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Beit Midrash Series Parashat Hashavua

from Aroch Siach, Yamim Nora’im p. 134-5

Return, Except for You?

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Rabbi Meir encouraged his former teacher, Elisha ben Avuya to return (i.e., repent). Elisha responded: "I have heard from behind the curtain (i.e., in the Heavenly court): ‘Return wayward sons, except for Acher (Elisha ben Avuya’s derogatory nickname)’" (Chagiga 15a).

The Heavenly voice Elisha ben Avuya heard emanating from a secret place was strange. On the one hand, the whole world is called to teshuva (repentance). That is a concept that we know and appreciate. But what is the idea that someone specific is uninvited from seeking to repent?

A person sees the mud and the slime in which he has sunk by means of his sins; he recognizes that his path leads only to destruction. A person also "hears" that although he is deeply entrenched in the gates of impurity, there is still a path that is open to return. How did the once wise Elisha ben Avuya believe that he was the single solitary person that has no path upon which to return, but rather he must drink from the "cup of poison" until he finishes it? Why does he accept this decree without trying to appeal? The whole world – yes; he – no?

Apparently, this Heavenly voice, whose beginning is true but whose end is deceptive, is something that all sinners experience. Whoever is so deep into the slime of sin sees himself as irreparably on the path that leads to death, even when he looks at others and believes that they do have a way to save themselves through repentance, and it is only he who cannot. He does not consider that if there is teshuva for everyone, he cannot be the only exception. It does not occur to him that this perception is but the idea of the evil inclination and that if he just focuses on repentance, it will be accepted gladly. Indeed the evil inclination is active before the sin, to cause him to sin, and after the sin, to convince him that he is particularly incapable of doing teshuva.

Every sin creates an imaginary set of ropes and shackles that tie him down and prevent him from changing his course. He believes that his circumstances, the friends with whom he interacts, the public opinion that pervades his surroundings, and the things he said and the actions he did yesterday, set his course for the future. How could he turn his back on his sinful friends? How could he act differently than the philosophies he espoused yesterday? How can he divorce himself from his past and turn into a new person?

He should realize, though, that one who comes to defile himself will have the door opened to do so (Avoda Zara 55a). From the fact that he hears that others have the opportunity to return, even though they do not feel it, he should see that this is normal. Things must come from the person himself; there are not really ropes that hold him down, but they are just spider webs that can be easily severed.

The Ten Days of Repentance are the period in which Hashem can be found in our proximity (Rosh Hashana 18a). There is no better time for teshuva. Let us sever the ropes of deception and pray sincerely: "Return us in full teshuva before You." May we have a good year, one of teshuva, liberation, and salvation.
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