May 18, 2024
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May 18, 2024
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Entrenched in a life abandoned from God, the Gemara (Avoda Zara 17a) tells us of a to-be-great person by the name of Elazar ben Burdaya. Living a life totally devoted to satisfying desires that were in complete odds with God, he finally came to an epiphany, seeing with penetrating clarity what the meaning of life really is, and how much he had been going against God. A broken man indeed, but he did not lose hope. Sincerely and uncompromisingly, Elazar proceeded to see how he could do teshuva to find rectification for a life of misdeeds.

The Gemara tells us that he went to the mountains and requested these natural objects act on his behalf so that he could achieve atonement. But they turned him down. He asked the heavens and earth, but they, too, turned him down. He then asked the sun and moon, the stars and the constellations, but all of them turned him down as well. Finally he exclaimed, “This matter depends solely on me!” Elazar ben Durdaya understood that there was no other person or being that could achieve his lofty aspirations, but only one person: himself. He then proceeded to demonstrate his sincere desire to repent, to become pure again and close to Hashem.

“For this mitzvah that I command you today is not hidden from you, nor is it far away. Nor is it beyond the sea … rather this matter is extremely close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart …” (Devarim, 30:11-14). What is this mitzvah and the “matter” that is referred to in the pasuk? Ramban explains that it’s a reference to teshuva. Based on this, one could think that teshuva is something that is light and easy as indicated by the context of the verses—it’s literally “in your mouth and heart”—that’s how easy it is. Rav Yerucham Levovitz (Da’at Torah, p. 158) therefore asks, If that so, why does it seem to the contrary? It seems like teshuva is actually very difficult to do!

Rav Yerucham Levovitz zt”l, explained that the essence of accomplishing real teshuva is when a person returns to Hashem independently, on his own without any help from anyone or anything, and inspires himself to the point where he can continuously reach higher and higher levels of closeness to Hashem. This, explained Rav Yerucham, is the dichotomy presented between the pasuk and what we know as reality: On one hand teshuva is extremely accessible; it’s very close to you—it’s “in your mouth and heart,” while on the other hand it can be difficult to reach since since doing so requires a person to independently utilize and implement the attribute of teshuva with no one else’s help.

One can learn all the books on ethics and morals, listen to the most heart-rending and inspirational lectures, meet the most distinguished and holy people, and even experience God’s “hand” altering nature on a global and individual level, but yet, will not change or even make a minor shift in himself. This is not only because inspiration fades, but also because ultimately one did not realize that no one but himself can actually make a change. Stimuli, even if rooted in the holiest sources, will not change a person until that person independently uses the stimuli and changes himself. [See also Rabbeinu Yonah Shaarei Teshuva 2:26.] Elazar ben Durdaya was in the midst of a major internal rift, and the epiphany he reached in realizing his purpose in this world was at a peak. He tried to lean upon other people and outside forces to make the change for him, but then he finally understood that only he, independently, could make the necessary changes.

One of my rebbeim, Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zt”l, used to ask: “In the bracha of Hashiveinu in the Shemoneh Esrei, we say, ‘Return us, our Father, to Your Torah.’ Why do we specify Torah, and not just say ‘return us to you?’” R’ Dessler explained that this teaches us that teshuva, returning to Hashem, is accomplished through Torah.

Torah is what sensitizes us to better ourselves and come close to Hashem, but even that can’t change us unless we use the mystical power, intellectual knowledge and emotional connection to actually make a change. Indeed, in this week’s Parsha, the Torah is compared to rain: “May My Torah drip like the rain” (Devarim 32:2), and Rav Yerucham explains the similarity between the Torah and rain: Rain dampens the soil and creates a fertile environment for the seeds planted within, but the actual growth of the plant comes from inside the seed. Similarly, although the Torah prepares and cultivates a person for spiritual growth, a great portion of the growth must originate from inside the person himself (“Rav Wolbe on Chumash”).

During these happy and uplifting days where we are surrounded by yamim tovim and spirituality, we might gather a wealth of inspiration and newfounded ideals. Elazar ben Durdaya, however, teaches us that people cannot petition to become transformed, and nothing can actually make us better people until we independently progress with what we have and with what we learn, and inspire ourselves to grow and lead more meaningful lives.


Binyamin Benji is a graduate of Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan and Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He can be reached at [email protected].

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