A Reading of Avoda Zara 17a: The Strange Case of Rabbi Elazar ben Dordaya, Part 2

Although Elazar has, at this point in the story, stepped away from the brink of eternal futility, he has not yet repented. He sits alone and searches for an intermediary. These lines are the most cryptic in the story: what exactly does he want from the sun, moon, stars, etc.? How can they beg for his mercy?

Elazar had just learned that he was leading a futile life. He had contributed nothing to the world of any redemptive value. Faced with that reality, he, as many would, looks for redemption that stems from mercy, not justice. It was not his fault. He was condemned from the outset to lead a life that way. Why?

Because of the material wealth (heaven and earth? see Bereishit 27:28) he had accumulated without earning. Because societal norms (mountains and valleys? See Yeshaya 40:4) conditioned him to value certain things. Because his parents (the sun and moon? see Bereishit 37:9) spoiled him and told him he could have whatever he wanted, and that the main thing is to be happy. Because he was, by nature (stars and constellations as proto-psychology?), through no fault of his own, predisposed toward certain types of behavior and craved certain types of attention and companionship. Thus he sought to place blame. Everything has conspired to make him like this, thus absolving him of his own responsibility.

Each thing, in turn, rejects his attempt to blame them by noting its own worthlessness. Once one begins to blame, it’s blame all the way down. There is no responsibility for anything, and everything becomes arbitrary. Each verse cited appears as a contrast between the world’s futility and God’s Eternity and responsibility. Human beings, and they alone, were invested with the ability to say ‘the buck stops here’. Only man can become responsible, and only by accepting responsibility can man be redeemed. It is certainly possible to place blame, but then of what significance is man?

Elazar ultimately does take responsibility. He curls up and cries until he dies. Did he achieve resolution? Did he become something other than a shattered remnant of a man? Is that teshuvah?

As is well known, there is a 12-step process for overcoming addiction. I once met an addict who described his experience with the steps, stating that at a certain point, after Step 5, I believe, he felt like a newborn baby, completely clean and innocent. I think that sense is borne out in the Gemara at this stage. Elazar places his head between his knees, curls up into the fetal position. As we saw earlier, the process of teshuvah is compared to a return to the source. Here, Elazar actualizes this process, cleansing himself and recovering his core identity.

At this point in the story, Elazar dies. The Gemara suggests that it had to be this way, that he could only truly atone through death. The Rambam cited earlier (Teshuva 2:1) seems to suggest that his death upon repentance was a form of grace. Had Elazar rejoined society, gone back home after his intense experience, what would have happened? Would his change have been made permanent? Was he still vulnerable to a relapse? None of that matters, because he died. He died innocent, like a newborn.

Alternatively, it really doesn’t matter what happened the next day. The Elazar ben Dordaya that we met at the beginning of the story died. Perhaps he left the valley, enrolled in night school, became an accountant, got married, had a bunch of kids, and learned daf yomi. It doesn’t really matter. The story ends with his total repentance. What happens next is Chapter 1 of a different story.

The omniscient narrator, privy to events seen and heard by nobody, now records a heavenly voice that issued forth upon Elazar’s death – he had achieved eternity. God had given his seal of approval. There can be no more room for speculation that perhaps Rabbi Elazar’s repentance was not complete or not sufficient.

Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi, known as just Rabbi, cried when he heard Rabbi Elazar’s story. Rabbi was a paragon of virtue, never even letting his hands slide below his navel despite the pain of having kidney stones. Jewish tradition knows him as ‘Our Holy Rabbi’. And he has just found out that in the heavenly academy, he will be sitting next to Mr. Hefner, who gained access at the very last minute. Moreover, he seems to have gotten a last minute semicha. Imagine that on sukkot you walk into a friend’s sukkah and see a poster of all of the gedolim on the wall. The Rav is there. Rav Kook is there. The Chazon Ish, Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Shlomo Zalman. And Hugh (OK, I’ve actually been in a sukkah which had a poster of R’ Kook next to a picture of Bob Marley, but I digress).

Rabbi’s sobs echo the criticisms of Eliyahu and Yonah; teshuva is not fair, especially for those who have remained clean throughout. The Kotzker’s quip – that tzadikim gemurim can’t stand in the place of ba’alei teshuva because ‘tze shtinkt dortn’ (it smells over there) – becomes Rabbi as well. And I sympathize. It really seems unfair sometimes.

Yet, there he is. Rabbi Elazar ben Dordaya. He earned the honorific ‘Rabbi’ (which was once an honorific) because he did what Rabbis do: he taught us something. He taught us about complete repentance, turning around at the top of your game, accepting responsibility, and returning to your clean, innocent self.

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