Parashat Nisavim: It Depends Only on Us
The Gemara in Masechet Aboda Zara (17a) tells the astonishing story of a man named Elazar Ben Dordaya, who is described as having been a degenerate addict, who visited every harlot in the world. Once, he heard of a woman who lived far away and who charged an exorbitant fee for her services, and so he took with him a pouch filled with money and traveled to her. During his visit with this woman, she told him that he is incapable of ever repenting, that he has fallen so low that he would never be able to change.
This comment rattled Elazar, who ran outside and sat in between two mountains. He begged the mountains to beseech G-d on his behalf, but they said they could not. He then begged the heavens and the earth to beseech G-d on his behalf, but they said they could not. He begged the sun, the moon and the stars, but they, too, explained that they could not pray for him. Finally, he exclaimed, “The matter depends only on me!” He lowered his head and cried, until he passed away. A heavenly voice then exclaimed, “Rabbi Elazar Ben Dordaya is granted life in the eternal world.”
Not only did Elazar’s repentance earn him a share in the next world, despite his life of decadence, but it even earned him the title “Rabbi.”
Elazar Ben Dordaya was not a “Rabbi” in the sense that he could answer complex halachic questions, or deliver informative and uplifting lectures. However, he is, truly, a Rabbi, a teacher for every one of us.
The Talmud elsewhere (Sukka 52a) compares the Yeser Ha’ra, our sinful inclinations, to a tall mountain, which is difficult to climb. When Elazar Ben Dordaya looked to the mountains for help, it means that he tried pinning the blame on his evil inclination, on his sinful impulses. When this did not work, he tried blaming the heavens and the earth – meaning, the complex combination between physicality and spirituality that characterizes the human condition. He thought he could blame his sinful lifestyle on this very difficult balance between our animalistic and spiritual natures. He then tried to blame the celestial beings – meaning, the Zodiac, his having been born at a certain time which affected his nature. Finally, he realized that he has no one to blame but himself: “The matter depends only on me.”
This is why Elazar Ben Dordaya is called a “Rabbi.” He teaches us the vitally important lesson that “the matter depends only on me,” that we cannot blame anybody or anything for our sins. We must take full responsibility and own up to our mistakes and failings. We will never grow or improve as long as we cast the blame for our sins on other people. We need to recognize that we are responsible for our decisions and our actions.
So often when I speak to people about religious observance, I hear them blame their low standards of observance on other factors. Some people blame it on their upbringing, saying that if their parents would have raised them differently, or had sent them to a different school, or if they had been raised in a more established Jewish community, they would observe Shabbat. Some people blame their spouse, saying that if their husband or wife was more encouraging or more passionate about religion, they would observe more. As we enter the High Holidays, we need to learn from our great “Rabbi” – Elazar Ben Dordaya. We need to learn the lesson of “the matter depends only on me,” that we each have only one person to blame for our mistakes, and only one person who can help us change, and that is ourselves. This is the key to repentance – recognizing that we are fully responsible for our mistakes, and that we are fully capable of correcting them, of changing our behavior, and of becoming the people who we know we should be.