Rabbi YY Jacobson: The SHOCKING Secret of the Greatest Jewish Heretic Elisha ben Avuya


Women’s Class Pirkei Avos – Chapter 4 | Elisha ben Avuya Traumatized His People—But When He Died, the Truth Came Out
For Source Sheets: https://www.theyeshiva.net/jewish/8982

This class was presented on Tuesday, Parshas Emor, 11 Iyar, 5783, May 2, 2023, at Bais Medrash Ohr Chaim in Monsey, NY.

In the fourth chapter of the Ethics of the Fathers, we read the following Mishna: Elisha the son of Avuya said: One who studies Torah as a child, to what is he compared? To ink written on fresh paper. And one who studies Torah as an old man, to what is he compared? To ink inscribed on erased paper.

There are a few questions on this Mishnah. First, what’s the novelty? This is self-evident. Second, I can understand encouraging parents to teach Torah to their children when they are young and their minds are fertile. But what’s the point of the final clause in the Mishnah? If I am an elderly man or woman, and I never had the opportunity to study Torah, why would the Mishnah try to discourage me and make me give up before I even begin?!

Finally, there is something else amiss here. Of the more than one thousand Rabbis cited in the Talmud, only one became a heretic. His name was Elisha ben Avuya.  Due to this tragedy, his ideas and teachings are never quoted in the Mishnah. Save in this Mishnah. What happened suddenly? Why did this Mishnah decide to quote him? And why was this particular idea the one chosen to be conveyed to all generations in his name?

He was, by all accounts, one of the outstanding Jewish sages of the second century, a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva, and the teacher of Rabbi Meir, the leading scholar of his generation. Elisha moved so far from Jewish tradition that his colleagues stopped referring to him by his name but rather called him Acher, “the other”, the outcast, the renegade. Only his student Rabbi Meir remained loyal to the man who had once been his master, sought out his company, and still believed that he might one day repent.

Against this backdrop, we find a deeply moving scene in the Talmud. It is Shabbat, and Elisha ben Abuya is publicly desecrating the holy day by riding on a horse. Walking alongside him is Rabbi Meir. Heretic teacher and faithful disciple travel together along the road arguing and debating Jewish law. Rabbi Meir, the pious Jew, has become so immersed in the conversation that he has not noticed they are nearing the limits beyond which one may not walk on Shabbat. “Acher”, the apostate, realizes this and says: “Meir, turn back. I have measured the distance we have walked by the paces of my horse, and we have reached the Shabbat limit. Beyond here, you are forbidden to walk.

Meir replied: “You too turn back.”

“I cannot turn back,” says Elisha. “One day I was riding on my horse. It was Yom Kippur, which in that particular year fell on Shabbat. I was roaming behind the Holy of Holies, when I heard a heavenly voice saying: ‘Turn back to me, O lost children, except for Acher… ’”

What is the message of this story? That G-d indeed does not forgive all humans who want to repent? That some must truly be condemned forever? This would contradict a fundamental idea in Judaism that nothing stands in the way of repentance.

Furthermore, if G-d did not want Elisha to repent, why did He communicate with him at all? Why did the heavenly voice begin with words of love and encouragement “Turn back to me, O lost children,” and end with the fearful decree “except for Acher”?

This class will analyze the tragic story of Acher, the mysterious call to him on Yom Kippur, and his misinterpretation of it. We will explore the moments before his death, and why he had only one student who remained with him even after his betrayal of his faith. It will teach us about the pain and destiny of our own lives, how to view our own brokenness and wounds, and those of the people around us.

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