Benjamin Rapaport

Rosh Hashana: The Judgment-Freedom Dichotomy

In the Rosh Hashana liturgy it says that each of us pass before G-d to be judged.[1]While on the surface this sounds rather ominous, when we consider the freedom that is the flip side of judgment a more promising picture emerges. There is a profound Talmudic story that reveals the nature and power of this dichotomy: “It was said of Rebbe Elazar Ben Durdayah that there was no prostitute in the world that he did not sleep with. Once, he heard that a certain woman, in a far away island, took a full pouch of dinarim coins as her wages. He took a pouch of dinarim and crossed seven rivers to reach her. While together, this lady passed wind. (To add insult to injury) She said, ‘Just as this wind will not return to its place, so too Elazar Ben Durdaya will not be able to return to G-d.’ (Her words penetrated his heart like nothing before and) He went and sat between two mountains and valleys. He said, ‘Mountains and Valleys, please pray for compassion upon me. (He thought that with the help of these great forces interceding for him maybe he could be helped). They replied, ‘Before we ask for you, we need to ask for ourselves…’ (Sorry, but we have our own troubles to worry about.) He begged Heaven and Earth to intercede on his behalf and they too answered, ‘Before we ask for you, we need to ask for ourselves…’ He beseeched the sun and moon, and they answered likewise. He turned to the stars and constellations and they also turned him down. (A deep realization dawned upon him and) He said, ‘The matter rests on me alone.’ He placed his head between his knees (fetal position) and cried until his soul left his body. A Heavenly voice called out, ‘Rebbe (an honorific meaning teacher or master) Elazar Ben Durdaya is invited to enter life of the Eternal World.” Rebbe Elazar Ben Durdaya was judged as deserving of the title “Rebbe”, complete with entering life of the Eternal World. (Despite not having been there it sounds pretty good.) Such a judgment is only meaningful if there is a freedom of choice, the ability to grab a moment and do something remarkable with it, or not to. Successfully rising to such a challenge deserves reward. When Rebbe Yehuda heard the Heavenly voice inviting Elazar ben Durdaya to the Eternal World and calling him Rebbe, he came to a new appreciation of the transformative power of a moment. He cried (thinking perhaps how he might have better used some of his moments despite his great level) and exclaimed, “There are those who earn their portion of the Eternal World in a number of years and there are those who earn it in a moment.” Some may feel that they have traveled too far down a road to come back, to be different. We may have endangered our physical wellbeing, “crossing over seven rivers”, or our financial wellbeing, spending “pouches filled with dinarim coins”, to get somewhere, someone, or something. This thought is expressed in the comment of the woman who passed wind, “Just as this wind (which has no substance) will never return to its place, so too will you (who have no substance having fallen so low) never return to your place.”[2] Despite the disempowerment of this sentiment, Rebbe Elazar Ben Durdaya’s name contained a hidden dimension that saved him.[3]Durdaya means sediment, the dregs left at the bottom of a barrel of wine, referring to the lowly place his actions had brought him. Elazar is a conjunction. E-l is a name of G-d that refers to His kindness and Azar is the root of the word “help”. There is a soul quality that allows us to connect no matter how low we may have sunk. Within each of us exists an indestructible spark of holiness, from inception, that allows us to rebuild our connection no matter how distant we may have become. This is the meaning of Rebbe Elazar putting his head between his knees, like an infant in the fetal position. He was expressing his desire to return to that original purity, with his entire body and soul. So much so, that his soul returned to its Source, received with open arms. If we hope to seize the moment like Rebbe Elazar Ben Durdaya we need to remember his starting point: He realized, “The matter rests on me alone.” No powerful friends, family, mountains, or celestial beings, could breathe life into his spark for him. That was his responsibility alone. On Rosh Hashana we reconnect with our responsibility and freedom to choose well. We have the power to decide who and what we will be. When we take this to heart, our indestructible spark can connect no matter what the obstacle.

[1] Mussaf of Rosh Hashana, at the end of Unesaneh Tokef
[2] Maharal, Chiddushei Aggados, Avodah Zarah, 17a
[3] ibid
About the Author
Rabbi Benjamin Rapaport grew up in Great Neck, NY, the son of a famous surgeon and scientist; His six-month trip to Israel turned into a twenty-year career of study; Rabbi Rapaport received semicha ordination from Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood in 2002, taught in the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem for six years, and lectured at a number of introductory programs to Judaism; More recently, his activities have included graduate work in Clinical Sociology, and several years of clinical practice in counseling; Rabbi Rapaport lives with his family in Jerusalem, where he works with individuals and groups, helping them discover and develop their unique talents and abilities; He is the author of the Jewish Art of Self-Discovery, available on Amazon