A Talmudic persona emblematic of teshuva, of repentance, is none other than Elazar ben Dordayah (tractate Avoda Zara 17b).
He was steeped in immorality. He fell to the depths of a sinful life.
Unlike most of us, this Elazar wasn’t simply flawed, sometimes making a human error or merely faltering. Rather, he was invested in sinning. He put all of his energies and efforts into sin. He pursued it.
In the Talmudic narrative we meet him in the throes of sin when he suddenly has a change of heart. He becomes frantic and desperate, struggling to repent. He tries to enlist the powers of nature to come to his defense and to help him repent.
All to no avail. Poignantly, only when he sits down defeated, surrendering with his head between his knees, a force of regret so strong overtakes him that from the depths he cries out, “It all depends on me!”
At that moment, Elazar ben Dordayah’s soul flew up, departing this earth, followed by a Heavenly echo piercing the air: “Rabbi [now he is referred to as Rabbi] Elazar ben Dordayah is worthy of life in the World to Come.”
Concluding this narrative is an epilogue. Rabbi Judah the Prince, belovedly known as “Rebbe,” wept and said: “There are those who earn eternal life in the World to Come after many years, and there are those who acquire eternal life in a single moment.”
Why did Rebbe weep? Was he marveling at the fact that here he is, toiling his whole life, endeavoring to live an ennobled life as a stop on the way to eternal life, only to see this sinner receive it by experiencing regret just once in his life?
No. Those were not the tears shed by Rebbe.
There are additional compelling narratives relating to Rebbe and the World to Come, beyond the scope of this column, in which he simultaneously experiences visceral anguish and enlightenment, and again declares that some people earn eternal life in a single moment (Avoda Zara 10b, 18a, Hagigah 15b and Hullin 7b). Why, then, did Rebbe weep for Rav Elazar ben Dordayah?