Dreaming of Moshiach

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Teshuva in 5 Minutes

The Gemara tells the story of Rabbi Elazar ben Dordaya zs'l that he did not leave out any harlot in the world without coming to her.

Once, he heard that there was a certain prostitute in one of the towns[+/-] show/hide text
by the sea that didn't charge much for her services. He took coins and crossed seven rivers for her sake. When he was with her, she passed gas and from the embarrasement she said: 'This gas is passed and cannot be returned. Same as you, Eleazar ben Dordaya, you will never be able to do Teshvua (repentance).'

He always thought of himself as redeemable; he didn't think he was all that bad. He probably told himself that he was a decent fellow who just likes to party a bit, never noticing the extent to which he had deteriorated spiritually. He thought of himself as a basically decent person who would always be able to mend his ways. Suddenly, this woman's cynical laugh tells him that he is hopeless. He was devastated by the mere thought and decides, then and there, to seek change.

At that minute, he got dressed and went to sit between two mountains and asked them if they will plead mercy for him!' They replied: 'How shall we pray for you? We stand in need of it ourselves, for it is said, "For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed!"

He asked the Shamayim and Eretz: 'Heaven and earth, plead for mercy for me!' They, too, replied: How shall we pray for you? We stand in need of it ourselves, for it is said, "For the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment."

He asked the sun and and moon to plead for mercy for him. But they too replied: 'How shall we pray for you? We stand in need of it ourselves, for it is said, "Then the moon shall be confounded and the sun ashamed."

He asked the stars and constellations, 'plead for for mercy for me!' They too answered: 'How shall we pray for you? We stand in need of it ourselves, for it is said, "And all the hosts of heaven shall moulder away."

Rabbi Elazar ben Dordaya came to the conclusion that the matter then depends upon himself alone! He placed his head between his knees, he wept aloud until his soul departed.

Then a Bat Kol (Daughter of a Voice) was heard proclaiming: 'Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordaya is destined for the life of Olam Haba (the world to come!)'

This is the meaning of his name 'Ben Durdaya' - the son of hitdardarut, the one who deteriorated further and further until all seemed lost

When he makes his plea to nature, Eleazar repeatedly beseeches: "Ask for mercy for me", the Hebrew word being rachamim. The root of this word is ReCheM, which can also be rendered 'womb': rachmanut is the type of mercy a mother has for her child - it is almost unlimited. But when we recall that this is a man who has slept with countless women we realize that the term rachamim also describes the area and nature of his sin. He wants to go back to the moment of birth, to start all over again. He wants purity.

This explains his next action: "He placed his head between his knees, he wept aloud until his soul departed." Eleazar assumes a "fetal" position and then cries until his soul departs. He symbolically reverses the process of birth and life in an effort to achieve the purity possessed by a soul when it is brand new. Though nature shunned him he knew that he possessed within himself the ability to find peace and serenity. He says "The matter then depends upon me alone". The "me" the individual whom God can help despite the deterioration, the individual who has a divine soul, no matter how soiled it has become, no matter how degenerate, who always has the capacity for Teshuva.

While his gesture is grand and his resolve admirable, why did he need to die? The Talmud says that his corruption was so all-consuming, his indulgence so addictive, that it was as if he was an idolater. He worshipped his own lust with all his heart and all his soul and all his possessions. He was willing to cross seven rivers; he took all the money that was required, for his soul was consumed by his addiction. In order to be healed he needed to use the same forces: he now needed to serve God with all his heart all his soul and all his possessions

The conclusion is that Teshuva is always possible, though at times the effects of sin are so profound that they cannot be elevated. Death alone brings atonement. The uplifting message of the story, indeed the message and teaching of Rabbi Eleazar ben Durdaya, is that Teshuva is always accessible, purity always possible, a share in the world to come always available, even for the worst of sinners.

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והיה השם למלך על כל הארץ, ביום ההוא יהיה השם אחד - ושמו אחד ישתבח שמו לעד לנצח נצחים בכל העולמות Blessed is His name for eternity in all worlds אין עוד מלבדו