July 19, 2024
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Elisha ben Avuya Makes an Appearance at Shaarei Orah (I Think)

It is one of the most beautiful scenes described in the entire Shas. Rabi Yehoshua (as told in Chagiga 14b) teaches the deepest secrets of the Torah, and the angels throng to hear his beautiful words, the trees react with excitement and even Hashem extends a message of approval!

All of Torah should be learned in this manner. There should be deep and thoughtful reflection and analysis to the extent that all of Creation will ring out in joyous song.

I believe we achieved a taste of this excitement a few weeks ago on a Shabbat afternoon at Shaarei Orah. Each week before Mincha we focus on highlights of the Daf HaShavua (following the schedule set forth at https://www.dafaweek.org/). The discussion is lively and the excitement is palpable.

The exhilaration reached a new high when we discussed the riveting story of Elisha ben Aviya, the famous Tanna who was a respected colleague of Rabi Akiva but eventually went on to lose his faith.

We focused on the high drama of Rabi Meir, a talmid of Elisha who clung to his teacher even after the latter’s apostasy. Rabi Meir used every opportunity to try to convince Elisha to return to Hashem but he refused. Elisha wrongly insisted that it is decreed that he cannot return. We noted that teshuva, tefillah and tzedakah can overcome the divine decree. Elisha used the divine decree as a “get out of jail free card,” tragically viewing Torah life as a jail, when in reality it is the road to true freedom.

In a final desperate attempt, Rabi Meir drags Elisha ben Avuya to no less than 13 batei knesset. At each one Elisha asks a child to recite the pasuk he is learning. Each child responds with a pasuk that indicates (in Elisha’s thinking) that the path of return is sealed shut to him.

As we reached the pinnacle of this drama, when Elisha addresses a child at the 13th and last beit knesset, all of a sudden the shiur was disrupted. This child had a speech impediment and his words sounded (again, in Elisha’s mind) as if he said that Hashem is telling Elisha to stop learning Torah. We were about to hear Elisha’s response when, somehow, the entrance to Shaarei Orah was not operating and the shiur had to stop in order to let in the new arrivals to the shiur. What bad timing, I thought!

However, I realized that perhaps something extraordinary had occurred. When things settled down, we were shocked to hear that in response Elisha killed the child and dismembered the body. This report is tempered, though, by an alternate version saying that Elisha ben Avuya simply said he wished he could kill the child.

I began to wonder why the shiur was disrupted just at its climactic moment. I came to the conclusion that it was none other than the soul of Elisha ben Avuya that was responsible for the disruption. I believe he felt the excitement of the learning and he came to defend himself. I did not kill that child, I believe he was trying to tell us! The alternate version is correct!

Indeed, Rabi Meir and Rabi Yochanan made extraordinary efforts to redeem the soul of Elisha ben Avuya. After many generations of suffering, Elisha’s soul was finally redeemed. Had Elisha truly murdered an innocent handicapped child he would be viewed as a profound and unforgiveable rasha who is punished in Gehinnom forever.

The fact that he was redeemed conclusively demonstrates he did not murder the child. It is reprehensible that he could not manage his emotions to the extent that he articulated his murderous ideation. However, this alone does not render him unredeemable.

Last week’s reading of Megillat Esther reminded us that there are no coincidences in Jewish life. Extraordinary timing is a means to detect subtle spiritual intervention. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the shiur was disrupted right as we were about to read the version of the story that Elisha actually murdered a disabled child.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 102b) records that the evil king Menashe visited Rav Ashi to set the record straight about his wrongdoing. Perhaps Elisha ben Avuya similarly visited Shaarei Orah one pleasant Shabbat afternoon to clarify matters. Is this a plausible assumption? I leave that for the reader to decide.


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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