The Meor Eynayim (Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, a first generation chassidic master) explores the very beginning of Parshat Vayikra. It begins ויקרא אל משה, Viyikra El Moshe, And He called to Moshe, both without explicitly specifying who called to Moshe and with a very curious tiny א, aleph, instead of one the normal size. The verse continues, וידבר ה” אליו מאהל מעוד לאמר, And God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting (the משקן, Mishkan), saying….
First, it’s curious that the verse begins without specifying who called to Moshe, even though the subject, God, is obvious. And after calling to Moshe, He then spoke to him–the obvious question is why repeat that he then spoke to him. Isn’t that obvious? He then goes on to discuss the shrunken א, aleph, as referring to the אלופו של עולם, the Alufo (Chief) of the Universe, i.e. God.
The Chernobler’s explanation is that when God first calls, he’s calling each of us to return to Him. But He reduces/restricts Himself (צמצום, tzimtzum) to a scale appropriate to each and every individual. This voluntary restriction, contrasting to, for example, appearing in an explicit miracle, often results in subtle thoughts and longings, but the voice is so hidden, so quiet that we might not even recognize it for what it is–a call to return to our purest, highest selves.
But when we do heed this call, then we can recognize that the longing is, truly, for God and we’re eager to make ourselves fit for that relationship, to make of ourselves a vessel for His Light. The rebbe continues that from the very first, God’s desire in creating the universe is always ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם, and make be a holy place so I can dwell within each of you.
He discusses how this hidden calling out can often take the form of circumstances seeming to conspire to prevent us from doing something we shouldn’t. We’re prevented from an aveira, a sin, in ways that seem beyond our control, although, of course, if we’re really determined to go ahead, we can eventually accomplish it.
That reminded me of a teaching in Tamar Devora, (The Palm Tree of Devora), a small book by the Ramak, Rabbi Moshe Cordevero, the famous Kabbala master of Tzfat who was teacher to both Yosef Karo and the Ari. One of the attributes of The Creator that he describes, while encouraging us to imitate it, is that God continues to lovingly sustain in life each of us, even when we persist in destructive behavior, described as insulting God Himself, all with the hope that we’ll eventually see our errors and change our ways. He’ll continually call out quietly to each of us, knowing that, eventually, we will finally begin to hear.
These thoughts brought me to think about the story of Elisha Ben Abahu, known as the Acher, the “other”. You might remember that he was one of the four who ascended to פרדס, Pardes (paradise, but also an acronym for the four levels, each ever deeper, of understanding the subtle and fundamental wisdom of the Torah). One of his companions died from the experience, another went mad, only Rabbi Akiva “came in peace and left in peace” while he, Elisha, became the Acher, “cut his plantings”, became an apostate. The remainder of his life is described as following an evil culture and we see him publicly violating the Shabbat. But all this while, his student, the great Rabbi Meir, continues to learn Torah from him as well as tries to inspire him to return to his spiritual roots. The story (Talmud, Tractate Chagiga, 14-15) continues with Acher hearing a Bat Kol, a heavenly voice, calling everyone to return, except for himself. Rabbi Meir continues to try to show Acher a way back, but at each moment it seems that God Himself is rejecting Elisha. He dies and his soul is sent to hell. Rabbi Meir and his cohorts, however, do not give up and eventually, at Rabbi Meir’s own death, he resolves to descend himself in order to pull Acher into a final redemption.
This is a very difficult story to both understand and to accept. First, assuming as always that God doesn’t take time off for a coffee at Starbucks, He Himself is behind Elisha’s apostasy. Not only that, but He continues to sustain Acher in life as he purposefully mocks the teachings of the Torah of which he was once one of the greatest masters. It appears that even the enormous amount of Torah that he had once integrated is not counted as a merit for him. Like Job, his punishment and torment seems arbitrary.
One of the most difficult things to understand in life, especially through the lens of hashgacha pratit, God’s individual oversight of each of our lives, is why bad things happen to good people. Some of what we experience makes sense when seen as part of the feedback system of reward (encouragement for good choices) and punishment (discouragement for bad). At the same time, each moment places us at exactly the best decision point to make a choice which will maximally bring us higher, make us more completed. But often times, our lives just aren’t about us, but, rather, we’re playing roles in other people’s feedback cycles. While there are certainly elements of reward and punishment and our future decisions, they’re deeply hidden. We, and everything in our lives, can seem completely out of control.
It’s possible to see the story of Acher through this lens. His apostasy was never about him in the first place, nor was his suffering, both in this life and the next. The role he played, however, gave opportunity to Rabbi Meir to develop his own greatness, to continue extending hope and encouragement, friendship and respect for his once-great teacher. Acher’s fate enables Rabbi Meir to exceed himself, indeed to exceed the effort anyone before or since has ever made to redeem another. It, indeed, wasn’t about him at all. And, in final fairness, he does achieve the eternal peace of Olam HaBah.
Of course, you question what about Rabbi Meir was so special that his teacher, Acher, was sacrificed for his eventual benefit. סתם משנה רבי מאיר היא, stam mishneh Rebbe Meir he. Rabbi Meir is generally considered to be the author of almost every anonymous majority opinion teaching in the Mishna. His greatness is that he was able to voice the consensus of many different hearts and minds. His ability to see the merit in even the most fallen, his own former teacher and master, his humanity to care for someone everyone else had given up on, his belief that God’s actions are never arbitrary, but always calls to us, no matter how soft and hidden the voice, was the key to his own greatness.
The parsha, indeed the entire book of Vayikra (Leviticus), focuses on the קרבנות, karbanot, the sacrifices in the Holy Temple. The root of קרבן, is קרב, kavov, closeness. As we’ll learn, the only purposes of these sacrifices is to help us come closer to God, with the reminder that in the spiritual world, which is not made of matter at all, there is no geomentric/spacial dimension–closeness means similarity in action. Rabbi Meir’s actions on behalf of Acher should inspire us to, like The Creator Himself, act for the benefit of others (literally, אחרים, acherim). By following Rabbi Meir’s example, his imitation of the nature of God, to be a Creator for them benefit of others, we, like Rabbi Meir, more close approach God.