Tag Archives: Repentance

Neilah: Closing the Gates of Repentance


Reflections on Forgiveness from the Yom Kippur Amidah

Neilah

Like most people, I am also battling my body and my will during this fast day of Yom haKippurim. It is a long day, being one of the few full day-long fasts in our calendar. This is especially rare this year, as this very solemn day of rest is also paired with the weekly Sabbath day of rest. Normally we do not fasts on Shabbat. However as our tradition considers this day of atonement a thing of pure joy, the regular festive meals are suspended as we feast on some deep prayers and reflections.

And during this holiday we certainly have many helpings of prayers. This holiday of Yom haKippurim – the day of atonements – we recite our central prayer duty, the Amidah no less that five times (Ma’ariv, Shacharit, Mussaf, Minchah, and Neilah).

I am sitting here considering the words of the final prayer, the Neilah – the closing of the gates of teshuvah (repentance) and heaven. I would like us to explore the concept of atonement, through the aid of this prayer and the scriptural context from which it is drawn.

The liturgy reads as follows:

“Our G-d and the G-d of our forefathers, forgive us our wrongdoings, on this Shabbat day and on this Day of Atonements, on this day of pardoning of sin, on this day of assembly; wipe away and remove our transgressions and sins from before Your eyes, as it is stated: ‘I, just I, am He who wipes away your transgressions. For My own sake, I will not recall.’ (Isaiah 43:25)”

אלהינו ואלהי אבותינו מחול לעונותינו ביום השבת הזה וביום הכפרים הזה ביום סליחת העון הזה ביום מקרא קדש הזה מחה והעבר פשעינו וחטאתינו מנגד עיניך כאמור: אנכי אנכי הוא מחה פשעיך למעני וחטאתיך לא אזכר:

Fifth Amidah, Neilah for Yom Kippur

Here we are asking G-d, for the last time, to forgive our avonoteinu – our wrongdoings. To wipe away our p’shaeinu v’chatoteinu – our transgressions and our sins. This prayer is an important one to me, because neilah is always a tearjerker. It has full urgency, as it is our last chance to repent. We don’t want to get left outside of the gates of repentance. But at the same time it comes with all the exhilaration of accomplishment for those who engage it. All the senses are firing at once.

I would like us to look at the basics of why we go through this process at all. We will find the answer provided for us straightaway, here during the height of the High Holy Days, during the pinnacle of our celebration here in the Neilah prayer. There is one simple point that drives this holiday. We do all this simply because G-d wants to forgive us. We aren’t trying to necessarily convince G-d to forgive us, its has more to do with us getting in-line with the spirit of atonement and the theme of forgiveness for ourselves.

One of the reasons that this holiday is so hard to explain to outsiders is that the world often has a very different message about atonement, as does the common culture. In most religions its it is most often about who you go through to get redemption, or more precisely who does it for you. Who is this leader that either commands G-d’s recognition of his pardon, or who is the man who sacrifices himself to pay off your moral dept. How can we repent without such a person? When we say we are atoning the big question is, “Who is going to forgive you? Who atones for you?”

This kind of perplexes us Jews. Because as reasoning people, and knowing the Torah, we understand that the true way to atone is to ask forgiveness from the people that we have sinned against and to remedy the wrong. We have been doing this work of teshuvah (repentance), revisiting the situation and setting it right, for some weeks now. We aren’t atoning by asking G-d to forgive our interpersonal wrongs, nor our lapses in ethics. That we must do for ourselves, with the people affected.

Hopefully at this point most of our ethical and moral issues have been dealt with and considered. So why is it so heartfelt for us at this point in the service? Why does it shake us in such a way through to our very core? This is because what we are dealing with now is the issues that are between us and G-d, and between us and ourselves. Often times these prayers of Yom Kippur are heavy with prayers of forgiveness for the wrongs that we have done against ourselves and G-d alone. The things deep inside of us that need to be settled, the places that are tremendously hard to reach and painful to touch. Things that can only be settled on a heart-level.

As we approach this prayer I would hope that we can say it with all joy, because we have remedied our wrong deeds and are ready to stand atoned and forgiven. We should feel overcome by a sense of relief. Why should we stand upright now with a sense of celebration and awe? It is because we can stand forgiven if we chose to make it so today! Who is the guarantor of this pardon that we should acknowledge it?

Our prayer draws from the words of the prophet Isaiah:

“I,

I am the One who

blots our your transgressions

for My sake,

and your sins I will not remember.”

אָנֹכִי |

אָנֹכִי הוּא |

מֹחֶה פְשָׁעֶיךָ, |

לְמַעֲנִי: |

וְחַטֹּאתֶיךָ, לֹא אֶזְכֹּר: |

Isaiah 43:25

G-d declares to us that He is the one that forgives our sins, it is He alone. And He does this “l’maani / for My own sake.” Just because He wants to! What of the guilt of our sins? Of our sin’s, He says that He chooses to remember them no more.

The text of the prophet Isaiah from where this is drawn actually gives us a good look into not only why G-d wants to forgiveness us in this way, but also why it is important for us to set a day for atonement aside. This verse can be found in the paragraph of Isaiah 43:22-28.

For a moment G-d calls out to us, like a long-lost parents during the holidays. You can hear the almost distinctive tone of a Jewish mother in the voice of G-d here. You haven’t called on me or even bothered to remember me. You haven’t troubled yourself on account of Me, G-d says. Even more interestingly, He starts out by saying in verse 22 that “v’lo oti karata / you haven’t called out to me,” not even when you needed help. That is so like us, to call out only when we need something, so He mentions that form of outcry first. But here G-d is calling out to people who don’t even have the impulse in them for that. Rashi says instead they called out to idols to help them. That’s how distance the relationship has become for some.

G-d also calls out something remarkable to us. He calls out to the people who haven’t been bothered to offer sacrifice. People who haven’t bothered to offer any offerings up for G-d. What is so astounding about this verse is that even as it accuses the people of not sacrificing or giving offerings, G-d says, “I have not burdened you with grain offerings, nor wearied you with incense offerings.” (v.23) In this verse Rashi take the tone a little more directly for us at this point, saying that G-d indeed has not burdened us, in fact even the grain offerings of the Temple itself only required a mere handful. Of being wearied, Rashi chimes on how quickly we can grow tired of our service before Him. We are too tired to care, even when all He is asking is that we show a pinch of conviction and regard in our daily lives.

In the next verse we see the theme follow in the same tone. We have not bothered G-d with our offerings of money and sweet cane, nor have fat meats for offerings been brought; but the people have instead burdened Him with their sins, and wearied G-d with our many wrongdoing we commit. We just can’t be bothered sometimes, except when it comes to doing wrong.  (v.24)

And it is in this context that G-d takes the higher grounds and says to us, “I, even I erase your transgressions for My sake, and your sins I will not remember.” (v.25) G-d thus offers us His means for atonement and pardon. It is He that initiates and calls us to the table to discuss whom has been wronged in this game of life. He calls “hazikraini,” He is calling out, “Remember Me!” He challenges us, “nisaftah yachad / let us reason together.” G-d asks us to consider ourselves and our role in this universe, and the role G-d and our own will both play in our existence. He calls us to saper, to lay it all out and take a true accounting, so that in the end we can come to a just resolution. He calls to you and me. That you may be, “l’maan titz’dak / that you may be accounted just.” (v.26)

And this is really what the majority of the Yom haKippurim is spent doing. Not just feeling penitent for our wrongs, but also focusing on how to “titz’dak,” how to get right. Even if we are already right with other people, sometimes we aren’t exactly right with ourselves and G-d yet. We hold the weight of guilt and shame hanging our shoulders. The pressure of all kinds of wrongs and moral failures that we are grieved over, for which we still hold ourselves accountable for. But we are asked to give it up, because G-d wants to relieve us of that for His own sake.  Just because He wants to, because He thinks it’s best for you to live a life free and justified in your own being. G-d doesn’t want to remember anymore, and neither should you. These words in neilah are one last chance to deliver this message.

For me these are some of the reasons the prayers of neilah are so beautiful. It drives such a beautiful message home for us: Not only do we need to seek out atonement, but we also need to be willing to accept forgiveness for ourselves.

As we approach neilah I would ask us all to just hold on through one more prayer service. We are almost there, we can see the finish line. Put all your energy into the final stretch of this marathon of teshuvah (repentance). As we come together for this last tefillah and service before Hashem, let us fully embrace this prayer with equal joy and awe. And with confidence, knowing that our heartfelt prayers of repentance and atonement have been heard. We can now let these gates close, our work is done. So raise your voices high, this is just an encore!

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Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech (2013)


Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30

True Repentance Is Not About Being Sorry

This week’s double parsha is the last reading we have before we observe Rosh haShanah – the Jewish New Year. We consider it a day of justice and reckoning.

doggie shame

During this time of year a lot of people add New Year resolutions to their annual teshuvah (repentance) checklist. Many people choose to battle their addictions. But have you ever noticed how shamming and humiliating recovery programs can be sometimes? What does the Torah say about repentance and recovery?

As we come upon this season we begin to reflect and consider all the areas in our lives in which we need to make teshuvah – repentance, were we need to make the turn-around and take right fork in the road. This is a theme that has run through-out the entire month of Elul and the Days of Awe.

Normally people don’t really like to consider the topic of teshuvah. It can be intimidating to some, and even shamming to others who are not so religiously inclined. That is why I would like us to explore just how empowering this spirit of repentance can truly be.

First off, it would help if we demystify what teshuvah – what “repentance” – really is.

It is true that repentance does come with a sense of regret and remorse for what one has done. It can certainly mean to rethink the actions that we have done in the past. We have a specific word for that in the scriptures – nacheim (נחם), to change one’s wrong and calamitous mindset, to repent; interestingly it is generally a term that is only used to appeal to G-d’s higher nature in the chumash (the five books of Moses) itself. (see Exodus 32:12, where G-d is said to repent.)

Instead for people, throughout the Torah, the word used for repentance is much more plain; it is simply teshuvah – to return. This is something that is continuously mentioned through out this parsha. That is what we will explore today. What does “repentance” essentially mean when stripped down from all the religiously charged jargon and lingo?

I would like us to pick up at the top of the third reading, beginning with our second verse:

“And you will return

and listen to the voice of Hashem,

and fulfill all His commandments,

which I command you today.”

| Ve’atah tashuv

| veshamata bekol Hashem

| ve’asita et-kol-mitzvotav

| asher anochi metzavecha hayom

Deuteronomy 30:8

One of the things that I find so interesting about the Torah is its optimism. Our previous readings for this parsha talk in detail about how people do go astray and end up regretting their wrongs from a place of distress. This is a reality of human nature. But the Torah isn’t just cynical, it responds to this with great optimism. It tell us “you will return.”

Our parsha begins with a promise that G-d will eventually deal with all our enemies and foes, and all who pursue us. (Deut. 30:7) It promises that after we return and we begin to fulfill the commandments of G-d, (v. 8) then G-d will bless us with all forms of abundance and fertility. G-d will rejoice over the good fortunes in our lives, just as G-d rejoiced over the successes of our forefathers. (v. 9) This will happen when we observe His mitzvot and statutes written in this Sefer Torah (Torah Scroll), and return with all our heart and soul. (v. 10) Our Torah calls us to return to G-d not just with an emotional response, but also to respond with “kol nafshecha” – with all our living soul, our being, to deeply identify with this call to just and righteous living. Not just to feel repentant, but to live it out.

The truth is that teshuvah is done more with the hands and feet than it is with the eyes. It’s not simple reflection and shedding of tears, it’s about starting over and reconstructing the situation. Repentance is not about continuously being sorry.

The topic of teshuvah is one that I think is best understood by people who have dealt with addictions. Often times the world’s message about repentance and redemption is about groveling over what we have done, admitting we are powerless, and that something needs to save us. I believe a lot of the pain and stagnancy in the lives of people is caused by this message. It is reinforced by a culture in recovery groups to praise the “rock bottom.” The message is one of constantly being a helpless wretch in need of saving. Someone who just can’t do it in life, so they got to “let go and let G-d.”

Much of this attitude is reflective of the Protestant Christian mentality, which is pervasive in many recovery groups and the similar. Many are fully built on the idea of total depravity, of irredeemability (you are always an alcoholic), and the need of a higher power to help you along. This is a very humbling Christian concept that keeps those so inclined in-line, but it is not helpful for the Jewish soul.

The message of Christianity regarding this is clearly contrary to the message of the Torah. Christianity tells people that they need a vicarious atonement because they are incorrigible lawbreakers according to the Bible. That they are helpless and unable to redeem themselves, that’s why somebody else needs to do it for them. In fact they would claim that the mitzvot of the Torah are only given so that people would know what charges G-d has against them. That the laws and statutes of Torah are just intended to show people that they could never actually keep them.

The foolishness of such false humility is revealed to us by the simplicity of the Torah. It tells us why it charges us to start over again, to return to the mitzvot another time:

“For this commandment

which I command you today

is not concealed from you

nor is it far off.

It is not in the heavens

so that you say:

‘Who can go up to heaven

and bring it to us,

so that we can hear it and do it?’

It is not across the sea

so [that you should] say:

‘Who will cross over the sea

and bring it us,

so that we can hear and do it?’”

| Ki hamitzvah hazot

| asher anochi metzavecha hayom

| lo-niflet hi mimecha

| velo-rechokah hi

| Lo vashamayim

| hi lemor

| mi ya’aleh-lanu hashamaymah

| veyikacheha lanu

| veyashmi’enu otah vena’asenah

| Velo-me’ever layam

| hi lemor

| mi ya’avor-lanu el-ever hayam

| veyikacheha lanu

| veyashmi’enu otah vena’asenah

Deueronomy 30:11

Our Torah does offer some profound answers for life, even if they are not as mystical as people would like them to be. The Torah does not call for any real epiphany, or the grasping of any particular mystery. The Torah is not a hidden truth, nor it is too hard to comprehend on ones own.

The Torah contends that we do not need any messengers to go up to heaven and bring down the truth for us. We don’t require someone to ascend to the heavens in order for us understand what G-d wants from us, and what we should do in this life! It’s not that hard to comprehend, as it speaks from the inside of us.

The Torah challenges us to recognize that we do not need exotic gurus and teachers, people in far-off and foreign places to deliver the answers of life to us. These truths are not so hidden and distant that someone needs to bring them back to us from afar. This truth is very close and easy to grasp.

The problem for many people who deal with the struggles of addiction, sin and their base desires is that they often want someone else to do it all for them. They rather be told what to do, rather than think for themselves. They rather consider sin and addiction a mere disease, that they just need G-d to cure or aid them through. They rather have someone else to rely upon – and blame – for the outcomes in their lives.

Our Torah teaches us something very different, by forcing us to take full responsibility. It contrasts the call of our G-d against the world view of those who prefer to build their spirituality completely around sages, shamans, all forms of novel religion, and even other people’s experiences. It stands against our complacency and self-pity. It empowers us with these words:

“Rather, this is something

that is very close to you;

[it is] in your mouth and in your heart

so that you can do it.”

| Ki karov eleycha

| hadavar me’od

| beficha uvilvavcha

| la’asoto

Deuteronomy 30:14

We need to protect our mindset from people who exaggerate a sense of helplessness, and that foster a mentality of inability that leads to dependence. People who encourage dependence on their program or religion, instead of re-empowering you for your own path. Our Torah stands against asking people to grovel in helplessness and shame. Instead of telling us what we are unworthy and incapable of on our own, the message of the Torah as revealed to Israel is, “You can do it!”

Rather than telling us what we can’t do and offering a list of commandments to convict us with guilt, the Torah lays out the mitzvot as a road map for how we can live a life of prosperity and success. It’s not hard to understand. It tells us that if we want this type of success all we really need to do is shuvreturn and try again – because we can do it!

Rehab and recovery programs that I can recommend:

  • Beit T’Shuvah – (Venice Beach/Santa Monica) Southern California’s inspiring Jewish rehab and congregation. Serving the Jewish and non-Jewish community alike to help people rebuild a life after addiction.

  • Chabad Residential Treatment Center – (Los Angeles) Since 1972 thousands of men from every imaginable background have successfully received treatment at Chabad Rehabilitation Center, based on criteria established by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Washington DC.

  • The A.L.I.Y.A. Institute  – A Brooklyn Heights program that is specially geared for young adults from chassidish families but that that are out of yeshiva, that are dealing with homelessness and addiction issues. This program pairs a working beit midrash for individualized Torah learning half the day, with the structure the classroom for English and Math studies in preparation for the GED.

When Redemption Turns Fatal



When Redemption Turns Fatal
Atonement and the implications of premature death

lost in the desertRecently as I was studying Parshat Bo I was taken back by seeing an interesting statement made regarding the celebration of Pesach with the eating of matzah. As Pesach is quickly coming upon us I was captivated by the details relating to the unique aspects of the first celebration and the way that it prescribes future observance. While bridging the two the Torah indicates that one who eats leaven will “v’nich’rata ha-nefesh hahi miYisrael / have his soul is cut-off from among Israel.” (Exodus 12:15) This is a “chukat olam t’chagu’hu / an eternal commandment that one rejoice.” (v.14)

The statement is unique, not necessarily in wording but in placement. We will see the phrase “cut-off” used many times in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy; but aside from that there are few reference earlier in the chumash. In Genesis we only have a couple similar examples; once in passing used by Isaac, and the other being the commandment given to Avraham Avinu that each Hebrew male be circumcised. (Genesis 17:14) It warns us that anyone who is not circumcised may be cut-off from his people, so they must carefully observe this.

But what do we mean by being “cut-off?” The Rashi to this verse explains to us:

And that soul shall be cut off:

He goes childless (Yevamot 55a)

and dies prematurely (Moed Katan 28a).”

ונכרתה הנפש: |

הולך ערירי |

ומת קודם זמנו: |

Rashi to Genesis 17:14

Though neither of these statements come with any prescribed punishment or qualification in the Torah, this phrase is one of the most harsh we can find in the scriptures. Our sages recognize 24 egregious sins that result in one being cut-off; meaning, ones life and legacy is cut short. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilichot Teshuvah)

That is not to say that one is without remedy, Leviticus chapter 22 presents us with a means for repentance by removing whatever is the cause of ones offense and approaching G-d again through in worship. Clean yourself up, and return. By making teshuvahmaking repentance, returning, turning back – one is forgiven and their judgment is lifted; according to the halacha this is true for all cases, except for with the sin of idolatry (avodah zara). Though these sins seem to demand that a Sanheidrin (the supreme court of Jewish law) prescribe death for a person who commits any one of these sins, any person that repents is forgiven without consequence, except in cases of idolatry.

In Talmud Bavli mesecta Avodah Zara – which discusses the halachot related to judgment for idolatry – it is explained to us that the judgment of death is not necessary when the sin is not serious enough to demand such punishment. Thus the halacha of the Talmud is that all sins are fully pardonable, except for idolatry. Even if judicially forgiven by the sanheidrin there is a consequence to idolatry that cannot be avoided, as it is a sin against G-d the consequence comes from the hand of G-d even in face of repentance. More precisely, the hand of G-d’s mercy is restrained so that the person dies at a time and in way that only heaven knows. How can this be?

Simply put, the Torah says that when one commits a severe sin it results in keret – being cut down, one’s life cut short – though it does not necessarily imply a sentence, as much as it is a description of ones state. As the Tanya teaches, to be cut-off merely means to disconnect from our spiritual source – one disconnects themselves, and they in turn die from the atrophy this causes in their soul. (Lekutei Amarim – Tanya, Iggeret haTeshuva, siman 5)

Though this is generally the case, there are certain exceptions to the rule. The Talmud presents us a tragic example of someone, who despite his sincere repentance, still perishes; even more confusing, he is not guilt of idolatry at all. What could be so severe that one still dies after repenting? And what does this mean, is it that he was not forgiven or can it be that G-d yet demands “satisfaction?”

To understand this the rabbis present us with the story of Rabbi Elezar ben Doria as an example. We will find this presented in Talmud Avodah Zarah 17a:

והתניא: |

אמרו עליו על |

רבי אלעזר בן דורדיא, |

שלא הניח זונה |

אחת בעולם שלא בא עליה; |

פעם אחת שמע שיש זונה אחת |

בכרכי הים, |

והיתה נוטלת כיס דינרין |

בשכרה; |

נטל כיס דינרין והלך ועבר עליה |

שבעה נהרות; |

בשעת הרגל |

We learn in a b’raita of a Tanna:

‘It was said of

Rabbi Elezar ben Dordia

that there was no whore

in the whole world that he did not go to.

After he heard of this certain whore

in a large seaside city

who accepted a purse of denari [coins]

as payment

he took a purse of coins and crossed

seven rivers,

all the while traveling on foot without anything.”

Talmud Bavli Avodah Zarah 17a

As we see from the Talmud the sin of Ben Dordia was related to sexual immorality. So caught up in his sexual indiscretions that people reckoned that there wasn’t a prostitute in the entire world he hadn’t slept with.

As the story goes, one day he hears that there is a certain whore in a far off place that he hasn’t been with. Driven by compulsion, his desire to have her is so great that he immediately begins to gather the necessary money to pay her. Knowing that her fee was 100 denari, he collects only enough money necessary to pay her and then sets off on foot. And this is a hint to the level of lust that motivated him. As she is so far away and in a seaside town you would think he would pay to go by ship. Instead he is unwilling to wait or delay and therefore makes this ridiculously long journey by foot and without provisions. Being blinded by lust, he disregards his own needs and wellbeing in pursuit of this prostitute.

דבר הפיחה |

אמרה: |

כשם שהפיחה זו |

אינה חוזרת למקומה – |

כך אלעזר בן דורדיא |

אין מקבלין אותו |

בתשובה. |

So he he got it on with her.

And she said:

‘Just like this breaking-wind

will not return to its place,

so too Elezar ben Dordia

will not not be received back

in repentance.’”

As unlikely as it was, he did actually make it to his destination and get with this woman. Considering all the effort and personal cost, one would hope that his fling have would actually be worth it to him. Instead of her being the desirable woman he probably imaged, she instead showed herself to be crude and unrefined. To the point she broke-wind in bed and even made a joke over it. Then she actually went so far as to make fun of him, teasing him that he would never be accepted back because of how far he had strayed; the pun being just like her fart couldn’t go back to where it came from, so too he couldn’t go back to where he came from. Considering all he had done, his people would never accept him back.

Though she is an inappropriate and seemingly vile person, she isn’t the only one that needs her character scrutinized in this story. One has to wonder anyhow, what is Ben Dordia doing there at all? How is it that this man is even called “rabbi” when he is completely consumed by his perversion?

What we should first understand about Ben Dordia was that he was not actually a “rabbi” in the conventional way we think, as he was not a member of the sanheidrin at all. Notice even the prostitute calls him merely by name, the redactor doesn’t give him this title of honor early on here in the story either when recounting it. Ben Dordia was just an ordinary man, in fact probably someone best described as a mediocre man in terms of his practice; there is no other way to explain how he is able to have such a serious pursuit of his sin and not neglect his religious duties. Also notice most of the people we see in the Talmud come from legacy and with a lineage we all know, but this man just comes out of nowhere and onto the pages of the highest source of rabbinic discourse.

Despite his lack of character and duplicity, Ben Doria is somehow deeply troubled by the prostitute’s words. Though being desensitized to the depravity he was surrounded in, he had enough conviction left in him that he became overwhelmed by the realization of the truth of her estimation and completely broke down. He then ran from the place where he was at, seemingly to find his way back. His need for teshuvah was not just metaphoric, he was literally desperate to find his way back. The Talmud continues:

He went away and sat down

between two hills and mountains

and said:

‘Hills and mountains,

ask for mercy for me!’

And they said to him:

‘How can we ask for you

when we need to ask for our own sake.

As it is said:

‘For the mountain be departed

and the hills be removed…’

(Isaiah 54:10)

He said:

‘Heavens and earth

ask for mercy for me!’

And they said:

‘How can we ask for you

when we need to ask for our own sake.

As it is said:

‘For the heavens

shall vanish away like smoke,

and the earth will wear out like

a garment’

(Isaiah 51:6)

He said:

‘Sun and moon ask for mercy for me!’

And they said to him:

‘How can we ask for you

when we need to ask for our own sake.

As it is said:

‘Then the moon shall be confounded,

and the sun ashamed;’

(Isaiah 24:23)

And he said:

‘Stars and mazalot [constellations]

ask for mercy for me!’

And they said to him:

‘How can we ask for you

when we need to ask for our own sake.

As it is said:

‘And all the host of heaven shall moulder away!’”

(Isaiah 34:4)

הלך וישב |

בין שני הרים וגבעות, |

אמר: |

הרים וגבעות |

בקשו עלי רחמים! |

אמרו לו: |

עד שאנו מבקשים עליך – |

נבקש על עצמנו, |

שנאמר |

כי ההרים ימושו |

והגבעות תמוטינה |

(ישעיהו נד י) |

אמר: |

שמים וארץ |

בקשו עלי רחמים! |

אמרו: |

עד שאנו מבקשים עליך – |

נבקש על עצמנו, |

שנאמר |

כי שמים |

כעשן נמלחו |

והארץ כבגד |

תבלה |

(ישעיהו נא ו). |

אמר: |

חמה ולבנה בקשו עלי רחמים! |

אמרו לו: |

עד שאנו מבקשים עליך – |

נבקש על עצמנו, |

שנאמר |

וחפרה הלבנה |

ובושה החמה. |

(ישעיהו כד כג) |

אמר: |

כוכבים ומזלות |

בקשו עלי רחמים! |

אמרו לו: |

עד שאנו מבקשים עליך – |

נבקש על עצמנו, |

שנאמר |

ונמקו כל צבא השמים! |

(ישעיהו לד ד) |

As the Talmudic text picks up again we then see him sitting between two hills and two mountains. Lost and unable to orient himself he begins to cry out to the mountains and hills. He speaks to them in a personal tone, going so far as to ask them to pray for him; pleading “rachamim,” have mercy on me. As strange as his actions seem, what is even more strange is the fact that they actually speak back to him; the rabbis tell us that they were granted a voice to respond to him in his time time of need. Without anyone to turn to he begins to carry on a dialogue with the natural forces, and they respond to him.

If you got a miraculous response from heaven, you like most people would probably want to hear words of comfort. But there weren’t any words of encouragement or compassion given. As he goes through this back and forth with nature, each time they are going to respond with the simple truth that there is nothing they can do for him. In fact, if we look at the wording it not only tells us they are in need of help from G-d themselves, but it also suggests to us one must ask “atzmeninu / ourselves,” meaning on their own behalf.

As concise as the Talmud tries to be with content, this whole episode is not only drawn out but it is unusually repetitious. He makes the same statement each time, and the responses are the same, except for a single variation when it comes to supporting biblical quotes offered. The majority of the details are in the list of the elements he cries out to. Our rabbis suggest there is some type of deeper psychological association he must be making, for this reason their commentary mostly concerns itself with asking “what do these statements mean to him?” Though it would be easy to dismiss his pleading as mere ranting and look no further than his hysteria, we need to keep in mind that for Ben Dordia his need for a response was so great that G-d was compelled to grant him this by supernatural means; his desperation was not all trivial, nor were the words of his pleading.

Rashi is the first to offer us a explanation, suggesting that when he called out to the “harim / the hills” what he actually meant on a heart level was “horim / ancestors;” literally meaning his parents. Rashi deduces this based on Talmud Rosh haShanah 11a; citing Micah 9:2 the rabbis compares our ancestors to the mountains. The hill and mountains are made of many layers of rock and soil, each generation built upon another to provide a firm foundation. This is true of mountains and also of ones heritage. We make this journey in life on a higher road, built upon and paved by the contributions of our ancestors. Any moral higher ground we have is provided us from their ethics and experiences. The rabbis teach us here in the Talmud that we aren’t just raised to a higher and better place, but we are recipients of their divine merit. Instead of merely calling us to stand on their giant shoulders, the rabbis insist that just like wise Solomon they call to us “listen my beloved, and come leaping upon mountains, and skipping over the hills;” (Shir haShirim 2:8); our heritage in them provides us a source of joy that comes from divine grace. The mountains represent the patriarchs, the hills are the matriarchs. He cries out to his holy parents “rachamim / have mercy on me,” he is pleading for them to help him.

We can look at the other references to the natural forces likewise. The heavens and earth are also thought of in a complimentary gender dichotomy, and so too the sun and moon. It is easy for us to understand, as the ancient peoples similarly recognizing the greater light of the sun that rules the day as a symbol masculinity and the less light of the moon as the a symbol of femininity. Even in the Torah we see this, in the story of Yosef’s dream the sun represents his father and the moon his mother. (Genesis 37:11, see Parshat Vayeshev)

Though his second request, to the heavens and earth, does also clearly show a more obvious intention. He asks for mercy, first from the heavens and then from the earth. He starts first by asking for grace from heaven, and then secondly for mercy from the earth; the heavens being the mysterious seat of G-d’s mercy, the earth being the calculated world of justice.

Even the sun and moon imply to us a deeper meaning, the sun also being an ancient symbol of authority. The ancient kings and rulers of the nations often considered themselves as the earthly representation of the sun-god, the moon conversely represented their goddesses and queens. In his third request he appears to be asking for the help of the rulers and authorities.

Having made three request for mercy and compassion, Ben Dordia then makes one final request to the stars and the mazalot – the signs of the zodiac. This is less in line with the dichotomy but easier to explain. He is literally pleads for the stars and zodiac (mazalot) to intervene for him and change his fate.

When we consider all this, the story begins to take shape and his motivation becomes clear. He is asking for help from anyone who will listen, from the most accessible to the least; “mom and dad, save me,” “world and universe, help me,” “your honor, sir, ma’am, have mercy on me,” and lastly “fate, can you please give me a break here.”

Though they are not able to help him, they do respond to him. And their responses are neither harsh nor unkind, they each declare their limitations and need of help from G-d themselves. They don’t just turn him down, they reveal their own frailties and inability sympathetically. They weren’t telling him “sorry, but we have our own problems to worry about,” they instead seem to be saying that they can relate to being in need.

Hearing this and understanding the truth of it Elezar ben Dordia stops his pleading. The Talmud continues with his response:

And he said:

There is nothing that doesn’t depend on me!

And he hung his head between his knees

and wept until he exhausted

his soul to death.”

אמר: |

אין הדבר תלוי אלא בי! |

הניח ראשו בין ברכיו |

וגעה בבכיה עד שיצתה |

נשמתו; |

As there is no one that can help him, Ben Dordia becomes even more inconsolable. Lost and helpless he remains crouched on the ground, head hung low between his knees, weeping – not just crying, but bawling with all the strength left him. He cries with all his being until his entire soul is exhausted to the point of death. As no one is coming to rescue him he exclaims to himself alone, “it all depends on me.” And there on the ground he remains until he weeps himself to death.

Is it possible for a person to die from inconsolable crying? And if it is, what can break a man so that he weeps until he dies? What has him so tore up and broken down? Though one might assume that his hysteria is because no one will help him, his words reveal something different all together. Sure he is broken from the reality that he is solely responsible for his own redemption, but even more so by the truth that the whole situation (ha-davar) is of his own making. He is dying inside from the revelation that “it’s all on me.” Those are the last recorded words of Ben Dordia before he lays down and dies.

Fortunately the story doesn’t end there. The Talmud continues:

Just then a bat-kol was heard saying:

‘Rabbi Elezar ben Dordia is destined

to live in the world to come!’”

יצתה בת קול ואמרה |

רבי אלעזר בן דורדיא מזומן |

לחיי העולם הבא.’ |

In his final moments before he draws his last breath a heralding voice is heard from heaven declaring that he has been accepted in repentance and earned his place in the world-to-come. His personal confession is heard in heaven and his pardon is declared by an angelic messenger.

As we look at this incident and consider his acts of repentance it is clearly evident that he is sincere and contrite, but what merits the response of heaven to pardon him is his confession, “ain hadavar talui elah bi / there isn’t anything that doesn’t depend on me.” This is not any matter for which I am not responsible.

What is so remarkable about his words? These word don’t seem intended for anyone other than himself, but they catch the attention of heaven. They are few and unsophisticated, neither lofty nor spiritual sounding in the least. But if we look beyond the simplicity of his statement we will find more than just a realization that he is helpless. G-d does not respond to him out of pity, He responds to him because Ben Dordia has a dramatic change of heart and mind. He moves beyond being more concerned with the role everyone else plays in his tragedy.

As unbecoming as his pleading with all of the world and the sky to help him seems, his attitude is very actually very typical. In fact many people go one step further and actually blame others for their downfall. He could have easily said like many people do, “its not my fault, its my parents and my culture that are to blame.” He could have blamed the world, the politicians, the system and even fate itself. But here we find him for the first time taking full responsibility. This is such a drastic change in his character that it merits him full salvation.

Though he does find a place in heaven, we cannot avoid the fact that he still dies. As discussed, this is not demanded by the halacha. This is so unusual most editions of the Talmud contain an extra line to emphasize this lest we miss this point (in brackets). This is what makes the story even more tragic, his death was unnecessary. His repentance is complete and attested to by the bat-kol, for this reason none of our rabbis suggest that his death was part of his atonement. He was not dying for his sins. The Talmud continues, and provides us a simple suggestion:

[For he only committed a sexual sin and yet he died!]

And this is how it comes together:

As he was so addicted to [his sin]

it was counted as minut.”

[והא הכא בעבירה הוה ומית!] |

התם נמי: |

כיון דאביק בה טובא – |

כמינות דמיא. |

Our halacha is that one is only required to die in cases of idolatry. Here the rabbis suggest his sin was so habitual and severe that it was equivalent to minut – to apostasy and heresy. He was not necessarily guilty of idolatry, but his sin was so great that it like a idol in his life and thus suffered likewise.

Had his sin been considered a typical transgression or he been a member of the sanheidrin, his resulting death might be understandable. The Torah commands that willful sinners among the elders are to be put to death, for intentionally violating the law and causing others to do likewise even after being censured by their peers. There are three ways ones atonement can be secured after execution is ordered if one chooses to repent; being pardoned by the sanheidrin, Yom haKippurim – the Day of Atonements, and suffering. Ordinarily any one of these will suffice. But in the case of a religious leader the offense holds much more weight. Even if being reconciled to his people and his peers, the elder suffers in death. The Talmud elsewhere tells us:

אבל מי שיש חילול השם בידו – |

|

אין לו כח |

בתשובה לתלות, |

ולא ביום הכפורים לכפר, |

ולא ביסורין למרק. |

אלא כולן תולין, |

ומיתה ממרקת, |

שנאמר: |

ונגלה באזני הצבאות |

אם יכפר העון הזה |

לכם עד תמתון” |

(ישעיהו כב) |

But if the sin he enacts is a chilul Hashem

(a desecration of the name of G-d)

it is not enough for him;

relying only on repentance,

Yom haKippurim to atone,

nor suffering to purify.

However, all of them together suspend it,

and death finishes it off.

As it is said:

‘It is obvious in the eyes of the L-rd of Hosts

that the atonement for this one

will not be until he dies.’”

(Isaiah 22:14)

Talmud Bavli Yoma 86a

The first reason this example does not apply to Ben Dordia is because the scripture cited is actually about an unrepentant person. The Tanach speaks of a person who refuses to call out to G-d in weeping and humility (v.12), and they instead are happy in their sin and glad of it as they eat and drink themselves to death (v.13); of such a person G-d is saying that until it kills them they will not atone for themselves (v.14).

Though the rabbis only use this verse figuratively when they cite it here. They are rabbis who most often concern themselves with matters that pertain to themselves, with the Talmud being their court records and transcription. They naturally discuss things herein that relate to themselves. But they are fully aware that they are merely men, even among them their could be found people who despite their wisdom and sincere religiosity retained the attitude of “eat, drink for tomorrow we die.” They therefore read this verse another way, that sometimes sins of pleasure are so strong and binding that even for the religious the battle will remain until the day they die. Maybe even more so, we all know the rabbinic maxim that states: “the greater the man the greater the yetzer hara (negative drive).” (Talmud Bavli Sukkot 52a) The impulse towards sin only dies with with the person, but a living person will always need to balance the influence of their higher-self and their base-nature. But its not possible to kill the drive of a person’s sinful nature without killing them intern.

But again this does not apply to Ben Dordia in either case. He is just a lowly man, that is fully repentant. But there is some similarity, he will battle sin until his dying day. But his death is incidental, in that there is no way for him to find his way out of the wilderness and back to his people. Being only indirectly consequential, in that his death was caused by the lifestyle he lived prior to repentance. The damage he had done to himself could not be reversed, so he died. We don’t know if he would have survived if he found his way back and repented in the proper way as a Jewish man before the elders, on Yom haKippurim or through personal infliction. He was left in such a fragile state that he could go no further and so he died where he lay. As he could not find his way back, a voice from heaven came to him and declared that he would be destined for salvation.

This outcome for him seems so unfair that heaven itself has to speak up and say that if he cannot live in this world he deserves to know that he will live in the world to come. This is because the scripture do explicitly tell us that life is the rewarded of the penitent. G-d sends messengers to call people back; even if only for them to hear the message and care less, or see the point of their error but not “get it.” Some people will never accept the message, closing their eyes and ears. But for those who understand and who take this call to heart and return, they will be healed. (Isaiah 6:9-10)

His death seems to trouble the rabbis even more so, they understood these laws and scriptures thoroughly and found no reason for his demise either. Instead of being insensitive and without comprehension, Ben Doria comes to this ascent of consciousness of his personal responsibility on his own, and without any intervention. His understanding is something so remarkable that they count him among the chachamim. For this reason they elevate him beyond being a simple person that they could not find remedy for, and instead reckon him a great man who suffered post-facto for apostasy.

That is not to say that his deathbed repentance doesn’t trouble some. Unlike the many other religions that hang their atonement and salvation on ones belief, Judaism does not and instead puts greater stock in ones actions. Emunah to the Jew means faithfulness, not faith that is an abstract feeling; it’s a description of ones ethic to follow through. Even our term for Jewish law – halacha – is a term that emphasizes the helek, the way one goes and the path they lead in this life. One should repent and live a life of holiness. This was not the case for Ben Dordia. No one challenges the truth of his redemption, yet even the Talmud itself shows the discomfort some feel with his late reflection:

Rabbi heard this and wept, saying:

‘It is possible to acquire the world to come

after years [of dedication],

and another to quire that world in an hour?’”

בכה רבי ואמר: |

יש קונה עולמו בכמה |

שנים |

ויש קונה עולמו בשעה אחת. |

Talmud Bavli Avodah Zarah 17a

The concern of Rabbi Yehuda haNasi is also understandable, being devout and faithful in Torah was the lifetime occupation of the rabbis of the Great Assembly, the sanheidrin that he headed; that enforced Jewish law, which he was chiefly responsible for documenting in the Mishnah of the Talmud; he is a tzadik par-excellence. We can look at the above statement several ways, but the obvious tone clearly carries through. For all the dedication Rabbi has invested in his practice he is anguished that Ben Dordia did nothing at all and was granted salvation. It might even seem convenient. He has no opportunity to exit his situation and there he remained, until there is nothing left he can do and then he repents. It angered Rabbi to the point of tears that for all his years of dedication, this single act of repentance by this sinner was regarded just as meritorious as his accomplishments. If this story concerns itself with what is fair, in the eyes of the faithful Ben Dordia’s “easy” redemption is unfair.

It is quite true, this is not something ordinarily we as Jews would look upon favorably. But the truth of the validity of such redemption remains even if it saddens and upsets anyone. Though this type of atonement is extraordinary and surely less than ideal, it is necessary that one not compare their own path of redemption to that of Ben Dordia or anyone else. Though most people who occupy themselves in Torah living will have an entire lifetime of personal growth and struggles to master, this story of redemption does not cheapen our approach towards atonement. What is important to comprehend here is that the understanding that Ben Dordia had to come to was his life’s struggle, this battle with himself was just as difficult as the entire life-struggle of anyone else.

Even his very name showed a tendency to be prone towards depending on supernatural help, his name Elezar means “G-d will help” or “G-d has helped.” But here he has to transcend his understand of his self and realize “there is nothing that isn’t dependent on me” to solve.

This is not hard to understand if we look beyond our own personal discomfort and consider the struggle of another. It should not need to be explained, for this reason no one responds to Rabbi’s lament. It is Rabbi who reflects upon this and rebuffs himself. The Talmud for this ends with Rabbi himself commenting a second time:

Rabbi [also] said:

‘Not only are baalei teshuvah

[repenters, lit. people who return]

accepted

but they are even called “Rabbi.”’”

ואמר רבי: |

לא דיין לבעלי תשובה |

|

שמקבלין אותן, |

אלא שקורין אותן רבי‘! |

Talmud Bavli Avodah Zarah 17a – Rabbi Yehuda haNasi, 2nd century CE

Considering all this, Rabbi Yehuda haNasi goes on record in praise and support of Elezar ben Dordia. He not only comes to the conclusion that this man’s story of redemption is honorable, but acknowledges the commonality of their human experience. Yehuda haNasi calls him “Rabbi,” a nickname that most often refers to himself in the proceedings of sanheidrin; he is the chief and senior elder and is called “rabbi / my teacher” by the others in the Talmud. The redemption of Rabbi Elezar ben Dordia is something which all of us, even the most pious of people, should learn from.

Conclusion

As we come to the completion of this study, one of the things that I want us to keep in mind is that reality that we are always able to make teshuvah – to turn around and make a change, to return. But we do need to keep in mind the reality of repentance, it might remove the stains of sins no matter how deep they run (Isaiah 1:18) but this does not mean that we are free of the natural results that such distorted living causes. This does not in any way effect our level with G-d, but it can be confusing and almost unfair that some of the results of sin can be revisited in our lives. Most often take place after a while, once a person has moved on from that type of life. Revisiting it can often bring confusion and shame of ones past back to haunt them. But our place as penitent people is not in any way compromised before the Throne of Heaven.

Keeping this in mind it should on one hand bring us comfort, our struggles are merely with the physical that we are trying to subjugate to our spiritual and higher selves. Sometimes it takes a lot longer to remedy distorted living in our physical person than it does on a heart level, and what we sow today does not necessarily reflect what we are currently reaping. When your hearts is right, it is right no matter what the physical manifestations say. But conversely, we need to bare in mind that we cannot be foolish enough to sow today and think that we wont reap the consequences of our deeds at some point.

Shmueli Gonzales, is a writer and Torah student from Southern California. In addition to divrei Torah and contributions to the Open Source publication of the siddur, he also spends much time as a volunteer educating people regarding HIV/AIDS.


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