Elisha Ben Abuya

Parsha Ki Tetzei | Saturday, August 29, 2015


This week’s Parsha Ki Tetzei is filled with many Mitzvot. But more-so than usual. According to Maimonides in his Sefer Mitzvot, there are 74 individual Mitzvot that have their origin in this Parsha. There are many ones we know well – the obligation to return lost objects, the need to assist fallen animals, and the obligation to remember what Amalek did to us on our way out of Egypt. But there is one Mitzvah in particular I always focus on, not just because of its specific content, but because of what it represents. Chapter 22, verses 6-7 read:

“If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or the eggs, do not take the mother with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.”

This Mitzvah, known as shiluach haken, seems practical. If you need to take eggs from a nest in order to find food, you should first send away the mother bird so that she won’t witness you disturbing her young. And what does the Torah say will happen if you follow this commandment? למען ייטב לך והארכת ימים. “You will fare well and have a long life.” That’s quite a reward for following a simple Mitzvah. In fact, it’s one of only three mitzvot in the entire Torah for which this reward of long life is promised. One is a commandment of maintaining honest waits and measures, and the other is the commandment to honor one’s parents.

כַּבֵּד אֶת־אָבִיךָ וְאֶת־אִמֶּךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוְּךָ ה׳ אֱלֹקיךָ לְמַעַן | יַאֲרִיכֻן יָמֶיךָ וּלְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ

Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may long endure, and that you may fare well.

It’s not common for the Torah to list specific rewards for Mitzvot in this way, so the fact that these three commandments share the same reward seems to be telling us something. But it’s the combination of two of these mitzvot, that come together to give us one of the most interesting, dramatic, troubling, and real-life stories in all of rabbinic literature.

Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya was a rabbinic sage who lived in the years following the destruction of the Second Temple. We read that as a child, he loved learning, and was on the path to becoming a great scholar. In Pirkei Avot, our collection of the rabbis’ favorite sayings we read, “Elisha ben Abuya taught: Learning Torah as a child is like writing on fresh paper. But learning Torah in old age is like writing on a scroll.” (Avot 4:20) Much of his life is described and fictionalized in the great novel by Rabbi Milton Steinberg, “As A Driven Leaf.” It’s really a great piece of literature. Based on references in traditional sources, Rabbi Steinberg crafts a historical novel set in the days of great rabbinic sages.

According to the novel, as well as hinted at in Talmudic sources, Elisha ben Abuya studied both traditional Jewish texts, as well as Greek Philosophy, and struggled to reconcile the two. It was then, as he was becoming known as a great rabbi and scholar, that the defining moment of his life occurred.

This story appears in the text of the Talmud (Hagiga 15a-b), but the way Steinberg describes in the novel is too good to pass up.

“It was at this moment of strange, ominous sunset, then the world weltered in gore, that the end came for Elisha. At the edge of the garden, down a long slope of lawn, a peasant and a boy circled about the foot of a lone tall tree. ‘Get all the eggs, my son,’ the man said in a voice that reached the rabbis but faintly. ‘Be careful to send the mother bird away.’ Nodding, the boy set about climbing the tree.

One of the sages shook himself from his hypnotic trance. ‘That boy will live long,’ he muttered whimsically. ‘For observe, in one act he is fulfilling two commandments, the reward of which is expressly stated as length of days. He is obeying his father, and it is written, ‘Honor they father and thy mother that they days may be prolonged upon the earth.’ He will send the mother bird away, thus conforming to the injunction, ‘If a bird’s nest chance before thee… thou shalt surely send the mother bird free that it may go well with thee and that thou mayest prolong thy days.” (Sound familiar?)

A few moments later wings fluttered about a treetop and a bare, slender arm waved toward it from among the branches. Then a treble cry shattered the silence. A sprawling body plummeted downward. Simultaneously a deeper voice sounded, inarticulate with pain. Instantly the rabbis rushed headlong down the grassy slope. the peasant was already on his knees gathering the boy into his arms. ‘Tell me,” he said, lifting a distorted face to them, “does he still live?” One of the sages bent over the boy, then rose, shaking his head. “Baruch Dayan Ha-emet. Blessed be the Righterous Judge…”

The sages turned and slowly mounted the slope together, talking meanwhile, trying to restore their confidence, to solidify a crumbling universe. At first, Elisha did not listen, so stunned was he, so dazed his senses. But as his mind recovered from its initial disorganization, he heard one of them say, “He will have his length of days. God is just. It is hard to understand but let us remember that there is a better world, in which it is all day, a day that stretches for eternity.”

At once Elisha knew the answer to the question he had never ventured to face before. A great negation crystallized in him. The veil of deception dissolved before his eyes. The only belief he still cherished disintegrated as had all the others. The last tenuous chord that bound him to his people was severed. And when the sages droned on, their words buzzing like flies, revulsion swept Elisha. He could no longer tolerate their deliberate blindness. In cold desperation he silenced them.

“It is all a lie,” he said with a terrible quiet in his voice. “There is no reward. There is no judge. There is no judgement. For there is no God.”

The wind blew in from the sea across horror-stricken faces. The sun weltering so long in its old blood, died slowly.”

So to summarize, Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya watched a young boy honor his father, follow his instructions, and climb a tree to send a way the mother bird before taking it’s eggs. Two commandments for which the Torah says we will have long life. Only to watch this boy fall from the tree to his death. Seeing this, becomes to much for Elisha and he loses all his faith, leaving the rabbinical world behind.

Needless to say, the rest of the Rabbis did not view Elisha very favorably after this point. Someone who lost their faith and loses belief in the system, had no purpose to the rabbis. On the occasions he is brought up in the Talmud he is generally referred to as “Acher – the other” as opposed to his own name. This is quite an attack, to take away his name, and his identity. But even as his name has been removed in many instances, the wisdom of Elisha ben Abuya has not.

There’s a collection of Midrash, rabbinic legend known as Avot D’Rabbi Natan – “The Fathers According to Rabbi Natan.” It takes this name because in many instances it serves as a kind of commentary to Pirkei Avot. But later on in its collection, there is an entire chapter that is devoted to the teachings of Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah. It begins:

אלישע בן אבויה אומר, אדם שיש בו מעשים טובים ולמד תורה הרבה למה הוא דומה?

Elisha ben Abuya says: A person that performs good deeds and studies Torah, to what is he similar? To a person who builds first with stones and afterwards with bricks: even when much water comes and collects by their side, it does not dislodge them.

And a person who does not do good deeds, even though they study Torah: to what is he similar? To a person who builds first with bricks and afterwards with stones: even when a little water gathers, it overthrows them immediately.

There’s a lot to say about this teaching. It’s not surprising, given his history, that Elisha ben Abuya needed to see Torah in action, and not just in the books. He knows what the Torah says, but unless he sees that reflected in this world, it doesn’t matter to him.  For us too, we need this to be true. We all know of many people who can study the words  of Torah, knowing it backwards and forwards in the books, but don’t seem to live it in the way we hope they would. Instead, we look for the people who take action with the

Torah, living lives of deeds, as well as studying the Torah deeply.

But even beyond the content of this teaching, the fact that it is there in the first place has so much to teach us. As much as the Rabbis tried to discredit Elisha ben Abuya for his heresy and his loss of faith, to brand him as an outsider, as the “other,” they were not fully able to keep his teachings out. They knew, that the outsider, the “other,” still has much to teach us. How often do we see this ourselves? That it’s the people who seem like they don’t always fit in, that think something different from us, that it is these people who have something important to teach us.

As the Rabbis of the Talmud knew, even as much as they didn’t like certain things Elisha ben Abuya had to say, there was still a lot of important teachings coming from him. It’s this lesson I often think of when reading Parshat Ki Teitzei and the mitzvah of Shiluach HaKen. That yes, we are commanded to send away the mother bird, but should we really be sending anyone else away? Don’t they have wisdom to share and ideas to teach?

As we continue leading up the High Holidays, I hope that each of us can find ways of reaching the outsiders, the others in our lives, and to find ways to still learn from them, and even potentially, to bring them back.

Shabbat Shalom