Jewish literature is replete with stories about righteous and pious Jews. The purpose of these stories is to inspire us towards repentance and a more spiritual life. Let us analyze one similar story about a less-than-righteous individual, and hopefully the reader will find it as inspiring as this author did.
The Talmud in Avoda Zara (17a) relates a story about Rebbe Elazar ben Dordaya who was well known for his cohabitation with every prostitute in town. On one occasion, Rebbe Elazar journeyed across seven rivers with a cup full of Dinars to be with a famous prostitute. Following their cohabitation, the woman commented to Rebbe Elazar that at this point, God would never accept any of his repentance. Upon hearing this, Rebbe Elazar went outside and sat between two mountains, and proceeded to call upon the mountains and hills to beg God for mercy. The mountains replied that they could not possibly ask for mercy for Rebbe Elazar, as they already needed to ask mercy for themselves. Rebbe Elazar then made the same request of the heavens and the earth, of the sun and the moon, and finally of the stars and constellations, but they all replied just as the mountains and hills had. As a feeling of despondency began to set in, Rebbe Elazar exclaimed, “I realize that it is all dependant on me.” He then put his head between his knees, began to cry, and died. When relating this story, Rebbe Yehuda Hanasi commented that there are times when an individual can acquire his share in the world to come in just one moment, and can even be privileged to be labeled “Rebbe.”
This story raises several questions. First, why is it necessary for the Gemara to mention the fee of service for the prostitute, namely a cup of Dinars? Additionally, why did the Gemara see fit to mention that Rebbe Elazar traveled seven rivers to be with this woman? What did the mountains and hills mean when they said they had to ask for forgiveness for themselves? Why did the Gemara have to mention Rebbe Elazar putting his head between his knees? Finally, why did Rebbe Elazar merit the title of a Rebbe? Who were his Talmidim?
The Maharal as quoted in the Sefer Siftei Chaim explains as follows: The Torah teaches us that we must love Hashem and fulfill his Mitzvot “Bechol Livavicha Uvichol Nafshecha Uvechol Meodecha.” This means that we are obligated to love Hashem to the extent that our hearts will be driven to obey His laws, and to the extent that we are willing to even sacrifice our lives or give up all of our possessions for Him. However, the Gemara here teaches that Rebbe Elazar was so rooted in sin that he performed his sins with the same passion that God commands us to have for the Mitzvot. Hence, the Gemara describes that R’ Elazar was so driven to sin that he was willing to make a long journey, spend an exorbitant amount of money, and risk his life by crossing seven rivers.
The dialogue between R’ Elazar and the mountains and heavenly bodies was one in which R’ Elazar appealed to those creations that remain in this world for eternity. He believed that his only hope to remain in this world was to beseech those who inhabit it forever. The response of the mountains and heavenly bodies that they need to ask God for mercy for themselves was another way of saying, “You do not have to worry if you die, R’ Elazar; for you there is a World to Come. We do not have a future. If anything, we should be asking for mercy for ourselves in as much as we have no higher, more spiritual world to ascend to.”
When R’ Elazar heard that with proper repentance he could merit the world to come, he put his head between his knees. This simulated the fetal position, representing his wish to be free of sin like a fetus in its mother’s womb.
R’ Elazar became a Rebbe – the Rebbe of Teshuva. In fact, he is the Rebbe of all those readers who have become inspired to do Teshuva by reading this article.