Teshuva and Personal Change

When we begin the month of Elul, the month preceding the High Holidays, we enter the time of year devoted to introspection and repentance. The Talmud relates the following story about Eleazar ben Dordia repenting in but a single moment. However, personal experience shows that changing something about oneself is difficult, can take many years, and may not stick.

Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zara 17a
It was said of Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordia that there was no harlot in the world he did not have relations with. Once, upon hearing that there was a certain harlot in one of the towns by the sea who accepted a purse of gold coins for her hire, he took a purse of gold coins and crossed seven rivers to reach her. As he was with her, she had flatulence and said, “As this gas will not return to its place, so will Eleazar ben Dordia never be received in repentance.”
He thereupon went, sat between two mountains and exclaimed: “O, 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!”… He then pleaded with the Sun and moon and the stars and constellations to plead for mercy on his behalf but they all gave the same answer.
Said Rabbi Eliezer, “Then it depends upon me alone!” Having placed his head between his knees, he wept aloud until his soul departed (he died). Then a bat-kol (voice from heaven) was heard proclaiming: ‘Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordai is destined for the life of the world to come!’ When Rebi heard this story he wept and said: “One person may acquire eternal life after many years, and another person in but an hour!” Rebi also said: Not only are those who repent accepted but they are even called “Rabbi”!”

Questions for Chavruta:

  • Do you think the harlot’s words are a prophecy? Is there significance to the flatulence preceding her declaration?
  • Why does Eleazar ben Dordia seeks help from multiple sources before crying out himself? Why won’t the mountains, stars, etc. help him? How does this affect his personal journey?
  • Is it important – or integral to teshuva – that he died? Does it matter that he was so extreme in life – “there was no harlot in the world he did not have relations with” ?
  • If the bat kol had not emerged, what would we have thought about Eleazar ben Dordia?

Broader questions to ponder:

  • Is it realistic to think change can occur so rapidly? Is it possible? Desirable
  • How can you forgive yourself or others –and how can G-d forgive you– if odds are that the change won’t stick? Should G-d forgive you anyway?
  • What makes change “stick”? Does it matter what motivates you? (Fear of punishment vs. Desire to do good)
  • Can true change occur on a global level? (e.g. can we eliminate genocide)

“Connecting” vs. Commitment and the value of Freedom of Choice

A central theme of Pesach (Passover) is freedom as a means to serve G-d. As G-d says, “Let my people go so that they may serve me” (Exodus 10:3). The exodus from Egypt culminates in a complete acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

Thousands of years later, we live in a society that values the individual experience above all. Our personal connection trumps blanket commitment and conflicts with the value of accepting the yoke of Heaven. In modern times, the very idea of obligation to any value or object is opposed to the idea of freedom. Commitment contains an element of coercion, while exercising our free will is more meaningful to us.

In his essay “Commitment vs. Connecting”, Rav Amital of Yeshivat Har Etzion criticizes our generation for “seek(ing) ‘identification’ with mitzvot, but not a ‘commitment’ to them.” He says that “authority and obligation – two foundations necessary for living in accordance with the Torah – have become irrelevant in this generation. Not only are these concepts not spoken about, but worse still – the very mention of these terms ‘turns off’ the modern person, since the ‘connection’ they seek is personal, individual and experiential.”

Rav Amital observes that our generation is influenced by this atmosphere in our religious approach as well, and that choice out of free will has become the foundation of our religious worldview.

 

Questions to ponder:

  1. Is Rav Amital being too harsh on our generation or is he simply a careful observer of an obvious phenomenon?
  2. In your own life and decisions, do you see the tension between personally identifying with mitzvot vs. accepting the entire Torah?
  3. Perhaps our freedom represents progress. Do we gain more from being free to make our own (hopefully right) choices? Or are we better off relinquishing control from the outset and deferring to our religious tradition?

 

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