Helping the Dead?
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Reader: How do you understand Rabbi Meir’s and Rabbi Yochanan’s apparent improvement of their Achare’s fate after his death? Should it be interpreted that they actually helped Achare receive Olam Habah? However, is reward not based exclusively on one's merits? Here is the entire discussion in Talmud Chagiga 15b.
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When Achar passed away, the Heavenly Court declared that he should not be judged, nor brought into the World-to-Come. He should not be judged in a manner befitting his deeds, because he occupied himself with Torah, whose merit protects him. And he should not be brought into the World-to-Come because he sinned. Rabbi Meir said, “It is better that he be judged properly and be brought into the World-to-Come. When I die I will request this of Heaven, and I will cause smoke to rise up from his grave, as a sign that he is being sentenced in Gehennom.” When Rabbi Meir passed away, smoke rose up from the grave of Achare, implying that Rabbi Meir’s wish was granted. Rabbi Yochanan said, “Was this [truly] a mighty deed on Rabbi Meir’s part, to burn his teacher? Was this the only remedy available?” Can it be that there was one Sage among us who left the path and we cannot save him? If we hold him by the hand, who will remove him from our protection? Rabbi Yochanan continued and said, “When I die I will have the smoke extinguished from his grave, as a sign that he has been released from the sentence of Gehennom and brought to the World-to-Come.” Indeed, when Rabbi Yochanan passed away, the smoke ceased to rise up from the grave of Achare. A certain eulogizer began his eulogy of Rabbi Yochanan with the following: “Even the guard at the entrance could not stand before you, our rabbi. The guard at the entrance to Gehennom could not prevent Rabbi Yochanan from arranging the release of Achare.
Rabbi: God knows how to accurately judge all people, and He judges each person based on his/her own merit, not on the actions of others. This is perfectly just and reasonable, and God’s words make this a truth: “Fathers shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for their fathers: a person shall be put to death only for his own crime” (Deut. 24:16). Thus, Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yochanan cannot alter Achare's reward and punishment. So a literal reading of this talmudic portion cannot be accurate; it must convey a deeper message.
What this allegory means is that Rabbi Meir’s and Rabbi Yochanan’s dedication to save their teacher reflected Achare’s merits. This talmudic portion is revealing Achare's worth, as he left behind 2 Torah giants. When Rabbi Meir died, the metaphor of smoke ascending from Achare’s grave meant that Achare was being purified of sin, just as fire (smoke) purifies metal. And when Rabbi Yochanan died, the smoke stopped, indicating Achare's completion of his purification and his entrance to heaven. Neither Rabbi Meir or Rabbi Yochanan can offer God any new defense for Achare—“request this of Heaven”—as God is omniscient.
But why did Achare gain these two merits only upon the death of his two students? Were not Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yochanan great rabbis even once Achare died…long before their own deaths? God did not wait until Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yochanan died; God gave Achare his true reward once he died. But only upon these 2 rabbi’s deaths was their true measure revealed: “Better is the day of death than the day of birth” (Koheles 7:1) Ibn Ezra explains that its is only upon death that one’s total value is calculated. Rabbi Meir’s and Rabbi Yochanan’s value at death was the barometer of Achare’s value, but God knew this long before they died. Thus, the talmudic rabbis scripted this metaphor about smoke first rising from Achare’s grave and then stopping, to indicate that Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yochanan respectively revealed Achare’s value: Achare deserved atonement (smoke commencing) and entrance to the World to Come (smoke ceasing). Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yochanan did nothing new after Achare died. Rather, their very existence and perfections as great rabbis conveyed Achare’s worth.
“A person shall be put to death only for his own crime.” What others do affects only them: I do not pay for your sins, nor am I rewarded for your merits. We each are given free will. Based on our own choices we are rewarded or punished. “Whatever it is in your power to do, do with all your might. For there is no action, no reasoning, no learning, no wisdom in Sheol, where you are going” (Koheles 9:10). Meaning, once one dies, one cannot gain any further merit (Rashi, Ibid.)
We derive that part of human perfection is measured by our positive influence on others.