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, from then on to be called “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” — Partition — i.e. Heaven, ‘Return O backsliding sons (Jeremiah 3:22) chutz mei’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 from behind 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 the Shabbat limit.”

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

Acheir answered, “Have I not already told you that I have heard from behind the Partition, ‘Return O backsliding sons 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 an 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 like “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 felt vindicated because at least the child 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 which is connected to 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 was 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’ — ‘to detach yourself 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 “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)