The Death of R. Eliezer (ch.10 of Akiva and Ephraim by Alexander Zephyr)
Now we are approaching the finale of this drama-story. After being banned, R Eliezer lived in retirement with his wife, Ima Shalom. He was well removed from the center of Torah learning, though occasionally some of his disciples visited him and informed him of the transactions of the Sanhedrin (Yadayim 4:3).
It was in this depressing time of rejection and humiliation that R. Eliezer said: â€œLet the honor of thy colleague [variant, "pupils"] be as dear to thee as thine own, and be not easily moved to anger. Repent one day before thy death. Warm thyself by the fire of the wise men, but be cautious of their burning coals ("slight them not"), that thou be not burned; for their bite is the bite of a jackal, their sting is that of a scorpion, their hissing is that of a snake, and all their words are fiery coalsâ€.
Â "Repent one day before dying!" When the disciples inquired as to how it was possible to know on which day they would die, he replied: "That is just what I mean. Because a person does not know when he will die, he must therefore repent every day!"Â Â
When R. Eliezer fell mortally sick, R. Akiva and his companions went to visit him. That day was Sabbath eve. The Sages, seeing that his mind was clear, entered his chamber and sat down at a distance of four cubits.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â â€œWhy have you come?â€ said he to them. â€œTo study the Torahâ€, they replied; â€œAnd why did you not come before now?â€ he asked. They answered, â€œWe had no timeâ€.
This is a very short Talmudic story with a huge subject-matter. As far as the story goes, this Friday night was the last day of life for R. Eliezer. He had been sick for a while, maybe for a few days or weeks. The Talmud does not specify the length of his sickness, but it also does not say that R. Eliezer suddenly become sick on this Friday afternoon which happened to be the last day of his life. The explanation for Â the unexpected visit by R. Akiva and the group of the Rabbis to a dying Sage may have been due to Ima Shalom, his wife. Perhaps she understood that her husband would not last much longer and was about to expire, so she expeditiously notified them. It is clearly pointed out that R. Akiva and his companions were visiting Â the excommunicated R. Eliezer for the first time (â€œAnd why did you not come before now?â€). He had been banned as a result of the â€˜famousâ€™ Dispute over the Aknai oven. As the story shows, it was also the last time they would see him.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Something is grossly wrong here. Why did the Sages not come to see their sick colleague?! Well, the rules of banning did not allow the members of the Sanhedrin to visit an excommunicated person, but what about his most renowned disciple R. Akiva with his inner cycle of very influential rabbis who were not member of the Sanhedrin? This student, R. Akiva, who became the spiritual leader of the nation, the â€˜Father of all Sagesâ€™, but did not come to see his sick beloved Master?! Wow!
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Remember the story recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 40a, when one of R. Akivaâ€™s students become ill and none of the Sages went to visit him except for R. Akiva? Because of this tremendous honor, the student got well and said, â€œRebbe, you have brought me lifeâ€. What did R. Akiva do after this? He gathered his students and lectured them, "Anyone who does not visit the sick is as if he has spilled bloodâ€. Rav Dimi went even further declaring that, "Anyone who visits the sick causes him to live and anyone who does not visit the sick causes him to die."
There is another wonderful story in the Talmud entitled â€˜Beautyâ€™.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â â€˜Rabbi Elaezar fell ill, and Rabbi Yochanan went to visit him.
Rabbi Eleazar was lying in a dark room, but Rabbi Yochanan bared his
arm, and such was the beauty of Rabbi Yochanan that the room became
full of light. So they sat down and wept togetherâ€™ (Talmud: Berakhot 5b).
What was wrong with R. Akiva? On the one hand, he is in a fit of anger against those who ignore visiting sick comrades and compare them to killers; on the other hand, he has not followed his words and has not honored his sick teacher, who he has acknowledged to the word as a â€˜Masterâ€™. Is that how he showed his love and respect for R. Eliezer?!
And after all, we wonder why 24,000 of R. Akivaâ€™s disciples had so many imperfections that they were condemned by Heavenly court and died a horrible death. It is easier to blame the students for their fate, as the majority of the authors have done, than to connect the real cause of their downfall and role in it to their spiritual teacher and leader â€“ R. Akiva.Â Â Â Â Â Â
Â â€œImprove yourself, and only afterwards, try to improve othersâ€ (Bava Metzia 107a).
Friday evening, engrossed in the study of the holy Torah with his students and sages, and answering "pure" on the final question, R. Eliezer saintly soul went up to heaven.
When R. Joshua heard the last word â€˜cleanâ€™ before the soul of R. Eliezer departed, he arose and exclaimed, â€œThe vow is annulled, the vow is annulled!â€ (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, Folio 68a).
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Though excommunicated, Rabbi Eliezer is quoted in the Mishnah, the Baraita, and the Talmud more frequently than any one of his colleagues. He is also the putative author of a work known as â€˜The Ethics of Rabbi Eliezerâ€™.
On the conclusion of the Sabbath the remains ofÂ R. Eliezer were carried from Caesarea to Lydda, where he had formerly conducted his academy, and there he was buried. R. Joshua in his eulogy reportedly kissed the stone on which R. Eliezer used to sit while instructing his pupils, and said, â€œThis stone represent Sinai, and he who sat on it represented the Ark of the Covenantâ€ (Canticles Rabbah 1:3). From another Talmudic source we learn that R. Joshua stood by the death-bed of his colleague Eliezer b. Hyrcanus and called to him: â€œO Master, thou art of more value to Israel than Godâ€™s gift of the rain; since the rain gives life in this world only, whereas thou givest life both in this world and in the world to comeâ€ (Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin Folio 101a).
Our Rabbis taught: When R. Eliezer fell sick, four elders went to visit him: R. Tarfon, R. Joshua, R. Eleazar b. Azariah, and R. Akiba. R. Tarfon observed, â€œThou art more valuable to Israel than rain; for rain is [precious] in this world, whereas thou art [so] for this world and the nextâ€Â (For as a result of his teaching Israel would enjoy a reward in the next world too). R. Joshua observed, â€œThou art more valuable to Israel than the sun's disc: the sun's disc is but for this world, whilst my master is for this world and the next.â€ R. Eleazar b. Azariah observed, â€œThou art better to Israel than a father and a mother: these are for this world, whereas my master is for this world and the nextâ€.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â What was R. Akiva reaction on the death of his Master? When R. Eliezer said to the visitors, â€˜There is a fierce wrath in the worldâ€™, referring to himself, as God is angry with him and that is why He made him suffer. The disciples broke into tears, but R. Akiva laughed. â€œWhy are you laughing? They inquire of him. â€˜Why do you weep? He retorted. â€˜Shall the Scroll of the Torah (R. Eliezer) lie in pain, and we not weep? He replied, â€˜For that very reason I rejoiceâ€™. While the scholars stood at their teacher deathbed, R. Akiva explains, â€˜You see, my Master was prosperous and completely successful in everything. He enjoyed an ideal life. I had a suspicion, God forbid, that he may have received all his rewards in this world, living nothing for the next world to come; but now that I see him lying in pain and suffering, I rejoice, knowing that he has been purged of whatever minute sin he may have committed, and his reward has been treasured up for him in the next worldâ€™.
Â R. Eliezer said to him, â€œAkiba, have I neglected anything of the whole Torah?â€ (That you are saying that I now suffer for my sins, so that I may have nothing but reward in the World- to- Come). He replied, 'Thou, O Master, has taught us, for there is not a just man upon earth, that does good and sin notâ€ (Ecclesiast 7:20).Â Suffering is preciousâ€ (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 101a).Â Â Â Â Â Â
Â â€œAkiva, you have comforted me. Akiva, you have comforted meâ€, with scarcely perceptible and a cunning smile in a tired voice whispered R. Eliezer and closed eyes.
When R. Eliezer did,Â Rabbi Akiva solemnly pronounced, â€œMy father, my father, the chariot of Israel and the horsemen thereofâ€ (2 Kings 2:12; Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 68a).