Four Entered the Orchard

Here is Rabbi Shalom Arush's amazing interpretation of the allegorical Gemara passage about the four scholars who entered the esoteric portals of Torah knowledge...

4 min

Rabbi Shalom Arush

Posted on 14.04.15

The Gemara describes the four scholars who probed the inner dimension of Torah, metaphorically referred to as the Pardess, the orchard (see tractate Chagiga, 14b): "Rebbe Akiva entered in peace and exited in peace; Ben Azai peeked and was struck; Ben Zoma peeked and died; Acher [Elisha ben Abuya] chopped down the plantings."


Let's first examine the profile of Rebbe Akiva, who was able to enter the deepest portals of the Torah's secrets in peace and exit in peace as well. Rebbe Akiva not only had a prodigious intellect, but a most upright character. He emphasizes that loving one's neighbor as oneself is the essence of Torah. Rebbe Akiva is also the pillar of emuna, and he teaches us to say that whatever Hashem does is always for the best (see tractate Berachot 60b). Rebbe Akiva  attained  the highest levels of emuna and humility. The entire Oral Torah stems from him. Our sages say that he was worthy enough to have received the Torah on Mount Sinai.  


Rebbe Akiva was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was the son of converts, and until age 40, a simple laborer. He attained everything he had with dedication, hard work, and prayer. He cried to Hashem for he every morsel of Torah that he learned. He suffered unspeakable poverty. Yet, he served Hashem and studied Torah with all his heart. His disadvantages were his advantages, for his poverty and his modest background made his climb in Torah and spirituality all teh more remarkable. He became the great of our people, yet he never forgot where he came from.


Rebbe Akiva so humbly viewed himself as nothing without Hashem. Therefore, he prayed for everything. Since everything he attained was the result of prayer, it was all beneficial. As such, he was able to become privy to the loftiest secrets of Torah without losing his mind or becoming arrogant.


Rebbe Nachman teaches (Likutei Moharan I:31) that both Ben Azai and Ben Zoma were tzaddikim of the highest caliber, for our sages tell us, "One who sees Ben Azai in a dream can expect to receive piety; one who sees Ben Zoma in a dream can expect wisdom" (see Avot D'Rebbe Natan, ch. 40). Yet, despite their lofty level, they could not see what Rebbe Akiva saw without being damaged. Why?


Rebbe Natan of Breslev always reminds us that wherever there is deficiency, there is lack of prayer. Either a person didn't pray at all or didn't pray sufficiently. We cannot possibly say that these two holy Tannaic sages didn't pray; but, we can say that they didn't pray sufficiently, for if they prayed as much as Rebbe Akiva did, they too would have entered and exited in peace. Their deficiency of prayer left them with a deficiency, for they lacked the proper receptacle to handle such blinding Divine light.


In order to trod safely in the lofty spiritual places where these two holy sages trodded, one needs a prodigious amount of prayer. Ben Azai "peeked and was struck"; in other words, since he lacked the spiritual vessel strong enough to contain such strong light, or more simply, his soul could not cope with such awesome secrets of Torah, he became insane.


Anyone who doesn't strengthen his soul with sufficient prayer will not have the capability of learning Torah in a beneficial manner. When I was a young man, I lived in Bnei Brak. I had a neighbor who became totally disoriented from learning Gemara. He learned day and night until he virtually lost his mind. The rabbinical leaders who were involved in this case firmly decided to prohibit this individual from learning Gemara any further! They allowed him to work, to travel, to listen to music or to do anything else he wanted, just not to learn Torah. I have no doubt that if this individual would have implemented Rebbe Nachman's advice to pray before and after learning Torah, he too would have been successful. And, if Ben Azai "peeked and was struck", Ben Zoma "peeked and died." Ben Zoma lacked the wherewithal to deal with such strong Divine light, and he lost his life altogether.


Let's reemphasize that Ben Azai and Ben Zoma were two tzaddikim on levels beyond our comprehension. If they could be damaged by learning Torah without sufficient prayer, than what can we, the simple people of this generation, say? We certainly must invest concerted effort in prayer. "Tefilla L'Oni" elaborates that Ben Azai and Ben Zoma placed a greater emphasis on learning than they did on prayer; they were therefore exposed at the highest levels of Torah secrets without sufficient protection. We might compare their souls to a 100-Watt light bulb that suddenly receives 250 Watts of current; it's incapable of handling the load, so it explodes. So, if the greatest tzaddikim must strengthen their souls through prayer to be able to become worthy receptacles for the Torah's light, we certainly must!


Both the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmud elaborate on the reasons that led to Elisha Ben Abuya's downfall. When he became a total heretic, his holy contemporaries wouldn't even mention his name; they referred to him as Acher, "the other one." The beginning of his Torah career was not for Hashem's sake. When his father saw the prestige given to Torah scholars, he wanted his son to become a Torah scholar as well.  Other accounts in the Talmud say that the circumstances of his conception were not holy and that when his mother was pregnant, she smelled the incense from a house of idolatry, both of which had ultimately tragic effects of her unborn son. Still another opinion says that Acher would listen to Greek music, and that he'd confuse young children with philosophical and existential questions as to the existence of G-d. Combined, all these factors led to his downfall.


If we say that BenAzai and Ben Zoma didn't pray sufficiently, we can say that Acher didn't pray at all. If he would have asked Hashem to lead him on the path of truth and righteousness, Hashem would have gladly complied. He wouldn't have met such a tragic and heretical fate.


The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Mishpatim) provides further proof of what we have said until now: Absalom, Doeg, Korach, Ahab and Elisha Ben Abuya were rescued from Purgatory by saying na'aseh venishma, we shall do and we shall heed." This amazing Midrash reveals a huge secret, namely, that the above-mentioned individuals were all extremely brilliant, yet as soon as they justified the stern judgment against them and took simple emuna upon themselves, their sentences were mitigated. The entire basis of na'aseh venishma, we shall do first and only afterwards we shall heed, means that way place emuna before intellectual prowess. In other words, prayer must precede Torah! Once a person understands this principle, stern judgments against him are mitigated as well. May we all grow in payer and in Torah, amen!

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