Chazal (Chagigah 15) tell us the heartbreaking tale of Acher. Born Elisha ben Avuya, he reached enormous heights in Torah knowledge and was the teacher of the great Tanna Rabi Meir. But tragically, he lost his bearings and plummeted to the deepest levels of sin and evil. He was from then on known as “Acher” — the “other” one.
When Rabi Meir pleaded with him to return to the true path, he repeatedly declined. The reason he gave was striking. He did not attempt to deny that this would be the right thing to do. Rather, he claimed that for him it was too late. For he had heard a voice from Up High: Shuvu banim shovavim, “Return, my wayward children — except for Acher.” Since all avenues for his return were closed, his repentance would not be accepted in any case.
The Apta Rav and other chassidic masters assure us that it is inconceivable to think that Acher’s teshuvah would not have been accepted. Lo yidach mimenu nidach — every single Jewish soul, regardless of how far it has strayed and how low it has sunk, can return to Hashem.
So what then was the message that Acher heard?
It actually was more what he didn’t hear.
On each day a bas kol emanates from Shamayim saying “Shuvu banim shovavim.” The Ribbono shel Olam, our beloved Father and benevolent King, calls to us to return. Each of us “hears” this call in a different way and at a different time. For some it is a conscious urge to change our direction. For others it lurks deep under the surface, and we hardly realize that we have been inspired. It might be through a powerful drashah of a Rav or a casual comment of a friend.
All of us are constantly getting these calls and signals. Acher — because of his enormous sins — no longer merited to “hear” this call. Certainly he could have returned if he would have done so on his own, but he was no longer being reached out to.
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Yom Kippur is a day of teshuvah, the ultimate hours of return and repentance. It is also a day of judgment, a day on which we are literally pleading for our lives. At times these two concepts may appear to contradict each other. How can we one moment beat our chests with a long list of our sins and the next moment ask for another long list of personal favors?
The Berditchever Rav, zy”a, the legendary “defense attorney” for Klal Yisrael, had a unique approach to this dilemma, immortalized in a haunting song. He proposed an exchange, a remarkable business deal. He would give Hashem all our sins, in exchange for forgiveness, atonement, life, sustenance and generations!
A related teaching by the Berditchever Rav also helps guide us as to how to approach this dilemma.
As our Father, Hashem derives enormous “enjoyment,” so to speak, from giving us all our needs. Therefore, instead of us asking for our needs for our own sake, let us beseech Hashem to exhibit to us His great kindness for His sake, so that He should be able to derive the unique joy that is His when giving to us.
At that point, since we are not asking for ourselves, our merits or lack of them are no longer a barrier; after all, this is all for Hashem!
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Among the many tales told of the Berditchever Rav on the night of Kol Nidrei is the time he inexplicably waited to approach the amud. The set time to begin had long passed, night had fallen and then some, but the Rebbe of Berdichev did not begin the ancient, powerful chant of Kol Nidrei.
Then a woman slipped quietly into the ezras nashim. Well aware of the lateness of the hour, she was certain that she had already missed most, if not all, of the tefillah, and this thought was devastating to her.
Moments later, the Berditchever Rav began Kol Nidrei. Realizing that she had not missed it after all, the woman was filled with an indescribable joy and deep gratitude to Hashem.
At the conclusion of Kol Nidrei, the woman turned to the Ribbono shel Olam and said, “What shall I wish You in return for the good You did for me? I wish You to have nachas from Your children the way You gave me nachas from hearing Kol Nidrei.”
It was this heartfelt tefillah that the Rebbe had waited for. Her tefillah evoked enormous compassion in Heaven, and remains a lesson to all generations in our relationship to Hashem.
Let us make the most of these Days of Awe. Let us listen carefully to the calls of return emanating from within our souls and from all around us, and rededicate ourselves to our personal relationship with our Creator.