The Teaching of a Debased Rabbi

    February Purim 2002            
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Rabbi Elazar ben Dordiya

By Avi Lazerson

Although all of the stories and legends of the Talmud are very interesting and especially rich in meaning, the story of Elazar ben Dordiya has always been one that is remembered for its special message.

The Talmud relates that Elazar ben Dordiya was a person who had visited every prostitute that existed in the world! Now that says something about the character of the person and the quality of his life. To visit every prostitute in the world means that this person was, as we would say, quite debased.

Once, the Talmud relates, he heard that there was a prostitute on the other side on the ocean who required a sack of gold in exchange for her favors. Elazar ben Dordiya amassed the sum and crossed seven rivers to reach her.

While having relations with this prostitute, she let out a bit of gas. She remarked, "like this gas that has gone out will never return to its source, so too, Elazar ben Dordiya will never do repentance to be able to return to his source."

When he heard this remark from the prostitute, he took it to heart. Realizing that she had told the truth, that he was so debased that he could never enter the next world, he went outside.

He first looked at the mountains so tall and strong and pleaded, "Mountains, pray to G-d for my soul!" But the mountains answered, "Who are we to pray, for when G-d reveals Himself, we will melt and falter. We must pray for ourselves first."

So he turned to the earth and the heavens which support and crown the mighty mountains and implored them, "Beseech G-d on my behalf!" But the earth and heavens answered, "We disappear like smoke in the presence of G-d. We must pray for ourselves first "

Then he turned to the sun and moon, which provide the physical influence to provide life on earth, and pleaded, "Sun and moon, pray to G-d on my behalf!" But the sun and moon replied, " We must pray for ourselves first, for we are nothing except for G-d's will."

Finally he turned to the stars and constellations, through whom the G-dly influence comes down to determine mans fate. "Stars and constellations, pray for my soul!" But the stars and constellations only replied, "Let us pray for our own welfare since G-d will take away the stars and constellations."

Realizing that nothing could intercede on his behalf, his repentance was in only his hands, he put his head between his knees and began to cry with such complete and total anguish that his soul left his body and he died.

At this point, a voice called out from heaven "Rabbi Elazar ben Dordiya has been accepted into heaven."

Upon hearing this heavenly voice, Rabbi Yehuda the Prince, called also "Our Holy Rabbi", the composer of the Mishna upon which the Talmud is based, cried and exclaimed, "there are those who labor many years to earn a place in heaven, and there are those who are able to achieve their place in heaven in a short hour!"

Then Rabbi Yehuda the Prince added, "isn't it enough that a repentant is admitted into heaven, do they have to call him 'Rabbi' also?"

This also requires a bit of explanation. Why did the heavenly voice call Elazar ben Dordiya a Rabbi, and why did Rabbi Yehuda the Prince object?

First Rabbi Yehuda the Prince dedicated his entire life to study, good deeds and collecting the various teachings of the sages who proceeded him. Although he was very wealthy and widely respected both by the Jewish communities and the Roman communities, he never used his wealth or personal political position for his own benefit.

He, and others like him, studied many years, laboring many sleepless nights to understand the depths of the Torah and memorizing countless teachings of the sages who extended to latter generations the oral teachings of Moses, before being given the title of "Rabbi."

He lived a life void of excesses and purity. A life dedicated to helping others and devoid of personal luxury.

Elazar ben Dordiya, on the other hand, was just the opposite. He was a debased person of low character seeped in vice and personal pleasure seeking. Yet it was just he and not Rabbi Yehuda the Prince, who was able to teach us, that no matter how far we stray from G-d, irregardless of how little we observe his commandments, irrespective of what others think of us, G-d is always ready to accept our return to him. It is only a matter of our sincerity and personal effort.

That is what Elazar ben Dordiya taught all of us, and because of this important teaching, he received the highest honor, to be called a "Rabbi."


from the February Purim 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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