One of the foundations of the Jewish faith is the commandment of repentance. In fact, our sages teach that repentance is so great that it preceded the creation of the universe (Tanchuma Naso 11). This statement clearly implies that repentance is a prerequisite for the existence of the world; otherwise, it could have waited until after creation. Indeed, it did not take long for man to appreciate the urgency of repentance, for just a few hours after creation, he disobeyed the only commandment he was given. Following that terrible incident, we read the episode of Cain and Abel, where the first two brothers to be born killed each other (quite literally), and with the passing of generations the spiritual level of humanity just deteriorated. King Solomon exclaimed undoubtingly, “For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not” (Ecclesiastes 7:21). Therefore, creating a world of free will without offering the fallen a helping hand would be unjust and would inevitably fail immediately. So God sits at the gates of repentance and waits patiently for our knock on the door, as He told the prophet, “Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye”. (Ezekiel 18:31-32)
The Talmud relates a beautiful tale of the power and weight of repentance:
“It was said of Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordia that he crossed seven rivers for the sake of the only prostitute he hadn’t been with. As he was with her, she blew forth breath and said, “As this blown breath will not return to its place, so will Eleazar ben Dordia never be received in repentance.” He thereupon went, sat between two hills and mountains, and exclaimed, “O, ye hills and mountains, heaven and earth, sun and moon, stars and constellations, plead ye for mercy for me, pray for me!” They replied, “How shall we pray for thee? We stand in need of it ourselves.” He said, “The matter then depends upon me alone!” Having placed his head between his knees, he wept aloud until his soul departed. Then a voice of heaven proclaimed, “Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordia is destined for the life of the world to come!” Rebbe wept and said, “One may acquire eternal life after many years, another in one hour!” Rebbe also said, “Repentants are not alone accepted, they are even called Rabbi!” (Avoda Zara 17a)
When rereading the story the seventh time, a few basic questions arise. Firstly, that woman was probably right for assuming that a sinner of his caliber cannot possibly live long enough to correct all his errs and earn atonement for his iniquities. So how then did he find this seemingly impossible road to heaven? Secondly, what was he thinking as he called out to the stars, the mountains and the oceans? Why would they be any help to him or his plea? Then, we are perplexed by Rebbe’s tears; were they tears of anguish or awe, was he inspired or saddened? Finally, Rebbe concluded that ben Durdia earned the title “rabbi”; unlike the titles righteous, pure, and holy, which we may apply to a sincere repentant, in our case the term rabbi does not seem appropriate at all. Rabbi, by definition means someone who taught eternal wisdom, not an attribute that one can achieve by virtuous actions alone. Whom did Ben Derdia, the greatest sinner of his day, teach and why is his personal story so relevant?
Like every nice Hasidic thought, it is customary to start with a story. The late Reb Mendel Furtafas, a devout Hasid and man of great virtue, was exiled to Siberia under Stalinist rule for engaging in Jewish activism. After his release, he would use the experience and wisdom he attained in prison to further educate the young in communist Russia. Once when sitting with students he spoke of the contraband smuggling exercise. Alcohol, tobacco, and playing cards were illegal and punishable. Once a week the guards would line the inmates outside of their barracks and search the premises for the contraband. Indeed the professionals would find bottles of vodka, kegs of beer and bundles of tobacco; however, they were never successful in finding the cards. One week after inspection, the humiliated guard turned to the criminals and offered a deal. “I know you guys have cards, and you obviously hide it extremely well, if you reveal its hiding place I’ll let you keep it!” After short deliberation they decided to take him on his offer; one of the inmates reached to the guard’s pocket and retrieved a deck of cards. To the inspector’s astonishment, the criminal explained: “we know you can find anything in any hiding place as is evident from the sacks of merchandise you discover every week. However, there is one place that we were confident you will not search- your own pocket; so upon your weekly arrival we slipped it in, and before you left, we pickpocketed you!”
Some people that I know (pretty well) are far from perfect and know it well. While really wanting to change and even attempting to do so, somehow they continuously find themselves at the start line, despaired. With little courage and crushed faith that transformation is even possible, they start to realize the green grass across the street, the potential in a different town and the charm of a new relationship. Pointing their finger in that direction they think, “If there is any possibility for me to become the person I wish to be, it is there that it can be done, for where I am now it surly is not realistic.” This seemed to be the instinct of Ben Durdia, “that woman was right, obviously a sinner like me cannot repent in my current situation and locale. Perhaps if I climb the mountains where I committed my sins, swim back the great oceans that I traveled to transgress, I can find hope. Maybe I can find salvation and have better luck under different stars or in the late night moon.” Therefore, he called to them and asked for their help, but they revealed neither a secret promise nor a magical cure that he did not possess.
It was then that he realized that for salvation we do not have to search with telescopes or binoculars, they do not hide in the stars nor in the heavens, God is in our heart and soul waiting for our return, “The matter then depends upon me alone!” All there is to do, make a decision to take responsibility, and a conviction from within to do so. Rebbe, when he witnessed the revelation of a great sinner like Ben Durdia, he cried for all those who chase their way through life in search of God’s hiding place. He wept for sincere people that on their quest for hope tragically distract their focus to the unknown, but in vain; “One may acquire eternal life after many years, another in one hour!” Rabbi Eleazar ben Derdia teaches us, if we are searching for God high on Mount Everest or far on an island in the Pacific, we are look in the wrong direction. Instead, just reach into your own pocket.
For this commandment, which I command thee this day, is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)