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A Role Reversal
“Return, O Wayward Sons…”
(Chagigah 15a)



The Gemara relates the unfortunate episode of Elisha b. Abuyah, Rabbi Meir’s teacher who strayed from the path of Torah and mitzvos and became an incorrigible sinner, after which he was disparagingly referred to as “Acher” (lit. another person). The Gemara relates that Rabbi Meir continued to discuss Torah topics with Acher and tried (unsuccessfully) to coax him to return to the fold. (Tosafos s.v. “shuvu banim…” – citing the Jerusalem Talmud – offer a different view, stating that Rabbi Meir was able to restore Acher’s right to Gan Eden due to his vast Torah knowledge.) The Gemara explains that even though, as a rule, a disciple must learn Torah only from a virtuous teacher, Rabbi Meir was an exception since he was an accomplished scholar in his own right and he felt that he was capable of absorbing the Torah teachings that Acher had to offer while disregarding the negative influence of Acher’s sinful behavior.


Two Possible Portions

Acher imparted to Rabbi Meir the following teaching in the name of Rabbi Akiva: For each person entering this world, Hashem created one portion in Gan Eden and one portion in Gehinnom. One who lives his life righteously is awarded two portions in Gan Eden – his own and that of his wicked counterpart. Conversely, one who leads a wicked life is awarded two portions in Gehinnom – his own and what could have been the righteous person’s portion.


A Free Choice Endowment

The Maharsha (Chiddushei Aggados, Hagigah 15a) explains that this teaching underscores the fundamental doctrine of bechira – free will. Even though Hashem knows the future, every person has the ability to lead his life as he chooses, either as a tzaddik or as a rasha. Hashem creates two portions for every person entering the world to demonstrate that each person is endowed with the ability to lead a righteous life, so that no one can claim that his failings and iniquities are predetermined and that it is beyond his control to change for the better.

The commentators question the fairness of each person receiving two portions in the World to Come, his own and that of his fellow.


Method Of Compensation

The Iyyun Yaakov (Hagigah 15a) explains that a rasha benefits in this world from the bounty that Hashem provides as a reward for a tzaddik’s good deeds, and conversely, a tzaddik suffers from the harm, destruction and deprivation visited upon the world as punishment for a rasha’s wicked behavior. Therefore, it is fitting that the tzaddik receive the rasha’s vacated portion in Gan Eden since he benefited the rasha in this world. Conversely, it is fitting for the rasha to receive the tzaddik’s vacated portion in Gehinnom since he caused the tzaddik to suffer in this world.


A Matter Of Influence

The Beis Halevi (Parashas Noach) explains that a rasha, through his wicked deeds, has a negative influence on others and thus must bear, in Gehinnom, the responsibility for the sins of others. On the other hand, a tzaddik who inspires others to behave righteously is credited in Gan Eden for the good deeds of others. The Beis Halevi explains that a rasha is rewarded in this world rather than in the next for any good deeds that he has performed (since he performed them mainly because of the influence of a tzaddik). Conversely, a tzaddik is punished for any sins in this world (since he sinned primarily because of the rasha’s influence).


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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.