Teshuva

We all live with the illusion img_2745
we have the inalienable right to sin, and whenever we want, we can tell G-d, I’m sorry and I want you for forgive me. Is there ever a point we’ve gone too far and G-d says, No. Sorry. No forgiveness for you.

There are two people in Gemara where it implies, No, you can’t to teshuvah.

R’Eleazar b.Durdaya

The first is R’Eleazar b.Durdaya, if you can call him a rabbi, and his story is found in b.Avodah Zarah 17a. and y.Avodah Zarah 1:7. He’s noted as having been with every prostitute in the world. We can see this is an exaggeration, but it does express there is not a lack of trying. He hears about a certain prostitute who charges a whole bag of denarii for her services. Intrigued, he takes a bag of denarii and travels over seven rivers to be with her.

As he is with her, the story says she blew forth breath, which is a nice way to say she passed gas, and she said something very interesting: As this blown breath will not return to its place, so will R’Eleazar b.Durdaya never be received in repentance. He spends the rest of the short story trying to make teshuvah.

 

R’Elisha b’Avuyah

The second is a story found in b.Chagigah 14b-15a about a guy who is so notorious that for the most part, they never mention his name. R’Elisha b’Avuyah is his name, but he is consistently called Acher – the Other One. This literary device is similar to a famous seven-part book series that was made into eight movies, whose antagonist was He who must not be named.

The story begins with four who enter the Pardes[1]. The four men who enter are R’Shimon b’Azzai, R’Shimon b’Zoma, R’Elisha b’Avuyah[2], and R’Akiva b’Yosef. In the more mystical commentaries on Torah, it’s said these gentlemen were attempting to enter Gan Eden to create some sort of tikkun for the very first sin, which is related to eating from the etz hadat tov vera[3]. What happens? Adam and Chavah find themselves naked, they discover shame, they try to justify their sin through blame, and death[4] occurs. And now the whole world is affected by this confusion.

Prior to entering Pardes, R’Akiva provides some warnings, but in spite of these warnings, things do not go well:

  • R’Shimon b’Azzai, it says, dies almost immediately upon entering. The Talmud, in b.Berachos 57b, says young Azzai was a paragon of saintliness. He entered Pardes, saw the magnificence and sinlessness of Paradise and his soul leapt from his body and did not want to leave.
  • R’Shimon Ben Zoma became disconnected. His head was in the clouds and he never recovered. The story details Ben Zoma expounding on laws to demonstrate that he was one of the two most outstanding scholars of his generation[5].
  • Of Acher[6], it says he chopped down saplings in the Orchard.
  • R’Akiva, though, went in peace and emerged in peace.

No one was as smart or as talented as R’Elisha b’Avuyah – perhaps even more impressive than R’Akiva. We’re told that when he enters Pardes, he enters into Heaven, and everything goes wrong[7]. Of the four who enter, only R’Akiva was religiously balanced enough to not be negatively affected as were his companion. R’Elisha b’Avuyah rips out the trees of Gan Eden, which is a metaphor indicating he loses his faith. He sees Metatron[8] sitting and writing everyone’s good deeds[9].

Does this create a crisis or confirmation of faith? R’Elisha b’Avuyah sees the angel sitting and this freaks him out. Since he’s sitting, does this mean there are two Gods? Since there is nothing in the Gemara to justify this dualistic view, R’Avuyah already has a crisis of faith before he entered, and this mystical experience only compounds his issue.

Since R’Avuyah is affected by this scene, the angel is given 60 fiery lashes[10] and is instructed to tear out all the good deeds of R’Avuyah b’Avuyah, effectively leaving him without any merit. He hears a bat kol: shuvu banim shovavim[11] chutz meacher[12], and this is where the problems begin. He thinks, If I have no share in the world to come, I might as well enjoy life here, and he begins a life on the wild side. The Gemara indicates he engages in bad culture.

He (like R’Eleazar b.Durdaya from the first story) encounters a prostitute and he asks how much. She says, Aren’t you Elisha b’Avuyah? Aren’t you a famous rabbi? He rips out a radish from the ground on Shabbat[13] and she says Acher hu[14]. He spends the remainder of his life working against the Jewish people[15].

The gemara continues for a good length detailing his life and his relationship with his most famous student, Rebbe Meir[16]. Interestingly, Rebbe Meir never gives up on his teacher, even as R’Elisha b’Avuyah tries to convince him of dualism. Rebbe Meir successfully answers every query by his teacher, and with each success, Rebbe Meir says, “So you too, as a great Torah scholar, return to your earlier devotion.” R’Elisha b’Avuyah always replies, “It is of no use. I have already heard from behind the partition, ‘Return O wayward sons, except Acher.’

In one very important incident described in the story, Acher is riding a horse on the Shabbat and Rebbe Meir is walking behind to learn. “Meir you cannot go any further[17].” Again, Rebbe Meir says, Do teshuva, and he says, I can’t.

In earlier days they believed that what a kid was learning might be a prophesy. Therefore, Rebbe Meir grabs Acher and thrusts him into a Beit Midrash[18]. Acher asks a young boy standing outside, Recite your verse for me. School after school, the children each recite an ominous verse for Acher[19]. At the thirteenth schoolhouse, the kid stammered.

And to the wicked G-d says: “What have you to do to declare My statutes, and that you have taken My covenant in your mouth[20]?”

Instead of saying velarasha[21] the nervous student says vele’elisha[22].

At the end of his life, Acher was lying on his deathbed and Rebbe Meir came to visit him. Again, Meir took his hand and said, Return to your earlier devotion, again, he says he heard chutz meacher. What Rebbe Meir should have said is, Let me ask you a question. Even if Hashem will not accept it, do you think doing teshuva is the right thing to do, or is killing children the right thing to do? Is telling G-d, ‘I am so very sorry,’ the right thing to do, or is working with the Romans to demoralize the Jews the right thing to do? The bat kol may have said, ‘Return my mischievous children, not Acher,’ and this may be an invitation that excludes you, but who says you can’t make amends, even if it’s only with yourself?

One account of this story has Rebbe Meir asking once again while he’s sitting at Avuyah’s deathbed. Avuyah asked, “If I were to do teshuvah, would I be accepted?” A bitter tear fell from his eye as he ceased to breathe[23].

 

In spite of your errors, do teshuvah. Tell G-d you’re sorry. Take your rebellion and throw it into the depth of the sea[24]. Tell Him, “You said everyone can return except Acher, well here I am. Here’s my honest teshuvah. Now we have a big problem. And G-d is going to say, “We don’t have a problem whatsoever. Welcome home.”

 

[1] Pashat-Remez-Drash-Sod, the Orchard, Gan Eden, Heaven, Paradise

[2] aka Acher

[3] The tree of the knowledge of good and evil; it causes confusion between Tov (good) and Ra (evil)

[4] Removal from the divine presence, removal from the Garden

[5] b.Kiddushin 49b

[6] R’Elisha b’Avuyah

[7] Through this story, the Gemara is trying to stress that if you think some mystical endeavor or Kabbalah will solve your spiritual problems, the opposite will be true. You need to be well balanced before becoming involved in such ambition or study, otherwise your problems will only magnify. Most nowadays never reach this needed level of maturity.

[8] An angel of the greatest of authority.

[9] Here’s one of the books we read about in the Yom Kippur liturgy and in the book of Revelation.

[10] pulsei denura

[11] Heb. Come back my mischievous children

[12] Heb. not Acher

[13] This should have been a strong indication this was some who understood Torah

[14] Heb. this must be someone else

[15] Other examples of Acher’s deeds:

  • Acher used to walk into the yeshiva and if someone was succeeding, he would pull them out and given them trades to do instead.
  • The Romans made a decree Jews could not keep Shabbat. Elisha b’Avuyah was their advisor.
  • He used his Torah knowledge to help the Romans demoralize the Jewish people.
  • Acher believed in two powers and he saw one power as being greater than the other. One power was God and the greater power was the Romans.
  • Acher’s crisis of faith began with the destruction of the temple on 70 CE.

[16] This is not brought up in the story if you’re going to read it on your own to fill in the gaps I’ve left out, but according to tradition, Rebbe Meir is a convert, meaning he once was far off but now he’s close. Elisha b’Avuyah, on the other hand was once close but is now far off.

[17] This indicates Acher was concerned for Rebbe Meir’s observance of Torah

[18] Yeshiva, a school to learn Torah and Talmud

[19] At the yeshivot, some of the verses the children read were Isaiah 48:22, Jeremiah 2:22, Jeremiah 4:20

[20] Psalm 60:16

[21] and to the wicked

[22] and to Elisha

[23] At this point Rebbe Meir says, My Tzaddik made teshuvah.

[24] A connector to the tashlich service held in the afternoon of yom rishon shel Rosh Hashanah. [Tashlich is held the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah. It represents our sins being thrown into the deepest seas.]

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