AGADAH: The Gemara relates that when Acher died, the heavenly tribunal was at
a loss for what to do with him. On one hand, he could not be judged in
Gehinom, because he had been deeply involved in Torah study during his life.
On the other hand, he could not to be brought to Olam ha'Ba, because of his
sins. Rebbi Meir, Acher's student, exclaimed, "It is better that he be judged
in Gehinom in order to eventually be brought to Olam ha'Ba. When will I die
and be able to make smoke rise from his grave!" Indeed, when Rebbi Meir died,
smoke rose up from the grave of Acher.
Subsequently, Rebbi Yochanan declared that he wanted to end Acher's
punishment; no one in Shamayim would stop him from bringing Acher to Olam
ha'Ba, Rebbi Yochanan said, if he took him there personally (after death).
How was Rebbi Meir able to cause Acher to be judged in Gehinom (symbolized by
smoke rising from his grave)? Why was Rebbi Meir unable to bring Acher
directly to Olam ha'Ba, without first being judged in Gehinom? After all,
enabling Acher to enter Olam ha'Ba was Rebbi Meir's objective, as he said
("It is better that he be judged in Gehinom in order to then be brought to
RAV ELIYAHU DESSLER zt'l explains as follows (Michtav me'Eliyahu 4:193).
Tosfos (15a) says that when Acher's father brought him to learn Torah, his
intention was Lo Lishmah. Acher's father had seen the respect given to
Talmidei Chachamim, and he wanted his son to have the same respect.
Consequently, Acher, all his life, learned Torah she'Lo Lishmah.
The Yerushalmi (cited by Tosfos) says that one of two things caused him to
turn wayward. One opinion says that he saw a person die while honoring his
father (which the Torah says is rewarded with a long life) by sending away a
mother-bird from the nest in order to take the chick (which the Torah also
says is rewarded with a long life). Another opinion says that he saw the
tongue of Rebbi Yehudah ha'Nachtom being dragged by a dog, after Rebbi
Yehudah ha'Nachtom had spent his entire life learning and teaching Torah (see
also Bavli, Kidushin 39b). Since Acher perceived the purpose of learning
Torah as being a means of gaining respect, when he saw that one could learn
Torah and not receive honor for it (in this world), and even be disgraced for
it, he could not tolerate the incongruence. This is why he went wayward.
Judgment in Gehinom means that a soul realizes the terrible void that
characterized one's life in this world due to the Aveiros that he committed.
This terrible shame continues until the soul has suffered enough for all of
the Aveiros that the person did. Then, the soul is cleansed of the Aveiros,
and the person is able to receive reward for all of the Mitzvos that he did
Since Acher had learned so much Torah and had excelled to such great heights
in his Torah learning, even though it was Lo Lishmah, his soul could not
experience the feeling of void and lacking that is the Gehinom experience.
Since his soul could not be purged of his Aveiros, he could not enter Olam
ha'Ba. Rebbi Meir, therefore, decided that he would help Acher.
Rebbi Meir excelled in learning Torah Lishmah. It was Rebbi Meir who said,
"One who has learns Torah Lishmah merits many things" (Avos 6:1). Since Rebbi
Meir's learning was totally Lishmah, when Rebbi Meir died and Acher saw the
difference between his learning and Rebbi Meir's, his soul finally felt the
lowliness of the way he had learned Torah while he was alive. Thus, it was
through Rebbi Meir that Acher was able to experience Gehinom and be cleansed
of his Aveiros, and then be rewarded for his Mitzvos.
Rebbi Yochanan, though, wanted to bring Acher directly to Gan Eden. We find
that through learning Torah, a Talmid gives merit to his deceased Rebbi.
Rebbi Yochanan often quoted teachings that he heard from Rebbi Meir, and it
is likely that he pointed out that their source was Acher. (See TOSFOS in
Sotah 12a, DH Acherim Omrim, who says that when the Gemara quotes the opinion
of "Acherim" throughout the Gemara, it refers to Rebbi Meir who heard that
teaching from Acher.) By giving over the teachings of Acher, Rebbi Yochanan
was able to arouse the Zechus of Acher.
When Rebbi Yochanan died, people quoted his teachings that he taught in the
name of Rebbi Meir and Acher, and thus he was able to raise Acher out of
Gehinom and bring him to Olam ha'Ba. (Rav Dessler explains Rebbi Yochanan's
strategy for saving Acher somewhat differently.) Rebbi Meir, though, could
not bring Acher to Olam ha'Ba in that manner. Since Rebbi Meir lived in the
same generation as Acher, he could not quote Acher and give honor to Acher's
teachings, because he did not want others to respect Acher and learn from his
ways (even after Acher's death). Therefore, the only way Rebbi Meir could
cause Acher to go to Olam ha'Ba was to be judged for his Aveiros. Rebbi
Yochanan, though, lived later, in a generation when people could not possibly
have known Acher personally, so he had nothing to fear by quoting him.