Three Suggestions Regarding Repentance
Based on sichot by Harav Yehuda Amital
Adapted by Matan Glidai and Rav Ronnie Ziegler
Translated by David Silverberg
A. R. ELAZAR BEN DORDAYA'S PATH TO REPENTANCE
Every year I learn the famous story in the Gemara (Avoda Zara 17a) about Rabbi Elazar Ben Dordaya, and each time I find in it something new. Here I would like to suggest a new interpretation to the story, one which bears a critical message for our generation, particularly the youth.
The Gemara recounts that Elazar Ben Dordaya slept with every harlot in the world - he did not miss a single one. Once, however, he heard of a harlot overseas who charged an entire bag of coins for her services. He immediately traveled to reach her, an arduous journey that took him across seven rivers. As they slept together, the harlot passed air and then remarked, "Just as this air will never return to from where it came, so will Elazar Ben Dordaya's repentance never be accepted!"
Elazar was terribly shaken by her comment. He tried to persuade the mountains, valleys, sky, earth, sun, moon, stars and constellations to plead for mercy on his behalf. They all refused, claiming that they must first beg for compassion for themselves. Finally he came to the realization, "This depends only upon me!" He slumped his head down between his knees and wept until his soul departed. A heavenly voice then declared, "Rabbi Elazar Ben Dordaya is destined for life in the World to Come!" The Gemara concludes that from that point on he was referred to by the title, "Rabbi."
This story is very strange. Of what significance is it that there was not a single harlot in the world whom Elazar did not visit? Why does the Gemara emphasize the immense effort he made to reach this woman? Furthermore, how are we to understand her comment to Elazar and his conversation with the natural elements?
Rabbi Elazar Ben Dordaya was a man of lofty spiritual aspirations. He wanted to be a good Jew, perhaps even a Torah scholar. However, he wanted first to enjoy the pleasures of the world and only thereafter to serve God properly. This is the meaning behind his manic behavior - his pursuit of every harlot in the world and the immense effort he invested towards that end. From the beginning, he planned to limit the period of his sexual indulgence, and he therefore wanted to make the most of that time.
This final harlot whom he visited understood that her newest visitor was not an ordinary person, as evidenced by the trouble he went through for her services. She suspected that this was not his natural place, that he merely sought to indulge as much as he could and then return to the proper path. She understood that as opposed to her other clients, this man did not seek merely some temporary enjoyment.
She therefore told him that this path cannot succeed. Someone who thinks to himself, "I will sin and then repent," becomes entangled in the world of sin such that he can never return. As Chazal say, such an individual is not afforded the opportunity of repentance. This does not mean that God will not allow him to perform teshuva. Rather, generally speaking, someone with such an attitude will never manage to bring himself to repent. This resembles the Rambam's list of twenty-four situations which prevent teshuva (Hilkhot Teshuva ch. 4). In those cases, the individual generally lacks the wherewithal to perform proper teshuva.
Elazar Ben Dordaya at that moment understood the hopelessness of his situation and suddenly felt lowly and dejected. He realized the error of his ways, now looking with contempt upon his wrongdoing and looking upon himself as broken and worthless. Convinced of his inability to raise himself from the abyss he had dug, he felt compelled to turn for aid to the majestic wonders of nature - sun, moon, stars, etc. - because they possess immense power.
Among the problems that plague sinners is their view of themselves as helpless and powerless. They fail to recognize the vast reservoirs of internal strength within them. Even Elisha Ben Avuya (who became an apostate) thought that he could never repent. He heard a voice from "behind the Heavenly curtain" proclaiming, "Return, wayward children - except for Acher [Elisha Ben Avuya's nickname]!" (Chagiga 15a). Nobody heard this voice other than him; he essentially convinced himself that indeed he could never repent. Unlike Elisha Ben Avuya, Elazar Ben Dordaya eventually recognized that everything depended only on him. He assumed responsibility for his fate, galvanized his inner strength, and repented wholeheartedly.
The Almighty accepted his repentance, which forever serves as an example for all those who stray towards the path of sin.
B. R. AKIVA'S FOREBEARANCE
"Rabbi Eliezer once went before the ark [to conduct the service on a public fast day] and recited twenty-four blessings [of the prayer for rain] and was not answered. Rabbi Akiva went [before the ark] after him and said, 'Our Father, our King - we have no king other than You! Our Father, our King - for Your sake have compassion for us!' It then started raining.
"The rabbis started speaking unfavorably [about Rabbi Eliezer]. A Heavenly voice emerged and declared, 'Not because this one [Rabbi Akiva] is greater than this one [Rabbi Eliezer], but because this one acts with forbearance and this one does not act with forbearance.'" (Ta'anit 25b)
Rabbi Eliezer would demand absolute compliance to his principles, while Rabbi Akiva knew how to forego when the need arose. The Gemara (Rosh Ha-shana 7a) comments,
"Whoever acts with forbearance, his sins are forgiven, as it says, '… forgiving iniquity and remitting transgression' (Mikha 7:18). To whom does He forgive iniquity? To the one who remits transgression."
What is the meaning of being "ma'avir al midotav," of being forebearing and yielding, of not always insisting on having your way or receiving what is due to you?
A story is told of a certain chasid who each year would give his rebbe a portion of his income, and each year his business prospered. Once he came to see the rebbe and found that he had left. He heard that the rebbe had gone to meet with his own mentor, the Chozeh of Lublin. The chassid was startled to hear that his rebbe has his own rebbe. He therefore decided that rather than giving a portion of his earnings to his rebbe, the Chozeh's student, he would transfer the funds directly to the Chozeh himself. After all, as his rebbe's rebbe, wasn't the Chozeh more worthy?
From that point on, the chasid's earnings began to dwindle as his business deteriorated. He went to the Chozeh of Lublin and asked why this happened, to which the Chozeh responded, "So long as you weren't so fussy about whom you donated the money to, God wasn't so fussy about whether or not you deserved your earnings. The moment you started carefully considering to whom you would prefer to give, then the Almighty likewise began carefully examining if there are others more deserving of the money than you."
We tend sometimes to fuss too much about others, to point out what they do wrong and insist unrelentingly on what we rightfully deserve. The message of the aforementioned Gemara involves the preparedness to forego and not always insist upon every small matter. If we act with some forbearance towards others rather than demanding everything we rightfully deserve, then the Almighty will treat us accordingly, and will not hold us strictly accountable for our sins. In this way, we will hopefully earn a favorable judgment.
C. RAV'S SENSITIVITY TO CHILLUL HASHEM
The Gemara (Yoma 86a) lists the four categories of atonement: when repentance alone yields atonement, when repentance holds the sentence in abeyance and Yom Kippur achieves atonement, when these two hold the sentence in abeyance and punishments atone, and, finally, when all these hold the sentence in abeyance until death finally achieves atonement. Thereis only one sin in this final category - "chillul Hashem," the desecration of God's Name.
The Gemara then offers several examples of this sin. Rav gives the following example: if he would purchase meat at the market without paying immediately, onlookers would think that the rabbis have connections with the storekeeper, thus causing a "chillul Hashem." He therefore would never purchase meat on credit, lest someone get the wrong impression and God's Name be desecrated. The Gemara continues by expanding this strict standard beyond rabbis, to all yeshiva students:
"One who learns, studies, and serves Torah scholars but does not conduct business honestly and doesn't speak pleasantly with other people - what do people say about him? 'Woe unto this person who studied Torah, woe unto his father who taught him Torah, woe unto his rabbi who taught him Torah. This person who studied Torah - look how corrupt his behavior is, and how despicable his mode of conduct is…'"
As yeshiva students and as religious Jews in general, we represent the Torah world. This requires us to maintain proper behavior wherever we go in order to avoid desecrating the honor of Torah and Hashem's Name, God forbid. Not even Yom Kippur atones for the sin of chillul Hashem!
True, Rav's example is quite extreme and most likely pertains only to an individual of his stature. Nevertheless, we learn from this Gemara how much care one must exercise even with regard to seemingly small matters when dealing with society at large and representing the Torah world. Our behavior in every area of life must not only be scrupulously moral, as the Torah demands, but it must appear scrupulously moral as well. Then, as the Rambam says (Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 5:11), we will sanctify God's Name. In the words of the aforementioned gemara,
"One who learns, studies, and serves Torah scholars, and conducts business honestly and speaks pleasantly with other people - what do people say about him? 'Happy is his father who taught him Torah, happy is his rabbi who taught him Torah, woe unto those who do not study Torah! This person who studied Torah - look how pleasant his behavior is, and how proper his mode of conduct is;' concerning him Scripture says, 'And He said to me: You are My servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified' (Yishayahu 49:3)."
(Based on sichot delivered at se'uda shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Ha'azinu-Shuva 5757 , and on leil Shabbat Parashat Vayelekh 5754 .)