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Motivating Atonement

September 26, 2009

With Yom Kippur less than 24 hours away, I would like to share a novel thought I heard from Rabbi Reuven Fireman.

Though a person’s ability to mend his ways through teshuva (repentance) is a very basic concept in Judaism, like every other rule it has an exception. The Talmud states one and only case in which someone was prevented from returning to his faith – Elisha ben Avuya, aptly called the “Acher” (the other).

In his better days, Rabbi Elisha ben Avuya reached one of the pinnacles of spirituality by entering the Pardes (according to the Tosafot he achieved a spiritual elevation by intensely meditating on G-d’s Name) along with Rabbi Akiva, Ben Zoma, and Ben Azaai. However, unlike Rabbi Akiva, Elisha ben Avuya was unable to sustain this lofty experience and ended up renouncing his faith altogether. When his loyal disciple Rabbi Meir urged Elisha to repent, the latter disclosed that he had heard a Heavenly proclamation that his teshuva would not be accepted –“return, you wayward children, except for Acher.”

What about Elisha ben Avuya’s actions were so grave that the gates of repentance were closed before him? Was he really that much worse than other infamous characters we come across in Jewish sources? Even Menashe, the wicked king who swayed the entire Jewish people to idol worship and killed the prophet Yeshayahu (his own grandfather) was given a chance to repent and his teshuva was accepted. By gaining an insight on the reasons for excluding Acher from the fundamental ability to repent, we can shade light on our own power to return to the proper path and do teshuva.

To understand this, we must keep in mind that teshuva comes in two different flavors, teshuva originating in fear of retribution, and teshuva motivated by the love of G-d. Though both types of teshuva are accepted, the first voids the sin and clears the scoreboard, while the second places the repentant at an advantage by turning his sins into virtues. “זדונות נעשות לו כזכויות”.

What ensues is a paradox by which it becomes “worth our while” to repent out of love so as to make the greatest gain. On the other hand, so long as we stand to gain something by doing teshuva, our motivations are less than 100% pure and our teshuva is, by definition, not motivated by love.

There are just two ways out of this catch-22. The first is to make the repentant aware that his teshuva would not be accepted. once a person expects no gain out of his doing teshuva, he can do so without ulterior motives and ironically gain everything. Note that G-d’s unwillingness to accept Elisha’s teshuva is articulated by Elisha himself. He was the only one to hear the decree.

In order to enable Elisha ben Avuya, who was so intimately familiar with the spiritual frameworks of Judaism, to repent out of love, G-d created the illusion that his teshuva was undesirable. The Baal Shem Tov was put through a similar test, when following a set of circumstances he was notified that he had lost his share in the world to come. Unlike ”Acher,” the Baal Shem Tov was overjoyed by the newly-found ability to worship G-d out of pure love without standing to gain anything. (And of course his after-life position was immediately returned to him.)

The second solution to the paradox of pure teshuva is G-d’s offer of pardon regardless of whether or not we have done teshuva. According to the Rambam in Hilchot Teshuva, at the time of the Beit Hamikdash (the Temple), all but the gravest of sins were forgiven by the end of Yom Kippur even if the person did not repent. By granting forgiveness “free of charge,” G-d enables us to cleanse our teshuva of ulterior motives and to take our eyes off the “bottom line.”

This is one of the reasons why Yom Kippur is known as the day the slaves are released. While in the days of yore, slaves were set free on the Yom Kippur of the Jubilee year, this day also frees us from the enslavement of keeping accounts with G-d. Even though we don’t have the Beit Hamikdash and atonement is no longer automatic, somehow Yom Kippur empowers everyone to return, and even those who are far from Judaism find their way to shul on this day. The emotional prayers and the very atmosphere of Yom Kippur seldom leave people unmoved. G-d gives each of us the chance to mend our ways and come close to Him.

It is my sincere wish that we all take this opportunity to purify ourselves and be inscribed for a year of happiness, prosperity, and peace.

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