Thursday, February 19, 2009

A-Rod and Elazar ben Durdaya (Derashah Mishpatim 5769)

Star athlete Alex Rodriguez would like to be judged for his single moment of contrition, rather than his career of steroid use. He is trying to take advantage of an instant of Teshuvah (repentance), following the model of Elazar ben Durdaya.

Elazar ben Durdaya, who lived in the time of the Mishnah over 1800 years ago, immersed himself, thoroughly, in one of Judaism’s most serious sins: He visited every זונה he could find, anywhere, and paid any exorbitant price that was asked.

Once, a זונה commented to Elazar that someone like him could never repent for his crimes. Her words, and the strong way she expressed them, penetrated to his calloused soul and moved him. He immediately fled into the wilderness and dramatically beseeched Nature itself – the mountains, the heavens, the earth, the sun, the moon and the stars – to pray on his behalf. Then, in a moment of sublime contrition, Elazar wept with all of his heart, and exhaled his final breath in a state of repentance.

A voice emerged from the heavens and declared, “Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya has earned a place in the afterlife!” Rabbi Yehudah haNasi, the great sage and leader also known as Rebbe, canonizer of the Mishnah, exclaimed in tears, “יש קונה עולמו בשעה אחת, One can acquire his place in the afterlife in just one moment – and the Heavens will even call him Rabbi!”

Rebbe declared that one may acquire his place in Heaven in just a moment – and it is this idea of a defining moment of repentance and redress and redemption, that motivates an Alex Rodriguez to try to rehabilitate his career with a late-in-the-game apology.

But R’ Shlomo Eideles, in his “Maharsha” commentary to the gemara, explained that this was not Rebbe’s message; his point was not that we can correct our life’s errors in an instant. Rebbe was not crying tears of joy at the possibility of instantaneous rehabilitation. Rather, Rebbe was crying tears of frustration and anger – because our lives are filled with such defining moments, instants which lack apparent drama but nonetheless offer opportunities for greatness, and we routinely pass them by! This Elazar ben Durdaya, this Alex Rodriguez, could have capitalized on a lifetime of opportunities, could have built up a life of good deeds and an afterlife of great rewards, but they waited out the clock and wasted all of that time!

Look at Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi himself; he did not become Rebbe by capitalizing on some momentary opportunity! Rebbe slaved away at his studies, devoted hours and days and weeks and months and years of defining moments to compiling the mishnah, lobbied the Roman Antoninus on behalf of his fellow Jews, and led the Jews of Tzippori and Israel. Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya could have done that, too – but only if he had woken up much earlier, taking advantage of not a single Defining Moment but many.

Our parshah, too, accentuates our lifetime’s series of defining opportunities.

Right after we stand at Har Sinai in Parshat Yitro, right after we receive the Torah and hear the grand and intimidating voice of Gd boom out, “I am the Lord your Gd who took you out of Egypt,” right after we witness a mountain shrouded in flame, shaking with thunder and illuminated by lightning, right after we receive instructions for constructing sacred altars on which we will serve our lofty Gd – we receive a laundry list of economic minutiae, civil law on the most mundane level governing remuneration for violence and property damage, economic relationships and property ownership.

And then, just as suddenly, the Torah reverts to the story of an awestruck nation cowering before its unfathomable Creator and King.

This juxtaposition of Divine encounter with picayune detail impresses upon us that life is not a series of insignificant ripples and eddies emanating outward from singular Sinai moments of birth and crisis and watershed and death. Life is a series of less-dramatic Sinai opportunities, and any given day, any given relationship, any given opportunity, however understated, harbors the bubbling potential of a Defining moment.

This is why some Jews do not stand when we read the עשרת הדברות, those Ten Commandments, in shul: To demonstrate that the entire Torah, whether discussing shatnez or Shabbos, kashrus or קריעת ים סוף, addressing every day of our lives, carries equal portent, equal holiness, equal power.

A sacred life should not revolve around a single moment.
• Avraham faced 10 tests, not just 1.
• Yosef faced a daily test from the advances of his employer’s wife, and not just one day’s challenge.
• Rabbi Eliezer taught his students to repent every day as though it was their last, and not wait for some special moment.

And we dare not wait for Elul, for Rosh haShanah, for Yom Kippur, to apologize to others, to come to minyan, to give tzedakah.
And we dare not allow relationships to deterioriate until some seminal, dramatic, Sinaiesque moment, but we repair them now, today.
And we dare not procrastinate in introducing the holy into our lives and our homes, with berachot and tefillah and mezuzah and kashrut.

Certainly, there are moments of greater inspiration, stand-out occasions which move us to great heights, but there are two dangers in bypassing daily chances while waiting for such singular moments:
• First, when that Sinai comes, we may miss it or we may be unable to take advantage.
• Second, people who wait for some inspiring moment end up waiting a long time – and then, when the moment comes and then passes, the inspiration disappears and they commence waiting for the next wave of fervor.

There’s no need to wait: Our lives are constructed of day after day of more subtle Defining Moments, and the people who recognize this potential are the ones who transcend the momentary greatness of R’ Elazar ben Durdaya, and achieve the enduring prominence of Rebbe.

At the start of our parshah, we read about the fate of a Jew who steals and is unable to pay for his theft; he is sold as an עבד, a slave, for six years. At the end of those years, regardless of how much he stole, he is given his freedom.

But the Torah’s version of slavery isn’t too bad – the עבד receives the best bed in the house and the best food in the house, cannot be given painfully difficult or demeaning work, and cannot be made to work night and day. So the עבד might reach the end of his slavery and declare, “All things considered - I’d like to stay as an עבד.”

The Torah permits him to remain – but then his ear is pierced. חז"ל (the sages) explained that because he heard Gd say לא תגנוב, Do not steal, at Har Sinai, and yet he stole, we pierce his ear.
But if this disobedience is why we pierce his ear, then why do it now, six years after the theft? And why do we only pierce the ear of the עבד who chooses to remain as an עבד?

Rav Shimon Schwab explained that while the original theft was illegal, it might be excusable; perhaps it was a momentary error, or a crime committed under the pressure of circumstance. Now, though, six years later, this עבד has an opportunity to re-define himself as an honest person, to leave behind his theft. He can move on, and take advantage of this chance to begin anew. If the עבד instead allows his big moment from six years earlier to define him, if he fails to understand that every day is a new chance to chart a path, then we pierce his ear and say, “Learn from your mistakes – start over!”

May we learn from Rebbe rather than Alex Rodriguez, R’ Elazar ben Durdaya and the עבד, and seize each day’s opportunity to begin anew.

1. This derashah is dedicated in honor of a volunteer whose 75th birthday is this Shabbos. He truly lives a life of taking advantage of each day's defining moments.

2. Elazar ben Durdaya's story is on Avodah Zarah 17a. The Maharsha says that Rebbe was referring to the heavens themselves giving Elazar the title of Rebbe.

3. The Maharsha's explanation for Rebbe's tears is on Avodah Zarah 10a, in Chiddushei Aggadot.


  1. Great drasha.
    "Rav Shimon Schwab explained that while the original theft was illegal..."- where can that be found?

  2. Thanks, Neil. I've seen it cited from Maayan Beis haShoeivah, but I have not seen it inside.

  3. I figured either Maayan Beis haShoeivah or "Selected Writings" (the only "Selected" I don't have, yet).