Teshuvah and the Stranger Within

Man experiences many fluctuations in fortune during his lifetime. In addition to changes of wealth and poverty, of health and illness, he may also experience great variations in the level of his religious conviction. This not only affects ordinary people, but even outstanding spiritual personalities. One example of this is a great Talmudic sage.

The Gemara (Chagigah 14b) relates that “four scholars entered the ‘Garden.’ They ascended to heaven in order to comprehend G‑d and G‑dliness. Ben Azzai gazed and died. Ben Zoma perceived and became demented. Rabbi Akiva departed unharmed and Elisha ben Avuyah became an apostate and from then on he was referred to as “Acheir” — “another.”

Elisha ben Avuyah was the teacher of the great sage Rabbi Meir. After his apostasy, Acheir asked Rabbi Meir, “What is the meaning of the verse, ‘Gold and glass cannot equal it; neither shall the exchange thereof be vessels of fine gold?’ ”

He replied, “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.”

Acheir said to him, “Rabbi 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 Rabbi Meir said to him, “Then you, too, repent!”

He replied, “I have already heard from behind the “pargod” — Veil [curtain of separation — heaven] — ‘Return you backsliding children (Jeremiah 3:22)chutzmei’Acheir — except Acheir.’ ”

The Gemara then continues to relate the following episode. Once Acheir was riding on a horse on Shabbat, and Rabbi Meir was walking behind him to learn Torah from him. Acheir said to him, “Meir, turn back, for I have already measured by the paces of my horse that thus far extends theShabbat limit.”

He replied, “You, too, go back (do teshuvah)!”

Acheir answered, “Have I not already told you that I have heard from behind the Veil, ‘Return you backsliding children chutz mei’Acheir — except for Acheir.’ ”

This exchange between Rabbi Meir and his teacher is enigmatic. Obviously, Rabbi Meir respected him highly, otherwise, he would have not sought Torah from him, and undoubtedly when Acheir told his student of hearing a voice from heaven, it was not a hallucination. If so, why would Rabbi Meir torment his teacher and keep insisting that he return?

The Gemara goes on to relate another episode, that Rabbi Meir prevailed upon him and took him to a Beit Hamidrash. Acheir asked the children to recite the Biblical verse they were studying. One child quoted, “Velarasha amar Elokim mah lecha lesapeir chukai” — “Hashem said to the wicked, ‘What have you to do to declare My statutes’ ” (Psalms 50:16). The child stuttered, so the word “velarasha” — “and to the wicked” — sounded “Ve’la’Elisha” i.e. “and to Elisha Hashem said...” Elisha at that time said, “If I had a knife in my hand I would cut him up.”

Superficially, this story compounds the difficulty, since Elisha claimed that he heard a voice from heaven, why was he so upset with the child who stuttered? On the contrary, he should have appreciated the child because at least he substantiated the words of the heavenly voice.

Undoubtedly, Rabbi Meir believed that Elisha was telling the truth when he told him what he heard. However, he interpreted the words differently.

Every person is at times his authentic self, and at times there is an “acheir” — “stranger” — within him that challenges his spiritual identity. In modern psychology there is the concept of dual personality, and in literature this is expressed by the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. However, this is not a modern phenomena or recent finding, but something which has affected mankind from its early beginning to this very day and is indeed the essence of teshuvah.

When one studies Torah and performs mitzvot, his true inner self is expressed. When G‑d forbid, he transgresses, it is the “acheir” within him who is acting in an alien manner in defiance of the true inner self.

It is related that Aristotle, the “primary thinker of philosophy,” was once seen acting boorishly, totally unbecoming to a person of his stature. When he was asked how it is possible for him to act so inappropriately, he responded, “The man you are seeing now is not Aristotle — now I am someone else.” In other words, he was saying “At times I am myself — Aristotle — and at times I am ‘acheir’ — ‘someone else.’ ”

Consequently, while Elisha ben Avuyah had indeed heard a heavenly voice proclaim, “Return you backsliding children chutz mei’Acheir — except Acheir” — Rabbi Meir asserted that this was a misinterpretation. The correct message was, “Return you backsliding children, and the way to do so is ‘chutz mei’Acheir’ — ‘detach yourselves from acheir’ — rid yourself of the stranger within you and return to your true self.”

Rabbi Meir knew that the gates of heaven are open to all Jews and even for those of whom it has been ruled, “That he is not granted an opportunity to return” (Yoma 85b). As Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Chassidut, states, “If a person strives forcefully and overpowers his evil impulse and repents, then his repentance is accepted” (see Iggeret Hateshuvah 11). Therefore, he persisted in his plea that Elisha ben Avuyah do teshuvah — not to permit the “acheir” — “stranger within” — to prevail over his true self, and return to his original status as the great sage Rabbi Elisha ben Avuyah.

While Elisha ben Avuyah desired that his student’s interpretation be the correct one, he was somewhat apprehensive. Therefore, when Rabbi Meir forcefully took him to the Beit Hamidrash, Elisha asked the children the pasuk they were studying, hoping to find in it a glimmer of hope for himself. When it appeared from the child who stuttered that there was a pasuk in the Torah which confirmed his interpretation of the voice of Heaven, and that he, Elisha ben Avuyah could not do teshuvah, he was deeply frustrated, for he truly desired to return and be a dedicated child of Hashem and the Torah.

The themeof the day of Yom Kippur is “shuvu banim” — “[My] children return” — do teshuvah. Stop being a dual personality. Be your true self at all times, and Hashem will gladly stretch out His hand to you and accept your sincere return.

(מיוסד על דברי הרב יוסף דוב הלוי ז"ל סאלאווייטשיק, מבוסטון)

“It All Depends On Me”

The accurate phrase which describes the task before us on the Yomim Norayim is cheshbon hanefesh — “a spiritual accounting.” On these sacred days each of us must evaluate his life honestly to eliminate all self-deception. To do this we must resist the temptation of creating alibis and flimsy excuses for our religious and moral failings. That this is a difficult task no one will deny, but we are capable of reaching this goal.

This truth is illustrated by a powerful narrative related in the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 17a) concerning Elazer ben Durdaya, who strayed from the path of Jewish life, and became addicted to the allurements of lust and passion. One day when he was mocked by one who apparently shared his view of life, he was overwhelmed by his lowly moral situation, and realized that his life was being wasted. He felt an intense need to return to Hashem.

In his earnest desire to repent and with deep anguish, Elazer ben Durdaya sought external help, and he called out, “Mountains and hills, ask mercy for me.”

“Ask mercy for you? We must ask mercy for ourselves.”

“Heaven and earth, ask mercy for me.”

“Ask mercy for you? We must ask for ourselves.”

“Sun and moon, ask mercy for me.”

“Ask mercy for you? We must ask mercy for ourselves.”

“Stars and planets, ask mercy for me.”

“Ask mercy for you? We must ask mercy for ourselves.”

Elazer sat upon the ground, and after a long and seriousperiod of probing introspection, he placed his head between his knees and expired while crying, “Ein hadavar talu ela bi” — “It all depends on me — the responsibility is totally mine!” A voice emerged from above and declared, “Elazer ben Durdaya is worthy of Eternal Life.”

The explanation to this enigmatic story may be as follows:

Elazar ben Durdaya sought an easy way out of his personal dilemma. He tried to blame his corrupt life on external forces and not himself. First he appealed to the mountains and hills — symbolizing his parents (see Bamidbar 23:9, Rashi, Rosh Hashanah, 11a): “Declare it was not my fault. I was not disciplined; I was spoiled. You were too busy to take care of me and did not have the time or patience to supervise me properly.” But his plea was rejected.

In further defense of his shortcomings, he turned to heaven and earth, as to say, the heaven above my head and the earth upon which I tread — symbolic of the society in which he lived and the people with which he associated — “I could not have been anything else; my environment molded my total identity. Had I lived in another society and been exposed to a “purer air” I would have been different. Why am I to blame?” But even this plea was rejected.

When they refused to accept the blame, he further declared, “Sun and moon, help me.” They are the symbol of affluence, as scripture says, “With the bounty of the sun’s crops, and with the bounty of the moon’s yield” (Devarim 33:13, Rashi). He cited the affluence of the society in which he had lived: “All I knew was material things; I was brought up in the ‘good life.’ I wanted pleasure; I was taught no other values. Was I to blame?” And this plea, too, was rejected.

Finally, when despair reached an unbearable climax, he cried out to the stars and planets — symbolic of a predestined fate of evil within him (see Shabbat 156a re: effect celestial signs etc. may have on a person). He also blamed his problems on “the good luck alibi”: “I did not have mazal. You tell them...I could not help living the way I did...tell them it was not my fault.” Little did he realize that our sages have said, “Ein mazal l’Yisrael” — “The celestial signs hold no sway over Israel” — through prayer and merit one can prevail over the fate they foretell (ibid. Tosafot). Do not blame it on mazal — blame it on yourself!

When his final plea was rejected, Elazar ben Durdaya probed deeply into his heart and soul and found the truth: “There is no one external factor I can shift responsibility to. Ein hadavar talui ela bi — It all depends on me, I am totally responsible for my actions.”

Now that we have described the repentance of Elazar ben Durdaya, one may rightfully wonder who was this personality?

According to the Kabbalists (see Seder Hadorot) he was a reincarnation of Yochanan Kohen Gadol who served for eighty years as a High Priest in the second Beit Hamikdash and became a heretic at the end of his life (Berachot 29a). Elazar ben Durdaya, with his brief realization and confession of truth, acquired the merits which Yochanan Kohen Gadol lost after eighty years of service of Hashem, and in only one hour of sincere attachment to Hashem the neshamah of Elazar ben Durdaya became worthy of eternal life.

There is, however, another beautiful and intriguing explanation given by Rabbi Yehudah Lowy, the famous Maharal of Prague (1520-1609). In addition to the simple meaning that the Gemara relates Elazar ben Durdaya’s agonizing experience, it could be said that the name Elazar ben Durdaya is an allegory.

The word Elazar (אלעזר) is a juxtaposition of two words “Keil ozeir” — (אֵ-ל עֹזֵר) — “G‑d helps” — and Durdaya (דורדיא), which in the language of the Talmud (Avodah Zara 32a) is the sediment which falls to the bottom of the wine barrel. This episode is a metaphor to teach us that Elazar, “Keil ozer” — “G‑d helps” — “durdaya” — “the one who is compared to sediment” — the one who fell to the lowest level and is like the sediment which he lost all its qualities — when he comes to the realization that ‘Ein hadavar talui ela bi’ — ‘It all depends on me’ — and I am the one who has to express sincere remorse and make the effort to change.”

When this incident was reported to Rabbi Yehudah the Prince, he used this unusual act of honest introspection and teshuvah as a text for a great moral lesson to his disciples: “There are those who obtain their world (Olam Haba) with many years of work, ‘veyeish koneh olamo besha’ah achat’ — ‘and there are those who acquire their world in one hour’ — in one brief instance of self realization and self transformation.”

On this great Day of Atonement, may we be inspired to emulate the example of Elazar ben Durdaya — to reject all rationalization for our failures and shortcomings and resolve that “we are responsible for our actions” and return wholeheartedly to Hashem.

(הדרש והעיון, בראשית מאמר צ"ה)

Is G‑d Fair?

In the Gemara (Yoma 22b) Rabbi Huna said, “How little does he whom Hashem supports need to grieve or trouble himself! Shaul sinned once and it brought calamity upon him. David sinned twice and it did not bring evil upon him.”

What was the sin of Shaul? The incident with Agag. The prophet Shmuel instructed Shaul to smite Amalek and utterly destroy all their possessions. “Spare them not, but slay both men and women, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (I Samuel 15:3). Shaul spared Agag, the king of Amalek, as well as the best of the sheep and the oxen and hence did not utterly destroy them.

What were the two sins of David? One was the sin against Uriah. Uriah was the husband of Batsheva, whom David wanted to marry. He sent a message to general Yoav to set up Uriah in the forefront of the most dangerous battle and then leave him alone so that he would be killed (II Samuel 11).

David’s second sin was the counting of the people. According to Torah law, people should not be counted directly, but through ballots or contributions, and he had them counted directly (II Samuel 24).

One may rightfully wonder: Hashem is described in the Torah as “A G‑d of faith without iniquity, righteous and fair is He” (Devarim 32:4). Is it fair to punish Shaul for committing only one sin and overlook David, who committed two sins?

The answer lies in careful analysis of each incident. When Shmuel met Shaul after the war with Amalek, Shaul greeted him by saying, “I have performed the commandment of Hashem.”

In amazement Shmuel said, “What then is the meaning of the noise of the sheep in my ears?”

Shaul told him, “The people spared the best of the sheep to sacrifice them to your G‑d and the rest we have utterly destroyed.”

Shmuel admonished Shaul, “Hashem anointed you king of the Children of Israel and instructed you to utterly destroy the sinners of Amalek and fight against them until they are consumed. Why didn’t you obey the voice of Hashem?”

Shaul responded, “Indeed I have obeyed Hashem’s voice, but the people took the spoils to sacrifice to Hashem your G‑d.”

Shmuel said, “Has Hashem as great delight in burnt-offerings as in obeying His voice? To obey is better than sacrifice and to listen is better than the fats of rams.” Finally, Shaul said to Shmuel, “Chatati” — “I have sinned.”

Let us consider David’s response. After the death of Uriah, Hashem sent the prophet Natan, who told David a story of two men who lived in the same city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had many flocks and herds, but the poor man had only one little lamb. He brought it up and nourished it and treated it very gently. Once a traveler visited the rich man and refusing to take from his own flock to prepare a meal for the wayfarer, the rich man took the poor man’s lamb and made a meal from it.

Upon hearing this, David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man and he said to Natan, “The man that had done this is worthy to die.”

Natan said to David, “You are the man. Why did you despise the commandment of Hashem and do evil in His eyes? You killed Uriah with the sword and took his wife to be your wife.”

Upon hearing this David immediately said to Natan, “Chatati” — “I have sinned against Hashem.”

Graciously Natan told him, “Hashem has commuted your sin; you shall not die” (II Samuel 12:1-13).

In the incident of the forbidden method used for counting the people, immediately after general Yoav told David the census, Scripture tells us, “David’s heart smote him that he had numbered them, and David said to Hashem, “Chatati me’od — I have sinned greatly in what I have done — and now I beseech you Hashem, take away the iniquity of my sin for I have done very foolishly” (II Samuel 24:10).

The difference between David and Shaul is that David immediately recognized his wrongdoing without attempting to justify it or to cover it up. On the other hand, Shaul originally thought he could ‘fool’ Shmuel, and therefore he claimed to have fulfilled Hashem’s wish. Afterwards, when Shmuel asked about the sheep, Shaul blamed it on the people and endeavored to justify it, saying the sheep would be used for sacrifices. Only when he finally realized that this approach was not impressing Shmuel did he express remorse and say, “I have sinned.”

Hashem is definitely fair in His judgment, but we must remember to acknowledge our mistakes and not think that we can deceive Him. To err is human and to forgive is divine, but we must always recall what the wisest of all man said, “He who covers up his sins shall not prosper, but u’modeh ve’ozeiv yerucham — he who confesses and forsakes it — will experience the mercy of Hashem” (Proverbs 28:13).

(הגיוני יצחק מר' יצחק ז"ל גרינבלאט, עלענוויל, נוא יארק)

"אלה אזכרה..."
“These I recall...”

QUESTION: In the mussaf prayer on Yom Kippur when the avodah — order of service — in the Beit Hamikdash is discussed, there is a prayer of “Eilah Ezkarah” — “These I recall” — about the asarah harugei malchut — the ten sages martyred by the Roman government. Also, in the Kinot — Lamentations said on Tishah B’Av — we recite Arzei Halevanon — Cedars of Lebanon — about the ten martyred sages.

Why are these martyred sages mentioned on Yom Kippur and Tishah B’Av?

ANSWER: The juxtaposing of Miriam’s death with the red heifer teaches us that just as karbanot — offerings — bring atonement for the Jewish people, so does the death of tzaddikim — righteous people (Bamidbar 21:1, Rashi).

The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 18b) says that the fast day of the seventh month, which was established because Gedalyah (the appointed governor by Nebuchadnezzar over the remaining Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael following the destruction of the First Temple) was assassinated, is listed in Scripture together with the fast days commemorating the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash (Zechariah 8:19) because the death of the righteous is equivalent to the burning of Hashem’s house.

Hence, on Tishah B’Av, when we mourn the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, the ten martyred sages are also mentioned since their death is equivalent to the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. On Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement — when the avodah which brought atonement is recited, the ten martyred sages are mentioned, since their passing is a source of atonement for the Jewish people.

* * *

In the liturgy we are told that “Rabbi Yishmael purified himself and ascended to the heavenly heights and inquired of the angel [about the martyrdom of the sages]. He answered ‘kablu aleichem — take it upon yourself — righteous, beloved sages, for I have heard from behind the Curtain that this decree has been imposed upon you. [Rabbi Yishmael] descended and informed his colleagues of the word of G‑d.’ ”

In view of the above, that their death was like an offering in the Beit Hamikdash, it is understood why the angel said to Rabbi Yishmael “kablu aleichem” — “take it upon yourself”: According to halachah, for an offering to be qualified it must be brought “liretzono” — “voluntarily” — uncoerced and with the willingness of the owner (see Vayikra 1:3).

(שמעתי מהרב שלום גרשון שי' גינצבורג בשם הגרי"ד הלוי ז"ל סאלאווייטשיק מבוסטון)


In the Yizkor service we pray “Tehei nafsho tzerurah bitzeror hachaim” — “May his soul be bound up in the bond of life.” Some also recite the Keil Malei Rachamim prayer, in which they pray “Veyitzror bitzeror hachaim et nishmato” — “May the soul of our loved ones be bound in the bond of life.”

Who are “hachaim” — “the living” — to whom we request their souls should be bound?

In addition to the popular translation that it is a reference to “eternal life,” it can also mean “those living who survived the deceased.” We pray that the souls of our loved ones, the ideals, ideas, and goals which they fought for and nurtured, be linked with us, “hachaim” — “the living survivors” — in the realm of our daily thought and deed. Not just on the four occasions a year when Yizkor is recited should we think of them, but we resolve to emulate them and transmit to our children throughout the year the Torah and Yiddishkeit that they endeavored to instill in us.

Yizkor is not just a prayer in which we beseech Hashem and ask Him to do something for our departed dear ones, but it is also a challenge to each and every one of us that we assure that the spirit of our loved ones be embodied in us eternally.

* * *

At Yizkor it is customary to make pledges for tzedakah, and appeals are made for the synagogue or noteworthy Torah institutions. A story is told about a wealthy man who stood before the Gates of Heaven, but was refused admission. The man argued with the angel in charge, but without success. Finally he took out his check book and said, “Okay, everything has a price. How much does it cost?” The angel replied, “Sorry Sir, up here we do not accept checks, only receipts.” (for tzedakah already given)

* * *

A story is told of a man who complained about chest pains. His wife told him to lie down to rest while she called the doctor. The doctor came to the patient’s home, sat down at the bedside, and took the patient’s hand in order to take his pulse. In a faint voice the patient said, “Doctor, it is not my hand, the pains are in my chest, near my heart.” To which the doctor responded, “I know, but from the hand we know how the heart works.”

There is no doubt that everyone has a good heart, but let our hand demonstrate (by giving charity) how our heart works.

You Can’t Run Away from G‑d

During Minchah we read a portion of the Torah and conclude with a Haftarah which consists of the story of Yonah. The Book of Yonah is one of T’rei Asar — the Book of Twelve Prophets — whose prophecies spanned over three hundred and fifty years, from the middle of the first Beit Hamikdash era to the early years of the second Beit Hamikdash. Yonah was the son of the widow of Tzarfat, the young boy whom Eliyahu brought back to life (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 33). He was a complete tzaddik, and the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 11:5) says that he was a navi emet” — “a true prophet.” The entire book of Yonah consists of only four chapters and forty-eight verses. Besides this there is very little recorded about him in the books of the Prophets except for one casual mention (see II Kings 14:25).

Why was the story of Yonah selected as the Haftarah for Yom Kippur afternoon?

Yonah was ordered by Hashem to go to Nineveh and warn the people that if they did not repent, they would be punished. He refused this mission with good intention. Should the people of Nineveh, who were not Jewish, have heeded him, it would have an adverse result upon the Jewish people, who had defied the warnings and exhortations of the prophets. Yonah meant well, but our sages tell us that he was wrong to defend the honor of the child (Israel) rather than the honor of the Father (Hashem) (Michilta, Shemot,12:4).

To accomplish his goal, he decided to flee Eretz Yisrael and run away to Tarshish, which some identify with the city of Tunis or Tartesus in ancient Spain beyond the Rock of Gibralter. He chose a destination out of Eretz Yisrael because there Hashem does not reveal Himself to prophets. Hashem thwarted his endeavors, and made it necessary that he be cast him into the sea. There he was swallowed by a large fish, then spewed out on dry land. Ultimately he went to Nineveh and warned them of their imminent destruction as a result of their bad behavior.

Yom Kippur is the day in the year when all shuls are best attended. People who unfortunately don’t come Shabbat, Yom Tov, let alone weekdays, appear in shul on Yom Kippur. In fact, a story is told of a shul where on Yom Kippur before the conclusion of the services, an announcement would be made informing the people of the date and time for Kol Nidrei the following year.

Minchah is the last prayer of the day before Ne’ilah — the closing prayer. As we prepare to part with this very holy day, we read the story of Yonah which conveys the powerful message that there is no running away from Hashem. Hashem, in His miraculous ways, can find us wherever we are and our endeavors to flee Him are to no avail. The Haftarah serves as a call that we should not run away from Hashem during the year, but rather to resolve to adhere tenaciously to Hashem and Torah throughout the entire year.