Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Point of Return
This week's parsha, Bo, begins with Hashem commanding Moshe:
"Come to Pharaoh, because I have made stubborn his
Rashi notes that although Moshe is told to go to Pharaoh, the Torah
does not make clear what the purpose of his visit is to be. It must be,
Rashi concludes, that his visit was in order to warn Pharaoh about
the impending plague of locusts.
Mefarshim question this. How could the purpose of Moshe's visit have
been to warn Pharaoh? One warns someone about an impending
danger that they are capable of avoiding. To warn him about an
unavoidable, inevitable peril, serves no purpose. Pharaoh, at this
point, had lost his free will. He could no longer repent - as Hashem
Himself testifies, "I have made stubborn his heart." So what purpose
could warning him possibly serve?
The Gemara (Chagiga 15a) tells the tragic story of Elisha ben Avuya -
also known as "Acher" - who after many years as a renowned Torah
scholar, lost his faith, and began to sin. One of Acher's greatest
disciples had been the great Talmudic sage Rabbi Meir. The Talmud
relates that even after his rebbe, Acher, had abandoned his Judaism,
Rabbi Meir continued to visit him, partly in order to try to bring him
Once, Rabbi Meir said to his rebbe: "What is the meaning
of that which is written (Iyov/Job 28:17), 'Gold and crystal
cannot equal it, nor can it be exchanged with golden
"This refers," said Acher, "to the words of Torah, which are
as difficult to acquire as gold, and as easy to lose as
crystal is to break!"
"No!" said Rabbi Meir, "your rebbe, Rabbi Akiva, did not
explain it like that. Rather, he said, 'Just like vessels of gold
and crystal, even if they broke, can always be fixed (even
crystal can be reheated and re-formed) - so too, even the
greatest Torah scholar, if he has done wrong, can still
repent!' Rebbe," pleaded Rabbi Meir, "relent from your
"Impossible!" said Acher, "I can not return. For from
behind the [heavenly] partition I have heard [the voice of
G-d] proclaiming (Yirmiyahu/Jeremiah 3:14), 'Return, O
wayward sons - except for Acher!' [Evidently, I am beyond
Even so, the Gemara relates, Rabbi Meir continued [unsuccessfully]
to hound his rebbe, pleading with him to repent. Did Rabbi Meir not
believe in Acher's heavenly voice? Can one indeed sin to the point
where he is "beyond teshuva?"
The short answer is: Yes, one can pervert his life so badly that the
Gates of Teshuva are closed in his face. One can, so to speak, sin to
the point of "no return." Indeed, this is precisely what occurred with
Acher. The heavenly voice was proof that his teshuva was no longer
Yet, asks Agra de-Pirka, what would have been if, after the initial
shock of hearing the heavenly proclamation "Return, O wayward
sons - except for Acher," Elisha would have said to himself: "So what!
Perhaps they can prevent me from entering the Garden of Eden, but
they can't stop me from trying to salvage my wretched life! I will do
my best to repent. If my teshuva will not be accepted - so be it. At
least I will know that I have not lived out my last days wallowing in the
disgust of my own sin!" Would his teshuva indeed have been thrown
in his face?
A rebbe has a very difficult student. Continued threats seem to be
falling on deaf ears. He has already been suspended for a period, for
a day, and for a week. Finally, in desperation, the rebbe gives him an
ultimatum: "That's it," he says earnestly, "no more chances! Mark my
words: The next time will be your last! If you misbehave one more
time, we're through. I will never again let you back into my class."
Soon afterward, the student pulls a prank. "Out!" hollers the rebbe,
"and never come back again!"
What, I once asked my students, should the "wayward student" do?
Should he 1) Plead with his rebbe for "one more chance"? 2) Leave
the class and - obeying his rebbe's words - never come back. 3) Come
back tomorrow (or next week) and plead for his rebbe's forgiveness?
It's hard to know for sure, but my students felt that to some extent
the rebbe was really testing his student. Did he really care about
remaining in yeshiva? Would he come back, or would he use his
rebbe's harsh punishment as an excuse to leave the yeshiva forever -
"After all, my rebbe told me never to come back!" At any rate, they
decided, to make no attempt to placate his rebbe would be a major
This, explain sefarim, was Hashem's test of Acher. The voice he
heard was very real. Indeed, having heard that fatal voice itself made
repentance almost impossible. Yet the potential was still there. Elisha
could have ignored the voice, and done what's right.
Pharaoh's heart had been hardened. He had sinned and done evil to
the point that Hashem was no longer interested in his changing his
mind. He had had his chance - now it was too late. Let him die in the
abyss of his own sin. Yet Hashem still sends Moshe to warn him. The
warning implies the potential - however remote - for repentance.
Pharaoh could have mustered the last drops of goodness left within
him, and heeded Moshe's warning. If he really wanted to, he could
have battled against the odds, and won. [Nesivos Shalom]
Sometimes, the Acher/Pharaoh within us would have us believe that
we too have "jumped off the deep end," that we have corrupted our
lives and misguided ourselves to the point of no return. This
saddening thought must be ignored. We must rejoice in the
realization that there is - no matter how convinced we may be
otherwise - no "point of no return." Ultimately, it is the acceptance or
denial of this thought that will guide our future paths, not the sin that
brought us there in the first place.
Text Copyright © 2000 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.