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
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
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