Why Did Rebbe Cry?
Rabbi Tuvia Kaplan
Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program at Midreshet Lindenbaum
The Gemara recounts that on two occasions Rebbe cried upon hearing of the tshuva of an evil person.
In Avoda Zara 17a, the Gemara tells the story of Eliezer ben Durdaya. After a totally degenerate life (the Maharal points out the even his name – Durdaya – means “dregs”), Eliezer is inspired to do tshuva. Looking first outside himself to the mountains, to the earth, to the sun, the moon and ultimately the stars for help in attaining forgiveness – and realizing that they cannot help him – he turned inward: if he is to do tshuva, he must take responsibility for himself.
Eliezer put his head between his knees and cried until his soul left his body. So profound was his remorse and so powerful the tshuva it produced, that a Bat Kol came from the heavens and declared that Eliezer, now called Rav Eliezer ben Durdaya is invited to Olam HaBa. On hearing of this event, Rebbe cried and said, “There are those who acquire their World (to Come) only after years (of Divine Service) and there are those who acquire their World (to Come) in an instant.”
The second occasion that Rebbe cried was following the death of Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon (Avoda Zara 18a). We remember the torture and death of Rabbi Chanina in our tefillot on Yom Kippur; he was one of the ten martyrs. Why Rabbi Chanina´s torturer, a Roman officer called Kaltztoniri, decided at some point to help Rabbi Chanina is fascinating, and requires a very careful reading. Nevertheless, somehow he realized that he was wrong, that the truth was with Rabbi Chanina and the Jewish people, and he offered to hasten Rabbi Chanina’s death and spare him much suffering. In return, he asked Rabbi Chanina to promise him a place in the World to Come. Rabbi Chanina accepted Kaltztoniri’s offer and at the executioner’s insistence took an oath to keep his promise. Kaltztoniri then stoked the fire and removed the moist wool which had been prolonging Rabbi Chanina’s suffering – and his life – from his chest and Rabbi Chanina died quickly. Kaltztoniri then jumped into the fire to his own death, whereupon a Bat Kol issued from the heavens and declared “Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon and Kaltztoniri are invited to the World to Come.” On hearing of this event too, Rebbe cried and said, “There are those who acquire their World (to Come) in an instant, and there are those who acquire their World (to Come) only after years (of Divine Service).”
Why did Rebbe cry on these two occasions? Was he jealous? Was he crying, as suggested by some of the commentators, because of the tremendous suffering he endured towards the end his life, a suffering which he understood was redemptive, but now realized was the less preferable of two alternatives? Shouldn’t Rebbe rather rejoice at the power of tshuva and lesson of the unlimited opportunity for tshuva that can be learned from these events? I will suggest an answer that may give us something to think about on Rosh Hashana and during the days left before the Day of Judgement.
The term tzaddik is used in two ways. We refer to a person found innocent in judgement as tzaddik b’din. We are not judging the persons essential worth; in fact the person may be unkind, uncaring, and unpleasant. In the case at hand however, they are innocent, and therefore “tzaddik.”
The second use of the term refers to the person who excels in Avodat Hashem, the person who sets an example of excellence in Torah study, tefilla, and chessed. This is the tzaddik in “fact” – the term tzaddik describes the person’s existential reality.
We must never forget that Divine judgement is unfathomable. In Hilchot Tshuva (Perek 3 Halakha 1), the Rambam warns us that Hashem’s evaluation of our good deeds and bad, their relative weights and significance is something we can never understand. There may be one mitzva that outweighs many negative acts, or one transgression that erases many good deeds. Such is Divine Judgement. However, at the end of the day, all is considered and weighed. Our entire lives are evaluated, each day and each deed, the positive and the negative. We can never understand how Hashem reaches his decision, but a decision is reached and a judgement rendered. We are innocent, tzaddik b’din or chas v’shalom the opposite. This is one system of judgement and one judged favorably in this system is called “tzaddik.”
But just as there is another type of tzaddik, there is another system of judgement. The second system of judgement looks not at a person’s history but at their present, the reality of who they are at the moment. If you are a tzaddik at this moment, involved in mitzvot and good deeds, you are judged favorably. If chas v’shalom at the time of judgement you have a moment of weakness, regardless of past history, you are judged unfavorably.
In this system of judgement an entire life of depravity can be overcome with one good deed. Rabbi Eliezer is judged favorably despite his inglorious past; Kaltztoniri is saved, moments after he was torturing Rabbi Chanina. We are who we are at each instant, and so are we judged.
This type of judgement holds out great hope for a Eleizer ben Durdaya but was terrifying to Rebbe. Rebbe knew his history was impeccable. He was a leader who dedicated his life to Torah and to the Jewish people. Humility certainly required of him that he never rest and never be sure of his fate, but Truth demanded that he recognize his excellence. In the face of the first system of Divine Judgement, Rebbe certainly could not rest assured, but he could have some confidence in his fate and need not have cried at his powerlessness.
However, in the face of the second system of justice, Rebbe realized that all his work, all the years of study and practice could be obviated if his judgement came at a time of human weakness. To be judged “at the moment” sets an awesome standard of conduct, and faced with the realization of the demand this standard placed upon him, Rebbe cried. He cried not out of jealousy or frustration but because he realized how awesome is Divine Judgement. Not knowing by which standard he would be judged, Rebbe realized his total dependence on the chessed of Hashem.
If Rebbe cried, how much more do we have to face the “Days of Awe” in true awe. If we are only who we are at each moment, then at every moment we have to strive to actualize our potential, to act upon the beliefs and ideals we know to be true. If we cannot always rely on our history, all the good deeds we have done throughout the year, our Torah and our tefilla, but rather have to stand at each moment and start again, excel at that moment, how great the demand for tshuva. It is not enough to look back on the good we have done, nor are all our good intentions for the future sufficient. What are we doing right now to serve Hashem, to improve ourselves, to help others, to strengthen our communities? If Rebbe cried, we may also cry.
But this second system of judgement also holds out limitless hope. No matter where we are, what we have done or failed to do in the past, we can do tshuva in an instant. Hashem is limitless, his forgiveness is limitless and so our opportunities are limitless. Hashem demands that we live each day and hour of our lives according to the values of the Torah, realizing the potential with which we are blessed. That is an awesome demand, but the demand is also a blessing, for we are always given the ability to succeed at what Hashem asks us to do. Rosh Hashana, the day of Judgement, is indeed a day of awe, but it is a day of joy as well, a day we may “celebrate in trembling.”