Rabbi Meir
Rabbi Yaakov Haber
May 29, 2010
“Rabbi Dostai bar Yannai says in the name of Rabbi Meir: whoever forgets anything (Dovar Echod) of his learning, Scripture considers it as if he bears guilt for his soul (chayiv benafsho)… He only bears guilt for his soul if he sits and removes these things from his consciousness” 3:10
People often misquote this and say if a person forgets anything he’s chayiv meesa, the death penalty.  Rather it says “chayiv benafsho”, which probably is best translated as ‘he forfeits his soul’.  But it is still enigmatic.  A person can’t forget anything? When it says that the person is removing what he knows from his consciousness, what is this referring to?  . 
Let’s try to examine what the Mishnah is saying by learning a Gemorah in Eruvin 13b that discusses Rabbi Meir.  It says: No one was equal to Rebbe Meir in his generation.  But the hallachah does not accord with him because his colleagues couldn’t fathom the depth of his mind.  Some say that his name was really Rabbi Nehorai, or Rabbi Nechmiah, or Rabbi Eleazer – but he was called Rabbi Meir because he enlightened his colleagues.  He would declare that what was tomay (impure) is tahar (pure), and what is tahar is tomay, and he would give reasons to prove it.  Some of his students would give 48 reasons to prove it, and others would give 150 reasons to prove it.  Rebbe says that I am keener than my colleagues because I saw the back of Rabbi Meir, but if I had seen the front of him, I would be keener still. 
All this makes Rabbi Meir even more enigmatic.  If he enlightened his generation, why isn’t the hallachah like him?  We know that stam mishnah is Rabbi Meir, but in actuality a mishnah does not go like Rabbi Meir unless the Chochomim agree with him.
We don’t know what his real name is.  In fact we don’t know much about Rabbi Meir’s background, such as his father’s name. (Another gemorah suggests that his grandfather was the Roman leader Nero).
Tosfos asks on this page of the Gemorah: What is the purpose of proving that something that is tomay is tahar?  For example, how does it help if a person holds up a sheretz and proves that it is tahar, or holds up a regular bagel and proves that its tomay?   People who went to his Yeshiva learned 150 ways to prove that a sheretz is tahor.  What’s the purpose of doing this?
Rebbe says that he benefited by seeing the back of Rabbi Meir, and would have known more if he had seen him from the front.  In my life, I had the privilege of seeing great Rabbis, such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Yaacov Kaminetsky, Rav Schach, and the Rogetchever.  (It’s said that when Einstein met the Rogetchover, Einstein said, “I’m Ein Stein (one stone), but he’s Feir Stein (four stones).  Imagine how much more I’d know if I had been chavrusas with these great Rabbis.  Is this what Rebbe is referring to?
One of Rabbi Meir’s main teachers was Alisha ben Avuya - Acher.  The Rabbis ask how could Rabbi Meir have learned from Acher?  This was during the end of the Hadrian decrees, and Acher was a poster child of what that can go wrong with a person during this period of Churban.  There are indications that he had been a Godol Hador, with yeshivas all over the Galil.  Then he became an Apikoris, he helped the Romans, and he said that what happens in this world has no relation to what happens in Shamayim. How could Rabbi Meir have learned from Acher?
So our Mishnah is enigmatic, and Rabbi Meir is enigmatic.  I think we can get insight into both Rabbi Meir and this Mishnah through the writing of Rabbi Tzaddok Hakoain.
(Add quotes from Rabbi Tzaddok)
The Maharal points out that when the Chumash describes how Hashem created the world, it uses the word Hamavdil twelve times. There where twelve separations – for example separating light from darkness, separating the upper waters from the lower waters, separating Shamayim from Ha’aretz, separating water from dry land, and in the end separating man from woman.  If you go to the edge of the beach, you can see that this is land and then this is water.  There was havdallah, havdallah, havdallah, working its way from a total unity at the very beginning where none of these separations exist, until we have the world as we know it. 
One of the things we try to do in learning is to clarify these distinctions, these separations.  This gives rise to machloches, disagreement.  While learning with someone, I claim that this is the distinction, and he says no, this is where the dividing line is.  Like all things, this machloches can be carried too far, and it has to have its limits.  I remember when I first went to Brisk, I once got on the number 7 bus and found myself sitting next to one of the more senior of the Brisker Yungerleight.  So I asked him, “Perhaps you can share with me one of your insights?” He answered, “Better yet, why don’t you say something and I’ll shlug you up?”
Rabbi Meir had learned how to work his way back up this ladder of separations, and could see the way things existed in their higher state of unity.  For example, in our world there is Tov and Ra, Good and Bad.  Rabbi Meir was able to go up the ladder and see the world in the state before Tov and Ra were separated, where there is a unity in the state where both Tov and Ra came from. 
Rabbi Meir had three teachers – Rabbi Akiva, Alisha ben Avuya, and Ishmael Kohain Godol.  Rabbi Akiva recognized this state before Tov and Ra became separated, and said “Everything is for the good”.  One of Rabbi Akiva’s teachers was Nachum Ish Gamzu, who went even one step further, and said, “Gamzu le Tova”, everything IS good.  If you climb up the ladder past the division of Tov and Ra, you can see that they have a common source, before there is a separation between good and bad
In the world in which we live, this is very hard to see.  This was especially true in the world after the Churban Bais Hamikdosh and the Hadrian decrees.  Alisha ben Avuya was not able to see things this way. When he saw the Ra in this world, he could not see that it might have a source in Shamayim that was good, and this caused him to go off the derech. He ‘cut the roots of the saplings’, meaning that he felt that the bad he saw in this world couldn’t be connected to Shamayim.
There are religious that are based on this inability to see that Tov and Ra come from a common source.  This ‘dualism’ gives rise to the idea that there must be two reshuous, in a sense two ‘gods’, one that is the source of good and the other that is the source of bad.
At times, such as on Tisha B’av, some of us are able to say that Tov and Ra have a common source.  We see that from the destruction of the first Bais Hamikdosh came the miracle of Purim and the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah.  From the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdosh came the Talmud Bavli.  But that is partly because these events are distant, and we forget that millions of Jews were slaughtered. We can’t do this with the Holocaust, because its pain is too fresh.  Perhaps this will be different in 100 years, 200 years, or 1000 years.  When Mochiach comes he’ll help us see how it’s all been for the good.
It was the ability to do this – to see the unity that preceded the separations of this world - that Rabbi Meir taught in his Yeshiva.  This is what is meant when the Germorah says that he and his students could prove that what is tamay is tahor, and what is tahor is tamay.  If you climb up to the state that precedes the separation of tumah and taharah, you see that they both came from a common source. In that primordial state, there is no distinction between between tumah and taharah.  From that viewpoint, you can show that what is tomay is really tahar, and what is tahar is really tomay. 
In a sense we try to do this when we get married.  Hashem separated man from woman. Through marriage we try to achieve a unity that existed before this separation.  When people go to a marriage counselor, they often have to clarify their many areas of disagreement – and it often seems to get a lot worse before it gets better - and many thousands of dollars later, the attempt is to bring the husband and wife together to the state of unity between man and woman before they were separated from each other.
One of Rabbi Meir’s teachers was Yishmael Kohain Godol.  The Gemorah describes the time that Rabbi Meir asked to be his student. Yismael asked him what he does.  This is a good thing for a Rebbe to do, to ask his Talmid  how he supports his family.  Rabbi Meir answered that he is a Sofer.  Yishmael then answered: Be very careful, because one drop of ink can make a world of difference.  For example, in the sentence of the Shema, one drop of ink can turn the Echod into Acher, which would make it have the opposite meaning.  Likewise there are psukim where one drop of ink can turn the word Acher into the word Echod. 
This answers how Rabbi Meir could learn Torah from Alisha ben Avuya.  He was able to get to the madrega where he could turn Acher into Echod.  Acher himself couldn’t see that Tov and Ra had a common source, but Rabbi Meir could.  Rabbi Meir could perceive and benefit from the source of Acher’s teachings, before it split off into good and bad. 
This also explains why, though Rabbi Meir enlightened his generation, the Halachah cannot be like him.  When it comes to Halachah, one has to see the distinctions in this world between good and bad and everything else. Halachah is for this world where distinctions are relevant and real.
Another Gemorah says that many years after Rabbi Meir had passed away, they found his Sefer Torah.  You can imagine the excitement of such a find.  While going through it, they discovered a change in the sentence, “And Hashem made for Adam and his wife garments of skin (Or)”. In this sentence, the word for skin that is usually spelled with an Eyin was spelled with an Aleph, changing the word from skin to ‘light’.  The Litvish part of me had to do some research about what this means, and the Maras Chayis says that Rabbi Meir had written this change in the margin.  This implies that while Adam and Chava were still in Gan Eden, they only had to be clothed with light.  It’s only when they left Gan Eden into the world as we know it, that their clothing had to become physical, and was transformed into skin.
With this insight into Rabbi Meir, we have a new understanding of our original Mishnah. The Mishnah says, “Whoever forgets Dovar Echod of his learning, Scripture considers it as if is Mischayiv Benafsho.” Rabbi Meir is saying that there is a Dovar Echod of learning.  As we go higher up the ladder, we see that distinctions and separations have one source, and it all emanates for Hashem. Anyone who forgets this, and gets lost in the distinctions, is Mischayiv Benafsho, he is forfeiting a crucial aspect of his Nefesh.
Let’s look deeper into what Mischayiv Benafsho means.  In his sefer Nefesh Hachaim, Rabbi Chaim Veloshin says that we have within us three spiritual components.  On the top is Neshama, and this is our connection to Shamayim.  One level down is Ruach.  The lowest, most physical level is our Nefesh.  When a person is Chayiv Korase, it says that he has cut off his Nefesh.  What this means is that his Nefesh, that is connected by means of the higher levels all the way to Shamayim and Hashem, is suddenly disconnected to the upper realms, and is left dangling and cut off. 
So Rabbi Meir is saying that when we learn, we must not forget that everything comes from a single source, that precedes all distinctions. Anyone who forgets this is risking cutting off his Nefesh from its source.