Of Rabbi Elazar ben Dordia it was said there was not a prostitute in the world he had not been with. Once he heard of a certain prostitute who lived by the sea whose fee was a sack full of coins. He took a sack of coins and left, crossing seven rivers until he arrived. In the midst of the act, she passed gas. She said: "Just as this gas can never return to its place, so too R. Elazar will never be received as a penitent."
He left and sat between two mountains. "Mountains, plead for me!" he begged. They said to him, "Can we plead for you when of our own fate it is written: 'The mountains shall melt and the hills collapse'" (Isaiah 54). He cried: "Heaven and earth plead for me!" They replied, "Can we plead for you when of our own fate it is written, 'The heavens like smoke shall disperse, and the earth as a garment fade away'?" (Isaiah 51).
He asked: "Sun and moon, plead for me!" They replied, "Can we plead for you when of our own fate it is written, 'The moon shall be abashed, the sun ashamed'?" (Isaiah 24).
He pleaded: "Stars and constellations, plead for me!" They replied, "Can we plead for you when of our own fate it is written, 'The heavenly hosts shall shrivel'?" (Isaiah 34).
He said: "It is up to me alone."He dropped his head between his knees and cried out in tears until he expired.
A heavenly voice proclaimed: "R. Elazar ben Dordia is welcomed to the world to come!"
Rebbe cried, "There are those who gain the world to come through years of toil and those who gain it in a moment."
Why did R. Elazar start crying when he did? Was it over his sins? Even before this point, he was conscious of his sins and wanted to repent. Why didn't he cry then?
We can find two reasons for his belated tears. The first - he cried over the time he wasted looking for help. Bitterer were the tears he cried over the time wasted than over his sins themselves. One can sin, stumble, misstep and fall, but the time spent searching for all sorts of reasons, experts and articles, that lost time is the gravest waste of all. It is nearly impossible to constantly sin, but, to sit and kvetch, to look for someone else to blame, that comes all too easily - and that is a shame. That is the bigger sin.
There is a second reason for his tears as well. That is the discovery in and of itself that I am actually the only one responsible for my sins. This is both the most profound and the most earth-shaking revelation of all. You are responsible! You are the one who sinned and you are the one who repents. It is you who can waste your life. It is you who can turn your life around.
R. Elazar knew that he sinned, but he wasn't able to cry over his sins. Until the fundamental fact of personal responsibility, the fact that he himself was completely free and need not look for excuses or texts or ideas or reasons, until all this became apparent, he couldn't cry over his sins. When you depend upon that which is outside of yourself, when you search for friends, find excuses, you cannot really cry. Real tears, crying from the deepest part of one's soul, until the very end of one's soul, can only come with real personal responsibility.
This story teaches us the secret of teshuva. The source of teshuva, its very essence, is freedom: freedom of choice, the knowledge that it's up to me alone.
The sinner lives in a fantasy of freedom and choice. This fantasy stems from his thinking that there is always some way to get by. There is no law, no judge, no finality. Reality is never black and white, concrete and fixed. It is always possible to get a second chance.
When R. Elazar finds himself before the unequivocally real, he falls to his knees, filled with fright as his illusory freedom fades before his eyes. It is only at this moment that he finds the strength needed to beg for mercy. His vision of the world as a place where there is always a way out, always another escape hatch, has been shattered.
The brazen sinner is not ready to accept the yoke of heaven. The sinner, and the sin itself, is based on throwing off this yoke, on the lack of seriousness, on levity itself, thinking that there is nothing conclusive in this world, nothing that cannot be changed. The first step on the path of teshuva is bumping up against the unassailable finality of the world. "Just as this gas can never return to its place, so too R. Elazar will never be received as a penitent." There is no way out, it's you and you alone.
The next step of the penitent is his search and request for mercy. He still doesn't possess the courage to face the world, to confess his sins, to regret his past. He still cannot even really cry over his sins, he still is not truly sorry. He spends his time looking for all sorts of external factors: heaven and earth, friends and conversations, proofs and convictions, emotions and ideologies. He wants reasons to change, someone to reveal to him the truth, thoughts that will push him along, emotions to sweep him away.
He is no longer, however, what we can call a "brazen sinner." He belongs now to the cult of seekers, those looking to return. But he is trapped with them in a world of searching from which they never escape. They discover that nothing is forever in this world. Heaven and earth, seas and countries, everything changes and nothing is permanent. There is not a place in the universe that one can lean on if one wants to change.
This collision with truth fills R. Elazar with fright, yet he still cannot come to terms with it. He still lives in the fantasy - the very same fantasy that is sin itself - that he will find someone, something to plead for him. Maybe the "passed gas" can return, perhaps there is something that never ends, maybe everything but R. Elazar dies in the end. If he can't stand on his own, then he'll lean on the virtue of others. There must be someone who holds the secret to eternity and it must be in his hands to pity the poor R. Elazar.
There are those, and plenty of them, that spend their entire lives trapped here. They have left the world of sin, yet haven't yet arrived at the gates of repentance. They wait - for someone to pity them, for someone to teach them, for someone to do something to them. They are caught up in a constant search, and while their intentions are good, their endless quest after so-called truth leaves them tense and ragged. Their search itself is a lie. It itself is a mere illusion, because everything changes and there is not a thing in the physical or spiritual world which can help. Only God is everlasting, never changing, and God exists outside of both our physical and spiritual reality.
And then suddenly, in a flash of insight, R. Elazar discovers that there is no one to take pity on him. No, not in the entire creation will anyone have mercy on R. Elazar ben Dordia. In light of this realization comes an even greater insight - it's up to me. I can't, it's too hard, I need help, I'm afraid, I, I, I - me, me, me. But who is this me? A thought, an idea, an abstraction? You are who you are. If you want it, really want it, you need no others. R. Elazar discovers the real secret of freedom. Teshuva (as is known throughout the Kabbala) belongs to the world of freedom. And then, free at last, he sheds the most bitter tears of all.
Why does he break down and cry now, at this moment? As we said earlier, R. Elazar is crying over wasted time. He looked for something in the very place where it cannot be found. People are only filled with regret at the moment that they come to the realization that they themselves are guilty, that they themselves need to repent. Throughout the time spent looking for someone else, even looking for help, R. Elazar couldn't feel any regret. Only through the realization of personal responsibility, only with the discovery that at the end of the day it is he and he alone, is he able to cry. Only then can he cry and to feel any true contrition.
The sinner, who lives in ignorance of both the law and king, lives an illusion of freedom, a false feeling of free choice and liberty. Yet when this illusion clashes with the unbending reality of consequence - that is, the emanation of malchut (kingship) - it vanishes and he sees exactly how dependent, enslaved and miserable he actually is.
And then, frantically, he runs looking for help. Yet, after years of futile search, when he discovers the impossibility of his quest, only then is he ready to accept the yoke of heaven. Only then, after all his illusions are dashed is he able to make teshuva. It's my responsibility! Now come the tears and the sorrow and the regret over all that was wasted. And even more at the realization that it was me, yes me that sinned. But, these tears are also tears of joy, great joy upon realizing that finally I am free, no longer enslaved and that it's my responsibility alone.
But Rebbe also cries, for "there are those who gain the next world in a moment." There are those who labor for years, whose lives are filled with Torah and mitzvot. But they have actually gained nothing. Why? Because they have failed to make that final transition to the realization of self-responsibility. One can work for years and never reach this transitional point, this revolutionary moment known as "higher teshuva." For Rebbe, this may be the saddest thing of all.
The writer was the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Siah Yitzhak. The essay was translated by Naftali Moses from the recently deceased rabbi's The Human and the Infinite.