to the place where the Temple once stood, to what is, in his eyes, a sign of the diminished power of Judaism and the glory of the Romans. But he does not deny the existence of God or His involvement in human history: he himself tells Rabbi Meir that from the ruins of the Beit HaMikdash a voice rang out, calling on every Jew to return to God - with one exception. Elisha ben Avuya cannot return. His estrangement is irrevocable.23
Why is Elisha/Acher the exception to the concept of teshuva? Admittedly, his deeds were particularly dastardly; his repentance would require more than a simple gesture. Why does Heaven bother with the fallen Rabbi, going as far as a personal communication, to tell him that his teshuva will not be accepted? Moreover, if Elisha/Acher has not rejected his belief in the truth of God and the message he receives, why does he care what the Bat Kol says? If Judaism is true, if the Torah is divine, why is he so concerned what the results of his teshuva will be? Would it not be sufficient to take the path of truth, to console himself with the knowledge that he can spend the rest of his life acquiring truth, gaining understanding? I have often wondered why Rabbi Meir did not counsel his teacher - "You do your part, return to God and a life of Torah, and let God worry about the rest." 24 Herein lies the crux of Acher's sin: Acher's transgressions were certainly numerous, his actions heinous, but they all shared a common core: Above all else, Elisha/Acher was a pragmatist. He was fully aware that his entr?e to a life of Torah was born of an attraction to the glory and power of Torah; his dedication to that life, to that truth, was lost when he saw something more powerful. His allegiance was, and always had been, a matter of pragmatism. It was this same pragmatism that led him down the path of decadence, for only a person motivated solely by pragmatism can say, "If I have lost my share in the next world, I may as well enjoy this one". A man who seeks holiness and truth would not have drawn the same conclusion.25
Had the Heavenly Voice warmly welcomed Elisha home, his pragmatism may have led him in that direction, but such repentance would have been imperfect. Instead, God tells him that he is not welcome, putting him in position to do the right thing - perhaps, for the first time in his life, to do the right thing for the right reason: not "what's in it for me", but because it is right.
There are no exceptions to teshuva. We - all of us, each and every one of us, can repent, at any time.26 The teshuva of any individual is as unique as the person who must perform it. A man like Elisha Ben Avuya, who was so gifted, so brilliant, and had the best education, also had great responsibilities. His fall was profound; therefore the teshuva necessary in his case was extraordinary. What is instructive is that God did not call him to return; in a sense, Acher lost the sya'ata d'shmaya, 27 the help from Heaven that tugs at the heart of the sinner and awakens him to repentance.28 But God did not abandon him altogether: God did engage Acher in dialogue, even if to say "you cannot return".29 God wanted even the teshuva of Acher, but true teshuva, not a perfunctory repentance. What God wanted from Elisha/Acher was repentance that would go to the very core of his existence, and jar him to the point of transformation. The core of his sin was pragmatism; therefore God led him on a path of complete rehabilitation; He removed any possible cost-benefit calculation that would have flawed Acher's teshuva, by saying "Return, my mischievous children - except Acher," and removing any hope of reward from the equation. Had Elisha repented, he would surely have been accepted. Had he rejected pragmatism and the power of Rome, and chosen instead closeness to God, to truth and to morality - even though he was forewarned that the closeness to God would not be reciprocated - he would, in effect, have embraced decency with no promise of reward, with nothing to "gain" beyond truth itself. Had he chosen this path, he would surely have been embraced by the Shechina.
In fact, the Jerusalem Talmud intimates that, on his deathbed, Acher expressed remorse:
Some time later Elisha b. Avuyah became ill, and it was told to R. Meir that he was sick. He went to visit him and said, 'Repent.' He asked, 'Having gone so far will I be accepted?' R. Meir replied, 'Is it not written, 'You turn man to contrition (Tehilim 90, 3), up to the time that life is crushed out [the penitent is accepted]?' Then Elisha ben Avuyah wept and died. R. Meir rejoiced in his heart, saying, 'My master seems to have departed in repentance.'
While we need not play the role of "God's accountant" and concern ourselves with the judgment that awaited that tortured soul in the World to Come, we may learn a tremendous lesson from this passage in any case: Elisha ben Avuyah shed a tear of regret with his dying breath. Even at the last moment of life, anyone - no matter how far they have gone, no matter how heinous their crimes, no matter how long they have turned their back on God, on truth, on teshuva - can repent. When it comes to teshuva, there are no exceptions; all are welcome home. Some are invited through the front door, while others, like Elisha ben Avuyah, may need to "sneak" in, but there are no exceptions.30
1. In the Mishna, one teaching is cited in his name: Avot 4:20. The fact that the Mishna was edited by his student Rabbi Meir may account for his inclusion in Avot, together with the other great sages. The only teaching in the Gemara which remains in his name is found in Moed Katan 20a, yet some claim it was another rabbi with the same name and not the nefarious Acher. See notes of Rav Yaakov Emden to Moed Katan 20a.
2. See comments of Rabbenu Chananel on the passage in Chagiga 14b; also see Rashi's comments on this passage, and the version of Rashi's comments in the Ein Yakov.
3. See comments of Rashi and Tosafot.
4. According to the Maharsha, Rabbi Akiva knew when to stop; the others went too far.
5. See Rashi, Talmud Bavli 14b, and the Maharsha.
6. As in many instances in Talmudic literature, the sages quote only the first part of a verse/prooftext, in a sort of shorthand. The section of the verse that is most critical to the discussion is actually the second part of the verse, which not explicitly recorded in the Talmud, rather than the first half of the verse which is cited.
7. According to tradition, Metatron was once a human named Chanoch who was elevated to the status of angel, and became the Great Scribe of the Heavenly Court. See Targum Yonatan Bereishit 5:24. For more information regarding the identity of this angel see Mal'achei Elyon by Reuven Margoliot, Mossad Harav Kook, page 73ff.
8. I assume that Acher himself did not say "God forbid"; this is most likely an editorial comment inserted by the redactor of the Talmud, who would not, could not, repeat such words of heresy.
9. This may have been the meaning of Rabbi Akiva's cryptic warning: "R. Akiva said to them: When you arrive at the stones of pure marble, do not say, 'water, water!' For it is said: He that speaks falsehood shall not be established before my eyes.(Tehilim 101:7.)" Rabbi Akiva warns them against superficiality ; seeing the gleam of the marble and thinking it is water means that one sees the surface and assumes they know what lies below. The mystical path is fraught with danger, and the greatest danger of all is one's own superficiality. Mystical experience will not solve one's crises in faith, perhaps only heighten it.
10. In a sense this should provide an answer to our question: God indeed calls to and invites all sinners to repent, which should teach us that teshuva is available to all sinners. Why Elisha is an exception will be dealt with below. I have previously written about another notorious sinner and his path back to God. See "Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordaya: A Story of Teshuva". http://www.aish.com/tp/i/moha/48922222.html.
11. It is Elisha Ben Avuyah himself who opines that if a Torah scholar goes astray with a forbidden woman, the desecration of God's name is even more profound. See Midrash Mishlei, Parsha 6.
12. See Introduction of the Rambam to the Mishna Torah, and Gittin 56a: He [the Emperor] sent against them Nero the Caesar. As he was coming he shot an arrow towards the east, and it fell in Jerusalem. He then shot one towards the west, and it again fell in Jerusalem. He shot towards all four points of the compass, and each time it fell in Jerusalem. He said to a certain boy: Repeat to me [the last] verse of Scripture you have learnt. He said: And I will lay my vengeance upon Edom by the hand of my people Israel. He said: The Holy One, blessed be He, desires to lay waste his House and to lay the blame on me. So he ran away and became a proselyte, and R. Meir was descended from him.
13. See the description of his brilliance recorded in Midrash Rabbah Rut Parsha 6 (Lerner edition).
14. There are those who quote the Baal Shem Tov as asserting that this Bat Kol was a lie, a figment of the imagination of Acher.
15. Based almost exclusively on this line, Milton Steinberg paints Elisha/Acher with a sympathetic brush in his popular As a Driven Leaf. Unfortunately, Steinberg ignores all the passages that counter his sympathetic portrayal, and the uninformed reader is left with a skewed impression of a sinister individual.
16. There is an opinion expressed in the Talmud that the Book of Iyov not a historical book, rather the entire book should be read as a parable. Iyov, a righteous man, can regain his health and his wealth, rebuild his family with newly-born children and be consoled for those he has lost. In real life the loss of a child is surely the cause of much pain - even if new children are subsequently born. Talmud Bavli Baba Batra 15a: A certain Rabbi was sitting before R. Samuel b. Nahmani and in the course of his expositions remarked, 'Iyov never was and never existed, but is only a parable.
17. Eventually, the Roman inquisitors came for Rabbi Meir himself. See Kohelet Raba 7:19: R. Meir was being sought by the [Roman] Government. He fled and passed by the store of some Romans. He found them sitting and eating swine's flesh. When they saw him they said, 'Is it he or not? Since it may be he, let us call him over to us; if he comes and eats with us [it cannot be he].' He dipped one of his fingers in the swine's blood and placed another finger in his mouth, dipping one finger and sucking the other. They said one to the other, ' If he were R. Meir, he would not have done so. They let him go and he fled. The text was therefore applied to him, 'THE advantage of knowledge is, that wisdom preserves the life of he that possesses it.'
18. See Midrash Mishle chapter 31: Rabbi Meir sat learning Torah on a Shabbat afternoon in the House of Study. While he was there, his two sons died. What did their mother, Beruria, do? She laid them upon the bed and spread a linen cloth over them. At the end of Shabbat, Rabbi Meir came home and asked her, 'Where are my sons?" She replied, 'They went to the House of Study." He said, "I did not see them there." She gave him the havdalah cup and he said the blessing for havdalah. Then he asked again, 'Where are my sons?" She said, 'They went to another place and they are coming." Then she gave him food to eat, and he ate and said the blessing. Then she said, "I have a question to ask you." He said, "Ask it." She said, "Early today a man came here and gave me something to keep for him, but now he has returned to ask for it back. Shall we return it to him or not?" He replied, "He who has received something on deposit must surely return it to its owner." She replied, "Without your knowledge, I would not return it." Then she took him by the hand, brought him to the bed, and took away the cloth and he saw his sons lying dead upon the bed. Then he began to weep and said about each, "Oh my son, my son; oh my teacher, my teacher. They were my sons, as all would say, but they were my teachers because they gave light to their father's face through their knowledge of the Torah." Then his wife said to him, "Did you not say to me that one must return a deposit to its owner? Does it not say, "The Lord gave, the Lord took, blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21 )?
19. Rabbi Meir was also a student of Rabbi Akiva; we can only guess if Acher had a hand in Rabbi Akiva's death as well. See Brachot 61b.
20. This dovetails with the sole teaching quoted in the name of Elisha Ben Avuyah in the Mishna: Chapters of the Fathers 4:20: Elisha b. Avuyah said: he who learns [when] a child, unto what is he [to be] compared? - unto ink written upon a new writing sheet; and he who learns [when] an old man, unto what is he like? - unto ink written on a rubbed writing sheet.
21. See Talmud Bavli Brachot 27b, Pesachim 49b, Kethuboth 62b. Brachot 27b: We can hardly appoint R. Akiva because perhaps Rabban Gamaliel will bring a curse on him because he has no ancestral merit. Pesachim 49b: It was taught, R. Akiva said: When I was an 'am ha-arez I said: I would that I had a scholar [before me], and I would maul him like a donkey. Said his disciples to him,' Rabbi, say like a dog!' 'The former bites and breaks the bones, while the latter bites but does not break the bones,' he answered them. Ketuboth 62b: R. Akiva was a shepherd of Ben Kalba Sabua. The latter's daughter, seeing how modest and noble [the shepherd] was, said to him, 'Were I to be betrothed to you, would you go away to [study at] an academy?'
22. The Talmud in other places opposes this approach and says, 'Let a person start for less-than stellar reasons, and eventually they will serve God for the correct reason.' See Pesachim 50b. Moreover, the rabbis value his learning, though performed for the wrong intentions, and later treat his children favorably in the merit of his learning, despite the atrocities he committed. See Midrash Rabbah Rut Parsha 6 (Lerner edition).
23. Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik says that Acher misunderstood the voice: Acher could not return, but Elisha could. See "The Rav Speaks," page 193 ff.
24. The Shl"a HaKadosh suggests that had Acher really repented, his Teshuva would have been accepted. This idea is echoed by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. See Kedushat Levi, commentary to Pirkie Avot Chapter 2.
25. The Tiferet Shlomo, Moadim-Rrimzei Purim, reports that his teacher, the Maggid of Mezritch, once prayed so much for a sick person, that he was told from Heaven that he had gone too far and had forfeited his share in the World to Come. Despite his initial shock, he immediately consoled himself and said - "Now I can really pray, with no holds barred". Likewise, the Maggid said, Acher should conducted himself: he had the unique opportunity to serve God with absolutely nothing to gain, which is the purest form of devotion. Of course, the pragmatic Acher would have found the suggestion repulsive. A similar idea is taught in the name of the Baal Shem Tov; see Kol Mevaser volume 2 Chagiga.
26. The Mishna says that if a person sins anticipating that they will repent, or anticipating that Yom Kippur will cleanse them, it will not work: In his commentary to Mishna Yoma 8:9, the Rambam explains that this means that God will not help him on that day to do what he needs to do to repent, but repentance is always available. If one says: I shall sin and repent, sin and repent, no opportunity will be given to him to repent. [If one says]: I shall sin and the Day of Atonement will procure atonement for me, the Day of Atonement procures for him no atonement. Mishna Talmud Bavli Yoma 85b.
27. See the Rambam cited in the previous note.
28. See Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, Kedushat Levi Parshat Ki Tavo.
29. See Rav Yehosha Heschel of Apta, in Ohev Yisrael, who made a similar observation.
30. Rav Zaddok Hakohen of Lublin, in Liqutei Amarim section 16, quotes the ruling "One must obey the master of the house in all regards - except when he says "leave" (Talmud Bavli Pesachim 86b) in this regard: We must obey God's commandments at all times, except when he says, as he did to Acher, not to repent.