Achar - A legend from the Talmud. The history of a famed Rabbi who left the folds of faith

    August 1998          
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Achar, the Rebellious Rabbi

By Eliezer Cohen

One of the more interesting stories that are related in the Talmud, is the story of Achar. Achar, whose real name was Rabbi Elisha ben Avuya was a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva, who lived during the time of the destruction of the second Temple, about two thousand years ago.

Achar was one of the four Torah scholars that were privileged to enter into the "Pardes". This meant that Achar, together with Rabbi Akiva, Ben Zoma, and Ben Azai, actually went up into the heavens and toured the next world. The Talmud relates that only Rabbi Akiva came back intact, the other three suffered some sort of injury.

The Talmud relates that Achar saw an angel sitting down writing the merits of the Jewish people and was shocked, since the Rabbi's taught that in the next world there is no eating, drinking or sitting. The angel was punished thoroughly for sitting when a mortal approached him, but as a recompense he was given the ability to deny Achar his merits to gain him reward in the next world.

A heavenly voice called out, "Return, Oh Israel, all except for Achar." Upon hearing this voice Achar gave up. "If I have no merits to gain me entrance and reward in the next world, I may as well enjoy the pleasures of this world." Immediately, he began living a life dedicated to the pursuit of earthly pleasures. Hence the name came to him, Achar, meaning 'some one else'.

Achar was the teacher of Rabbi Meir. After Achar had became a heretic, Rabbi Meir would still contact him and plead with him to return. Achar however felt that there was no hope for him and he continued his pursuit of earthly pleasures.

After Achar died, the heavenly courts decided not to judge him since he had learned so much Torah and had left such distinguished students. It was felt that since he became a heretic he belonged in Hell, but since his Torah was outstanding he had many merits in his behalf. So the heavenly courts did not judge him.

Rabbi Mier, however, said that when he left this world, he would petition and cause the heavenly courts to judge him. This would cause him to descend into Hell, but eventually he would have a place in Heaven. After Rabbi Meir died, a smoke was seen rising from Achar's grave. Rabbi Yehuda, a contemporary of Rabbi Meir was distraught. The smoke was a sign that he was being judged. The smoke continued unabated. Rabbi Yehuda felt that this was an embarrassment to the Torah Scholars. He vowed that when he died he would bring him out of the judgment and in to Heaven. So it was, Rabbi Yehuda died and the smoke stopped.

This story has many interesting questions that become apparent upon investigation. One of the biggest questions is the following:

In the above story, the angel was only giving the ability to cancel out the merits of Achar, but not to cause him to go to Hell. This means that Achar perhaps would not have had any special reward in the next world, but he certainly would not have received a punishment. Why should that have caused Achar to plunge off the deep end and give up a righteous life?

The second question is why is it that Achar after hearing a heavenly voice, that he immediately began to become a pleasure seeker? Certainly a person who is raise as a righteous person and studies the ways of righteousness and who raises many students who are proficient and able righteous persons should continue in his chosen path.

Yet the answer is simple and shocking. Achar was a Torah scholar par excellence. Yet he was concerned with his reward (ultimate pleasure) for performing the commandments. Pleasure comes on many levels. The lowest level in the pure animalistic or bodily pleasures such as eating and drinking etc. This is a easily attained pleasure, but very short lived. Then there is the emotional level of pleasure, when we reach a plateau such as marriage, a child is born. This pleasure is longer lasting then the first, and lasts longer, but more difficult to attain. Then there is the mental level of pleasure. Understanding a difficult problem and finding a solution. This level of pleasure is still longer lasting since the pleasure can be brought back to the person upon reflection. Yet this level requires special training. Then there is the loftiest level, the spiritual level of pleasure. The spiritual level of pleasure is a level that can not be properly enjoyed here in this world. This must be enjoyed in the next world. The pleasure is the reward for all those good deeds and commandments (mitzvoth) that we do in this world.

Achar was undoubtedly brilliant and he knew this as well. He wanted to receive the maximum pleasure in the next world. That is why when he realized that the angel would void his merits, he threw in the towel and quit. What was the purpose to it if all reward was denied? So in lieu of the pleasures of the next world he opted to take his pleasures in this world. That is why he parted from his righteous ways.

What should he have done?

Why was Achar's merits given to the Angel to erase? Because it was apparent in Heaven that Achar was a person who was a righteous person for his own sake. He was not righteous for the sake of doing G-d's work down here. He was righteous in order to gain a large reward in the next world. Achar should have been mature enough to realize that serving G-d is the main task, that G-d pays with a reward in the next world is merely a side point. To Achar, this was the main point. In order to straighten Achar out, he needed the ability to serve G-d with out a reward. If he could do that, for certain he would get all of his reward and no merit would have been taken from him. However, he did not meet the test; he failed miserably.

Let this be a lesson to us. Serving G-d is a noble goal. Receiving a reward for this service is merely a side treat. Let us not be deceived into thinking that the study of Torah and the performance of Mitzvoth and other good deeds are to be done because of the reward. True, a reward does exist. But it is for us to do these things in order to come close to G-d.


from the August 1998 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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