Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordaya: A Story of Teshuva
One of the cornerstones of Judaism is the possibility of Teshuva – return. Man is endowed with a divine spark which is manifest in his free choice: He can utilize his free choice to emulate God, to seek God. Alternatively man can choose to follow his baser side, and sin. At times, a conscious choice is made, while at times man is pulled as if by a magnet. His animal instincts control him, and he does not utilize his capacity to choose; rather, he chooses not to choose. The result is debasement, impurity and sin. When this happens man can wallow in sin and impurity, sinking to lower and lower levels, or man can choose to break the shackles of ignominy and seek God. At such times, man may identify a different magnet pulling him toward God and away from his own inconsistencies and spiritual pain. This process is known as Teshuva.
But is Teshuva always obtainable? Is it an inalienable right? Can we always return ? or can the abyss become so deep that there is no return? This question is discussed in the Talmud:
Scripture says, “None that go unto her return neither do they attain the paths of life.” (Mishlei 2:19) But if they do not return, how can they attain [the paths of life]? ? What it means is that even if they do turn away from it they will not attain the paths of life. Does it mean then that those who repent from idolatry die? [Avoda Zara 17a]
The Talmud teaches that not all sins can be erased. The spiritual scar can be too deep to be removed by mere regret; the penitent will perish, his penance notwithstanding. Why repent, then, if death will follow? Rashi grapples with this unavoidable question, and offers a new vantage point: In such a case, death is not necessarily a punishment, but a result of the struggle between good and evil waged within the penitent. The struggle to destroy the powerful evil inclination, which had enjoyed so many victories with this individual, will prove overwhelming for the spiritual resources this person has accrued, and the person will perish.
While death may be seen as the result of the return, death itself can bring about atonement(1) and the penitent can be assured a place in the world to come. In fact, a number of sources regard death as a necessary aspect of atonement in some cases.
R. Matthia b. Heresh asked R. Eleazar b. Azariah in Rome: Have you heard about the four kinds of sins, concerning which R. Ishmael has lectured? He answered: They are three, and with each is repentance connected – If one transgressed a positive commandment and repented, then he is forgiven, before he has moved from his place; as it is said: “Return, O backsliding children.” (Yirmiyahu 3:14). If he has transgressed a prohibition and repented, then repentance suspends [the punishment] and the Day of Atonement procures atonement, as it is said: “For on this day shall atonement be made for you … from all your sins.” (Vayikra 16:30) If he has committed [a sin to be punished with] extirpation or death through the Bet Din, and repented, then repentance and the Day of Atonement suspend [the punishment thereon], and suffering finishes the atonement, as it is said: “Then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with strokes” (Tehillim 89:43). But if he has been guilty of the profanation of the Name, then penitence has no power to suspend punishment, nor the Day of Atonement to procure atonement, nor suffering to finish it, but all of them together suspend the punishment and only death finishes it, as it is said: “And the Lord of hosts revealed Himself in my ears; surely this iniquity shall not be expiated by you till ye die.” (Yoma 86a)
Sin and the accompanying pleasure, cause damage to the soul. Some type of atonement is needed to recreate the delicate balance between body and soul. Different types of sin require different types of atonement. The worst type of sin – the desecration of God’s name – requires death as atonement.
The Talmud continues and recounts the story of a woman who apparently was guilty of idolatry among the host of sins she had committed:
Was there not that woman who came before R. Hisda confessing to him that the lightest sin that she committed was that her younger son was fathered of her older son? Whereupon R. Hisda said: Get busy in preparing her shrouds – but she did not die. Now, since she refers to her [immoral] act as the lightest sin, it may be assumed that she had also adopted idolatry [and yet she did not die]! – That one did not properly repent, that is why she did not die. (Avoda Zara 17a)
The thesis of the Talmud remains intact; returning from idolatry causes death (as atonement). In this case the Talmud insists that while she was guilty of idolatry, her return was not complete, nor sincere. Hence no death needed to immediately follow in order to guarantee atonement, for no atonement was forthcoming due to the lack of regret. The Talmud retells another version of the same story:
Some have this version: [Is it only] from idolatry that one dies if one repents, but not from other sins. Was there not that woman who came before R. Hisda who said, ‘Prepare her shrouds’ and she died? – Since she said [of her guilt] that it is one of the lightest, it may be assumed that she was guilty of idolatry also.
This woman did die; the Talmud’s thesis is upheld once again – return from idolatry causes death. The Talmud then explores whether idolatry is the only offense with this result and tells us an incredible tale:
And does not one die on renouncing sins other [than idolatry]? Surely it has been taught: It was said of R. Eleazar b. Dordaya 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 by the sea who accepted a purse of coins for her hire. He took a purse of coins and crossed seven rivers for her sake. As he was with her, she blew forth breath and said: ‘As this blown breath will not return to its place, so will Eleazar b. Dordaya never be received in repentance.’ He thereupon went, sat between two hills and mountains and exclaimed: ‘O, ye hills and mountains, plead for mercy for me!’ They replied: ‘How shall we pray for thee? We stand in need of it ourselves, for it is said, “For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed!” So he exclaimed: ‘Heaven and earth, plead for mercy for me!’ They, too, replied: How shall we pray for thee? 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 then exclaimed: ‘Sun and moon, plead for mercy for me!’ But they also replied: ‘How shall we pray for thee? We stand in need of it ourselves, for it is said, “Then the moon shall be confounded and the sun ashamed.” He exclaimed: Ye stars and constellations plead ye for mercy for me!’ Said they: ‘How shall we pray for thee? We stand in need of it ourselves, for it is said, “And all the hosts of heaven shall moulder away.” Said he: The matter then depends upon me alone! He placed his head between his knees, he wept aloud until his soul departed. Then a bat-kol was heard proclaiming: ‘Rabbi Eleazar b. Dordaya is destined for the life of the world to come!'(2) Now, here was a case of a sin [other than idolatry] and yet he did die! – In that case, too, since he was so much addicted to immorality it is as [if he had been guilty of] idolatry. Rabbi [on hearing of it] wept and said: One may acquire eternal life after many years, another in one hour! Rabbi also said: Not only are penitents accepted, they are even called ‘Rabbi’! [Avoda Zara 17a]
We are told of a habitual sinner who, remarkably, is introduced as “Rabbi”, although his behavior is not consistent with this appellation. Careful reading of the passage indicates that he is referred to as “Rabbi” posthumously, and only in retrospect. In life this man was indeed a sinner: he did not teach, nor even study.(3) His only concern was fulfilling his own sordid desires. Only in death does he become a Rabbi.(4)
Even with the issue of ordination cleared, the story remains difficult. What is the meaning of the bizarre behavior of the prostitute, and why does she say what she says? Why does he take her words so seriously? What is the meaning of his conversation with the mountains and hills, the sun and moon and stars? Why does he merit to be called Rabbi? And finally, why does he die?
Whether his dialogue with hills and mountains is real or imagined,(5) it provides a fascinating description of what Teshuva is not. The rejection of his impassioned plea leaves us with the understanding that the answer to man’s prayers does not lie in the forces of nature: When it comes to repentance or return, nature cannot help man. The image is stark: Here is a man who succumbed to his own base nature. His desires dictated the type of man he would be, and the forces of nature cannot lead him to spiritual healing.
The message is essential to our understanding the dynamics of Teshuva: Teshuva is not made of worldly stuff. The secret of Teshuva does not lie within the cosmos. Teshuva is metaphysical. It was created before the physical world.(6) Teshuva is a return to God; as God transcends time space and matter, man who forges a relationship with God can transcend his past. This concept can be described utilizing a mathematical formula: Infinite plus finite remains infinite.(7) Reality is God. Only this infinite reality existed before the creation of our physical, limited world. The only aspect of our existence that is “real” is that which is in relationship with this infinite reality – God. Finite man who has a relationship with the infinite God can thus move beyond the physical boundaries of time and space to transcend the mistakes of his past. What is real is the present relationship with God.
Eleazar approaches nature but his efforts are rejected. As far as nature is concerned, man today may stop doing what he did yesterday; rehabilitation is possible, but Teshuva, metaphysical cleansing and healing, is not.
Let us now return to an earlier part of the story. At the point of rapture, air escapes from the woman, and she looks at her client Eleazar and says, “As this air will not return to its place, so will Eleazar b. Dordaya never be received in repentance.” Her behavior and words confound us. Does she discuss the spiritual status of all her clients? Is such a service included in her price? The word used in the text is heficha; Rashi explains that a wind (or spirit – Hebrew word is ruach) blew forth. The first time a derivative of heficha is used in the Torah is when man is given his soul.
“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed (vayipach) into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” (Bereishit 2:7)
Apparently what this woman is saying is that his soul had become impossibly soiled.(8) Her motivation is obscure: Perhaps, being accustomed to having total control of her body and suddenly, unexpectedly, losing that control, enables her to recognize that Eleazar is lost in a similar way.(9) This shocks Eleazar: He always thought of himself as redeemable; he probably 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 is devastated by the mere thought and decides, then and there, to seek change.
He seeks a way back but is told that he is hopelessly degenerate, suffering from malignant deterioration. This may be the meaning of his name ‘Ben Durdaya’ – the son of hitdardarut, the one who deteriorated further and further until all seemed lost.(10)
His first name, though, is Eleazar, which means ‘God can help’. No matter how far any sinner deteriorates he remains Eleazar, God can always help. When he walks away from the prostitute, separating himself from his sin, he seeks purity, not mere rehabilitation. He wants his soul to be pure again, as pure as it was the day he was born. He turns to nature in an attempt to turn back the clock, but is told that such a request is impossible. Nature can neither control nor impact the past.
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”. (11) The “me” is Eleazar, 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.
This is why he is called “Rabbi”: He teaches us a valuable lesson, that Teshuva is always possible even if death is the result. He does not let the naysayers sway him from a path of holiness, and he does not let his years of corruption prevent his pursuit of holiness. He does not allow his past to destroy his future, and in one glorious moment, he finally understands why he was born and seeks God with all his heart and all his soul – even to the point of losing his life.(12)
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(13) his own lust with all his heart and all his soul and all his possessions. He was willing to cross seven(14) 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. Perhaps this intense reversal is what led to his death. Perhaps his death was actually a kindness(15) on the part of God; for such a corrupt man to have reached a spiritual high is quite impressive, but how would this man conduct himself on a day-to-day basis? With his addiction subdued or under control, what would his life have been? Would he have been able to sustain this religious high with any consistency? Or was death an escape? Perhaps the only way he would gain a share in the world to come was by leaving the world at the time of his pinnacle, the moment he cried and achieved purity.
Our conclusion must be 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.(16)
1. See Mishna Makkot 3:15 (23a). (return to text)
2. The Arizal in Likutei Halachot says that Eliezer ben Durdaya was a reincarnation of Yochanan Kohen Gadol who spent his entire life as a righteous man and served as Kohen Gadol for 80 years, only to leave the path of Torah and became a heretic. This soul was possessed by Eleazar who spent his entire life as a sinner, until his last breath when he repented. For more on Yochanan Kohen Gadol see Emanations pages 249-258. (return to text)
3. His name is never mentioned again in rabbinic literature, no teaching is recorded in his name, no students or teachers are mentioned. (return to text)
4. Rav Moshe Feinstein makes this point as well, and insists that the use of “Rabbi” here is a posthumous title, never enjoyed in life. Iggrot Moshe Yore Deah Volume One, Section 135. (return to text)
5. Tosfot Chullin 7a says that it was an imaginary conversation which transpired only in the mind of Eleazar. (return to text)
6. See Bereishit Rabbah 1:4, Zohat Bereishit page 134b, for more on this topic see Emanations page 187f. (return to text)
7. See Explorations, Parshat Vayakhel. (return to text)
8. Rav Yehonatan Eibeshitz says that her intention is to dissuade him from repenting, that he may as well not bother. (return to text)
9. This suggestion is made by the Ben Yehoyada. (return to text)
10. I heard this suggestion said in the name of Rav Yehuda Amital. Also see Siftei Chaim by Rav Chaim Freidlander (volume one page 3) while he doesn’t openly make the suggestion it is implied. The Maharal (Netiv HaTeshuva chapter 8, and Chidushei Aggadot Avoda Zara) identifies the name with the Aramaic meaning of spoiled grapes. (return to text)
11. See Siftei Chaim by Rav Chaim Freidlander who develops this point. (return to text)
12. Halachic authorities debate whether such a death constitutes suicide. See Respona Shvut Yaakov Volume 2 section 111, where in the context of discussing the suicide of a repentant sinner who sought his “deserved” punishment he introduces the example of Eleazar ben Durdaya and says this was not a case of suicide. He brings the commentary of Rashi from the start of the passage, who explains the death of the sinner who repents as being the result of a broken heart, but not suicide. Also see Shem Gedolim section “Yud” subsection 17. (return to text)
13. When the Talmud says he heard of a certain prostitute, the Hebrew word is Shoma, which is spelled the same as Shema, the commandment to believe in one God, and the verse in the Torah that preceeds the command to love God with all one’s heart soul, and possessions. (return to text)
14. The number seven often refers to the totality of the physical world. (return to text)
15. Rav Menashe Klein came to the same conclusion, that his death was a kindness on God’s part. See Mishne Halachot volume 13 section 214. (return to text)
16. The Shelah Hakadosh makes this point regarding Eleazar ben Durdaya and says therefore even Elisha ben Avuya could have repented – even though a voice from heaven told him not to bother. Shaar Otiot Emek Bracha. (return to text)