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Torah Attitude: Parashas Va’Eira: Who is to blame? (The story of the "Rabbi" and the harlot)
Moses was the most humble person. He blamed himself before he blamed others. Adam blamed his wife. After King David accepted full responsibility for his mistakes, the rains came pouring down. The little bird smelled itself. Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordia taught us that it is never too late to repent and pray for forgiveness, no matter how terrible or how many mistakes have been made in a lifetime. Poverty, wealth, or evil inclinations are no excuse.
This week's Torah Attitude is that blaming others for our failures closes the door to opportunities for growth, while accepting responsibility keeps those doors open.
In this week’s Torah portion, G'd spoke to Moses saying "Come speak to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, that he send the Children of Israel from his land." Moses replied "Behold, the Children of Israel have not listened to me, so how will Pharaoh listen to me? And I have sealed lips!" (Shemos 6:12)
Moses the most humble
A few sentences earlier, it states "So Moses spoke to the Children of Israel; but they did not heed Moses, because of shortness of breath and hard work" (Shemos 6:9). Moses could have easily blamed the shortness of breath and hard work of the Jewish people as the reason for their failure to listen to him. Instead, he focused on his own inability to communicate effectively with "sealed lips". Moses, who the Torah tells us was the most humble person (see Bamidbar 12:3), looked at his own shortcomings before blaming others for his lack of success.
Adam blames his wife
Unlike Moses, many of us fail to examine our own shortcomings before blaming others. The first example of this failure was Adam’s response when G'd questioned his behaviour. G'd called out to Adam and said, "Where are you?" Adam responded "I was afraid because I am naked, so I hid." G’d said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?" Adam said "The woman whom You gave to be with me – she gave me of the tree, and I ate" (Be:3:9-12). Rather than accept responsibility for his failure to obey G’d’s commandment not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Adam blamed his wife Eve. Like Adam, we tend to blame others when things go wrong. If we don’t succeed, we often blame everyone or everything rather than ourselves.
King David and the drought
The Talmud states that during the reign of King David, the Kingdom of Israel suffered from a terrible drought for three long years (Yevamot 78b). Not a single drop of rain fell from the sky. King David searched high and low for the reason why this punishment was being inflicted on his Kingdom. In the first year, he suspected that there were idolaters among the Jewish people. However, after checking everyone in the Kingdom, none could be found. In the second year, he suspected that there were improper relationships among the Jewish people. Again, everyone was inspected and no improper relationships could be found. In the third year, King David suspected that there were those who failed to keep their pledges to give to charity. Once again, everyone was carefully scrutinized and no unfulfilled pledges could be found. Finally, King David looked at himself and concluded "the matter depends on me alone". The Kingdom was being punished because King David had not taken care of certain issues. King David accepted full responsibility for his mistakes, blamed no one but himself, and the rains came pouring down.
Smelly little bird
The story is told of a little bird that smelled a bad odour, so it flew to a different place. Yet it continued to smell the bad odour. Once again it flew to a different place. Still the bad odour was present. Finally, the little bird stopped and thought, "It is very unlikely that the whole world is filled with this bad odour. Perhaps, there is something wrong with me." Sure enough, the little bird lifted its wing, and there was a smelly substance stuck under its wing. Once the substance was removed, everything in the world smelled pretty to the little bird.
The little bird and King David teach us that before we blame anyone or anything for the bad smells or problems around us, it is best to first check under our wings or within ourselves to see if we are the cause of the problem.
Eleazar and the harlot
This brings us to the story told in the Talmud (Avodah Zorah 17a) of Eleazar ben Dordia and the harlot. Our Sages tell us of Eleazar ben Dordia, who made it his life's mission to visit every harlot in the world. His desire to satisfy his lust knew no boundaries. Once he heard of a certain harlot in one of the towns by the sea. This harlot was world renowned and very expensive. She demanded a king's ransom for her services. Eleazar gathered the necessary funds and crossed seven rivers to meet her. As he was with her, she blew forth breath and said "As this blown breath will not return to its place, so will Eleazar ben Dordia never be received in Heaven". Eleazar was devastated by this revelation. He went and sat between the hills and the mountains and cried to them to plead mercy for him. They replied "How can we pray for you, when we stand in need for ourselves?" Next he cried to Heaven and Earth to plead mercy for him. They too replied "How can we pray for you, when we stand in need for ourselves?" Then he cried to the Sun and the Moon and they too gave the same response. Finally, he cried out to the Stars and Constellations and they also gave the same response as all the others.
Never too late
After being rejected by the hills and mountains, Heaven and Earth, Sun and Moon, and Stars and Constellations, it occurred to Eleazar ben Dordia that he would have to take responsibility for his own life. He came to the same conclusion as King David that "the matter depends on me alone". Only Eleazar could pray to G'd that he be forgiven for his misdeeds. Eleazar placed his head between his knees and cried so hard and so long to be forgiven that his soul departed from his body. Then a voice called out from Heaven proclaiming "Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordia is destined for life in the Eternal World". When hearing this story, Rabbi Judah the Prince, the author of the Mishna and one of the greatest sages of all time, wept and said "Some acquire eternal life in Heaven only after many years [of extreme efforts] and others [like Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordia] in one hour." It is never too late to pray for forgiveness, no matter how terrible or how many mistakes one has made in a lifetime. Rabbi Judah the Prince said further not only are people who repent sincerely accepted to enter Heaven, they are even called "Rabbi"! We may ask why indeed did Eleazar earn the title of Rabbi? The answer might be because he taught us three important lessons: (1) the matter depends on ourselves; (2) the power of sincere repentance; and (3) it is never too late to correct our mistakes.
Hills and mountains
One can explain Eleazar's crying out to the various parts of the world with a homiletical interpretation. The hills and mountains often represent the Matriarchs (Sara, Rivka, Rachel and Leah) and Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) of the Jewish people. In the same way, we may understand the hills and mountains in this story to represent Eleazar's parents, the Heaven and Earth to represent nature and the environment, the Sun and Moon to represent the evil inclinations of day and night, and the Stars and Constellations to represent luck, or under which star he was born. At first, Eleazar blamed his parents for his mistakes, then he blamed his environment, then he blamed his natural disposition, and finally he blamed his bad luck. However, like King David and the little bird, Eleazar came to realize that instead of blaming other people or other things for his mistakes, the matter depended on him alone. With this realization, the gates of Heaven opened and proclaimed him "Rabbi"!
When we leave this world, our Sages tell us that each of us is called before the Heavenly Court to examine in detail the efforts we made to study Torah during our lifetimes (Yoma 35b). The poor, the rich and the wrongdoers, however, try to blame their situations for their failure to spend much time studying Torah. The poor blame their struggle of earning a living as an excuse for not studying Torah. However, the Court responds with the story of Hillel who was so poor that he could not even afford entrance to the Study Hall. One winter day, Hillel climbed onto the roof of the Study Hall and almost froze to death just trying to hear a few words of wisdom from the Torah. If someone as poor as Hillel could learn, then poverty cannot be an excuse for anyone's failure to study Torah.
The rich blame their time-consuming efforts to protect their wealth as an excuse for not studying Torah. This time the Court responds with the story of Rabbi Eleazar ben Harsom who was so wealthy that he owned a thousand cities on the continent and a thousand boats at sea. He disguised himself with a sack of flour over his shoulder just to go from city to city to study the Torah. One day he was mistaken for a beggar and almost imprisoned. Yet he continued to pursue his studies, regardless of the consequences. If someone as rich as Rabbi Eleazar ben Harsom could learn, then wealth cannot be an excuse for anyone’s failure to study Torah.
The wrongdoers blame their evil inclinations as an excuse for not studying Torah. The Court does not accept their excuse either but responds with the story of Joseph whose beauty enticed Potiphar’s wife to try to seduce him. She threatened Joseph and said "Yield to me or I will have you thrown in prison". We all know the story. Joseph chose prison rather than give in to his evil inclination. If someone as beautiful as Joseph could protect his integrity, then one’s disposition towards sensual escapades cannot be an excuse for anyone’s failure to study Torah.
It is so easy to blame others for anything that goes wrong in our lives. Moses could have blamed the shortness of breath and the hard work as the excuse for the Jewish people not listening to him. Instead, Moses blamed his own deficiencies to communicate. Adam blamed Eve for his failure to obey G’d’s commandment. David blamed everyone in his Kingdom until he realized that he was the cause of the famine. The little bird kept moving from place to place until it looked under its wing. Eleazar ben Dordia blamed his parents, his environment, his personality and his luck before coming to the realization that he must accept responsibility for his shortcomings in life.
It all depends on us
The world is full of opportunity to be the best that we can be. When we blame others for our failures, we close the door to those opportunities. When we accept responsibility for our lives we can grow to limitless heights. We can overcome our inclination to blame. May G’d grant us the strength and integrity to do what is right, and help us not to blame others but appreciate and understand that it all depends on us alone.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network