Desperation and R. ben Dordia

| holidays, musings, stories |

Alison always makes fun of me for posting such dark blogs. I say – it’s Elul! It’s in the air! I hope you find it interesting.

Like Alison, I too read a crazy story the other day that had to with Teshuvah:

(Babilonian 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 exclaimed: “Heaven and earth, plead for mercy for me! They, too, replied: How shall we pray for you? We stand in need of it ourselves, for it is said, “For the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment.””… 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 bath-kol (voice from heaven) was heard proclaiming: ‘Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordai is destined for the life of the world to come!’

Now, at the risk of sounding blasphemous, I don’t particularly think visiting harlots is that bad a sin, but How R. ben Dordai “repented” is amazing. It’s like he suddenly GETS that he isn’t who he wants to be – that he has lived a life he is ashamed of.

He is desperate. He begs ANYTHING and ANYONE to help him – and nothing can. Nothing is firm enough for him to grab onto – even mountains, even the sky – there is no “there” there in any of it. Everything is too busy taking care of itself to take care of him. He feels utterly and completely alone.

Haven’t we all been there? Those moments in the middle of the night or crying in public, times of literally hitting the bottom of our reserves, with nothing we can do except cry out for help? I know I have. I’ve cried on more subway lines in more cities than I would care to admit. I’ve spent nights curled in fetal position, feeling nothing but the raw pain of a rejection, of early losses, of disappointment or self-loathing.

I think the story is right to point out the transcendental quality of those times of utter desperation. I think in those times when we feel completely helpless, we have no choice but to let go of our illusion of control, and hang on for dear life. That is the Teshuvah of the utterly broken hearted. I think those moments strengthen our empathy and make us wise. Somehow, I think they connect us to the wounded, pulsing heart of the whole world.