Chagigah 9 - 15
“Return, Wayward Children” (Yirmiyahu 3:22)
A Heavenly voice called out, “Return, you wayward children, except for Acher.” As a result, Acher thought his return to Hashem was hopeless, and he continued in his heretical ways.”
We are taught in our sugya about one of the most complex, troubling and mysterious Torah endeavors in history. Four great Tannaic Torah Sages “nichnisu l’pardes,” as the beraita calls it. The commentaries explain this matter in a number of ways, and I would not even attempt to try to explain its meaning, even I would claim to understand it. Rather, the topic I would like to address is the possibility for anyone to do teshuva and decide to return to the way of Hashem.
Regarding these four Sages, the beraita says that one Tana lost his life, one lost his mind, one became a heretic — whereas Rabbi Akiva “entered in peace and exited in peace.” The name of the Tana who became a heretic was Elisha ben Avuya, the teacher of Rabbi Meir. The gemara explains what he experienced to lead him to err, and how he came to be known by the moniker “Acher” — “other” — as if he became an “other” person after taking a drastic spiritual change for the worse (also addressed by the Tosefot beginning with ‘Shuvu” on 15a).
Yet, despite his spiritual fall, his student Rabbi Meir learned from his teachings, with a careful approach, as the gemara teaches. Rabbi Meir would also accompany him. A beraita relates one particularly intriguing exchange which transpired between them after Elisha became Acher. One Shabbat, Rabbi Meir and Acher were on the outskirts of the city. Rabbi Meir was on foot while Acher traveled on a horse. At one point, Acher told Rabbi to “return” and go back, since they were about to traverse a distance outside the city that would constitute a Shabbat transgression according to halacha. Rabbi Meir replied, “You too need to ‘return’ (i.e. repent and return to Hashem and mitzvah observance). Acher said, “But I have already heard a Divine voice say: “Return (to Me), wayward children — except for Acher (see Yirmiyahu 3:22).’” Many understand this to mean that Acher had heard that his fate was already sealed and there was nothing he could do about it that would help.
However, is it really true that a person can transgress in some way or become a heretic and lose the ability to exercise his free will to repent and return to the way of Hashem? It seems clear from the words of the Rambam that a person always has free will and nothing stands in the way of teshuva.
The Rambam states in the laws of teshuva that “…twenty four matters ‘impede’ teshuva. Four of them are such great sins that Hashem does not give the transgressor the opportunity to do teshuva… Five of them close the ways of teshuva before the transgressor… Five of them, one who transgresses them is not able to completely repent for them… There are five things for which it is unlikely that a person will repent since they are not considered as sins by many people… There are five of them that a person is drawn after continuously, and finds it very difficult to leave…”
In the same section, the Rambam makes it clear that teshuva atones for all of the twenty four sins that he lists. He states, “All these, and similar matters, even though they impede repentance, do not prevent it; rather, if a person repented for them, this person is a ba’al teshuva and has a portion in the World to Come.”
So, did Acher really hear a Divine voice saying that any teshuva he might do would not be accepted? I merited hearing a novel explanation of this matter from my revered teacher, Harav Moshe Shapiro, zatzal. He taught that the Divine voice was not saying that Acher was a lost cause because his teshuva would not be accepted by Hashem. Acher certainly had retained his free will to do teshuva, and Hashem would lovingly accept him.
Rather, Acher knew himself that without hearing Hashem call him to do teshuva, the current state of his soul could not even try to do teshuva. He heard Hashem call to everyone else to do teshuva but excluded him from the call. He despaired and remained a heretic. But if he had in fact done teshuva, it would certainly have been accepted by Hashem.
The story is told of a Jew who approached the tzaddik Reb Asher of Stolin and asked him, “How is it possible for me to do to teshuva? I have transgressed one of the sins about which, according to my understanding, it is stated that teshuva will not help.”
The tzaddik answered, “First of all, your understanding is incorrect. Teshuva will surely help. But even if your understanding would be correct, how is that statement relevant to you? You must do that which is incumbent upon you. Are you worried that you will not have a portion in the World to Come? The Rabbis have already said, “One moment of teshuva and good deeds in this world is worth more than the entire life in the World to Come!”
- Chagigah 15a