Simple faith. At one time, it seemed within the grasp of virtually everyone. Its expectations were clear: to love G-d, to fear G-d, to feel his presence, to follow his commandments. The relationship was uncomplicated, and by engaging in it, one would be rewarded with a sense of meaning, purpose, place, and belonging.
But modernity has alienated us from the idea of faith. As a generation with more formal education than any other generation in history, we look elsewhere to make sense of our world; we do not seek clear vision but embrace nuance and complexity. Simple faith, we believe, is for the simple-minded.
Meanwhile, our schooling has placed relativism on a pedestal. It has empowered us with the right to craft our definition of truth and to accept that the best answer may be that no answer is possible. We have ennobled critical thinking, emphasis on the word critical; we have come to cherish our own cynicism. If we cannot solve problems, then the least we can do is reject facile solutions.
Yet for all our scientific sophistication, we have not succeeded at making sense of ourselves. We may be able to send rockets to the moon, but we are unable to master our inner worlds. We no longer look to spiritual leaders to help us find meaning and direction. Increasingly, we have relegated this role to neuroscientists and psychologists. Bad choices can be the results of triggers in our environments and negative societal influences; they can be consequences of faulty neural chemistry and unlucky draws from the gene pool. It is all very complicated. The only thing we are clear on is that it is simplistic to speak of good and evil. Free choice and personal accountability seem too judgmental; the traditional stance of Judaism seems inadequate to explain what is “wrong” with us.
Perhaps the Talmudic character that most speaks to the modern cynic is Elisha ben Abuya, also known as Acher, the “Other.” Though he was at one time a great scholar and colleague of Rabbi Akiva, he publicly abandoned his faith and became a heretic. The story of Elisha is told in both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud. The Talmudic accounts include various details that make it easy to reject him as wicked and spiteful, a traitor to his faith and his people. By contrast, the account in Midrash Ruth Rabbah, which overlaps with these other accounts, is much more sympathetic. To our modern ear, it sounds more tragic than evil. Here’s how the story is recounted in Midrash Ruth Rabbah:
One Shabbat, Rabbi Meir, a sage who studied under Elisha, is lecturing in the study hall when one of his students comes in and tells Rabbi Meir that Elisha is outside on a horse (an act that constitutes a flagrant violation of Shabbat). Despite Elisha’s public acts of heresy, Rabbi Meir has committed himself to maintaining a relationship with his former teacher. He goes out to meet Elisha, and they amble together—Rabbi Meir on foot, and Elisha on horseback.
Elisha asks Rabbi Meir what he has been teaching. Rabbi Meir cites a verse from the Book of Job: “G-d blessed Job’s end from the beginning.” Rabbi Meir takes this to mean that Job’s wealth at the end of the book was greater than it had been before his ordeal began.
Elisha rejects Rabbi Meir’s explanation as obvious. “That is not how your teacher Rabbi Akiva would have explained it,” Elisha says. “Rather, say that he was blessed at the end because he was righteous from the start.”
Rabbi Meir next shares how he explained the verse “The end of a matter is better than its beginning.” He interprets this to mean that sometimes, people are wicked in their youth but repentant in their old age. Elisha again rejects the argument as tautological, and presents an alternate explanation: “The verse means that the end of matter is good only if it is good from the start.”
In his readings of these verses, Elisha intimates that free choice is an illusion. Whether by genes or circumstance, some are born lucky, and others are doomed before they begin.
Elisha proceeds to reflect on how this was true in his own life. His mother while pregnant with him smelled the smoke from the pagan sacrifices and was overcome with a craving for the meat; his father dedicated Elisha to study Torah only because he saw the respect and honor that it brought the rabbis. Prenatal influences handicapped his soul; his upbringing was flawed. Elisha intimates that it was only a matter of time until his genetic and environmental weaknesses would manifest themselves.
The midrash continues by recounting the incidents that sparked his crisis of faith: He saw someone violate Torah law by climbing a tree on the Sabbath to take a mother bird and her chicks together. Nevertheless, that person descended the tree safely. Then Elisha saw someone else climb the tree after the close of Sabbath. In accordance with the law, they sent away the mother bird before taking the chicks—a good deed for which the text promises the reward of long life. And yet this second person fell from the tree and died.
Faith, Elisha seems to say, is for those who accept easy answers. But for anyone who has seen what he has seen and is honest with themselves, faith is impossible.
Elisha then turns to Rabbi Meir and tells him that the time has come for them to part, for they have reached the Shabbat boundary—the distance beyond which one may not walk on Shabbat. Elisha makes clear that he is fully aware of the rules that Rabbi Meir follows, but that they apply only to Rabbi Meir. He himself has crossed the boundary lines that separate the sacred from the profane, the innocent from those who have been altered by their experiences.
Rabbi Meir asks Elisha to come back with him. Elisha says he cannot, for it is not within his power to go back to being the person he once was:
“I was once riding my horse on Yom Kippur, which fell on Shabbat, and passed behind a synagogue, when I heard a heavenly voice burst forth and say, “Return, O wayward sons, return to Me, and I will return to you . . . except for Elisha ben Avuyah, for he knew My power yet he rebelled against Me.”
How often do we feel like Elisha—like we can never retrace a path, never reclaim our innocence, never go back to the way we once were. The heavenly voice does not speak to us as it speaks to others. Teshuvah—repentance—is for the simpleton who naively believes that tomorrow can be different. But we see ourselves as more complex, more sophisticated, more honest, more willing to acknowledge tortuous realites. Our pain is deeper than other people’s pain; our travails more tortuous; we are both beyond fixing and beyond judgment. Our rebellion is inevitable for we are victims of fate, genes, environment, circumstance, illness—and our own unwillingness to compromise our personal truths.
Yet the Midrash does not end there. When Rabbi Meir hears that Elisha has fallen ill and is on his deathbed, Rabbi Meir visits him and asks him to repent:
Elisha says to him, “ Isn’t it too late? Is one who returns in a state such as mine accepted?”
Rabbi Meir answers him, “Is it not written, ‘You [G-d] reduce humankind to a pulp, and You say, “Repent, O Children of men.’” From this we learn that until the soul is crushed [life ends], one can still repent.”
At that moment, Elisha wept, and he died. Rabbi Meir was happy, and he said, “It appears that my master departed in repentance.”
We think that change is complicated. Faith is complicated. We are complicated.
Yet, as the story of Elisha demonstrates, teshuvah is in fact the simplest, most natural thing in the world: a sigh, a tear, a moment in which all the sophisticated defenses and excuses are stripped away, and we are able to reconnect with our essential selves. The tragedy of Elisha is that he did not seize the moment earlier. His response to the censure of his actions was to distance himself further, rather than recognize that what he needed to do was come in closer.
There was a time when we embraced what Yom Kippur was about. We knew that we were imperfect, we were aware of our own failings, and we knew that this day provided the chance to express remorse—the opportunity for us to resolve to be different. Some of us knew more about the prayers, some less. But what mattered most was simply being there for this most important appointment with G-d so that we could take advantage of this opportunity to start anew.
Something has changed. In our minds, Yom Kippur has become complicated. The service doesn’t speak to us—the idea of sin no longer resonates. Praying all day in a foreign language seems alienating, fasting uncomfortable. And anyway, isn’t change something personal that can’t be scheduled, but has to happen on our own timetable?
Indeed, why would Yom Kippur feel natural to us? We have raised a generation where the words “bad” and “sinful” have been erased from the vocabulary. As parents and educators, we see it as our job to show children how to make “better” or “wiser” choices, but do we ever allow them to take responsibility for wrongdoing? When words like “naughty” and “wrong” become ideas that are too horrible to mention, too frightening to name, perhaps we implicitly teach children that they are too powerful to overcome. All can return, except for Elisha, for he has rebelled . . .
Yom Kippur is a day that asks us to put aside the obfuscation that is the hallmark of our generation—to stop searching for meta-meanings, for the reimaginings, for the myriad of distractions, excuses, and justifications that only serve to further enmesh our souls. The simple truth about Yom Kippur is this: despite our pain, our skepticism, and our alienation from ourselves, there is something within us that is impervious to the brokenness of our world and our beings. It is from that essential core that change becomes possible.
What would happen if we let go of being complicated, and simply went to shul again this Yom Kippur? What if, unlike Elisha, we knew that it was as easy as admitting that we crossed a line and deciding to step back over it?
On Yom Kippur, G-d summons us to a private meeting—an intimate moment of truth. At times, we may feel uncomfortable, but if we stay the course, as the sun sets and Ne’ilah begins, the ark will be thrown open, bared like our souls. When we call out the Shema, it will tear at the core of our being. And when the final shofar sounds, our hearts will echo its clear clarion call.
Outsider. Heretic. Skeptic. These will fall away in a moment.
Faith. Return. Reconnection. It really is that simple.
September 29, 2020
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