Fervor and Rebukes Open The Way to Teshuvah
It is written, “Tzav [Command] Aaron and his sons, saying: ‘This is the law of the burnt-offering: It is a burnt-offering [that stays] on the flame, on the altar’ ” (Leviticus 6:2).
According to Torat Kohanim, the word tzav is meant to encourage fervor, both now and in every generation (Torat Kohanim 6:1). According to Rabbi Shimon, Scripture viewed this encouragement as necessary in cases whereby a loss or a lack occurs. In the case before us, the Kohen responsible for carrying out the burnt-offering is also the person who cleans the ashes, purifies the surroundings, and does all the work necessary for the offerings. He is therefore liable to develop great pride, especially in the case of Aaron, who also changed his priestly garments on Yom Kippur in order to enter the Holy of Holies. As a result, the Torah warns him not to let himself get enticed by any wrongful thoughts.
He can only avoid this trap and continue to elevate himself by demonstrating extreme fervor in serving G-d. This is why the Torah insists on stating, “the fire of the altar should be kept aflame on it” (Leviticus 6:2). To continue progressing, he should continuously invest all his fervor and enthusiasm (“the fire of the altar”) into serving G-d.
We find this characteristic with Joseph, who in the incident with Potiphar’s wife was preserved from sin by the merit of the enthusiasm that dwelled within him. This is confirmed by the passage, “He left his garment in her hand, and he fled” (Genesis 39:12). If he had not acted quickly, he would have been unable to conquer the power of his desire and may have sinned.
On the same subject, Jacob also hastened to send his son Judah to Egypt, as it is written: “He sent Judah before him … to show the way before him to Goshen” (Genesis 46:28). Why did he do this? It was in order to set up a Beit Midrash from which Torah would be taught (Bereshith Rabba 95:3). This rapid action was due to the fact that Jacob and his entire family were accustomed to bathing in the holiness of Eretz Israel, and so the descent into Egypt risked creating a profound sense of lack in them, one that would result in a weakening of their service of G-d, for Egypt was the source par excellence of impurity (Zohar I:81b). True, Hashem had promised our father Jacob, “I shall descend with you to Egypt, and I shall also surely bring you up” (Genesis 46:4), but Jacob wanted to take steps on his own without relying exclusively on this promise. Therefore he immediately sent Judah to prepare a place for Torah so that in Egypt, too, his descendants could breath the essence of the holy Torah and feel a sense of holiness comparable to that of Eretz Israel.
This subject is also dealt with in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 459:2) concerning the cooking of matzah eaten at the Seder meal. Lest the matzah ferment, everything should be done with great haste, a teaching that we learn from the passage: “You shall safeguard the matzot” (Exodus 12:17). Now the words mitzvot and matzot are written in the same way, to the extent that matzah alludes to a mitzvah, as emerges from the Sages’ teaching on the verse in question: A mitzvah that comes within your reach, do not give it time to “ferment”; do not let it become ruined (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 1:1). A man will in this way avoid developing pride when he accomplishes a mitzvah. However by itself, fervor is not enough to elevate a person and return him to G-d. From our original verse (“This is the law of the burnt-offering: It is a burnt-offering”), we also learn the importance of listening to rebukes and nullifying ourselves before Hashem when we want to come closer to Him.
The Gemara recounts the story of Elazar ben Durdaya, who had relations with every prostitute he could find. He finally traveled to one prostitute who lived beyond the seas, and afterwards she said to him, “In the same way that the breath never returns from where it came, Elazar ben Durdaya’s repentance will never be accepted.” Hearing this, he went to ask the mountains and hills to intercede on his behalf, but they told him, “Before interceding for you, we will first ask that mercy be granted to us, as it is written: ‘For the mountains may be moved and the hills may falter’ [Isaiah 54:10].” The heavens and the earth told him, “We will first ask that mercy be granted to us, as it is written: ‘The heavens will dissipate like smoke and the earth will wear out like a garment’ [ibid. 51:6].” The sun and the moon told him, “We will first ask that mercy be granted to us, as it is written: ‘The moon will be humiliated and the sun will be shamed’ [ibid. 24:23].” The stars and the planets told him, “We will first ask that mercy be granted to us, as it is written: ‘All the host of the heavens will dissolve’ [Isaiah 34:4].” He then thought to himself, “The matter depends on me alone.” He placed his head between his knees and began to weep so violently that his soul departed. A Heavenly voice was then heard exclaiming, “Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya is destined for life in the World to Come.”
This story is quite difficult to understand. We know very well that what comes from the heart of the speaker penetrates straight into the heart of the listener (see Berachot 6b; Rav Moshe Ibn Ezra’s Shirat Israel, p.156), and it is conceivable that repentance may follow because such words stem from a fire within. On the other hand, it is difficult to see how this prostitute, whose words certainly did not come “from the heart” could have succeeded in having such a profound effect on Elazar ben Durdaya.
It seems that there is another path that a man may pursue to transcend his nature and perform Teshuvah. It consists of self-effacement and humility in combination with heeding words of rebuke, even if they stem from the wicked. When we adopt this attitude, these words may have a beneficial effect on us. Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya teaches us a new path to Teshuvah by having paid heed to the rebuke of a woman of ill-repute, and it was he himself who used the immense energy within him (an energy that, up to that point, had filled him with impure desires) to transform her words into a blessing. He then completely nullified himself in the depths of his repentance. Every man can choose between good and evil, as it is written: “You shall choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19), and he also has the power to change evil into good. If he pays heed to rebuke, even to that of an ungodly person, he has the power to transform himself, to make – through his very own effort – the words he has heard penetrate his heart and thus give new direction to his life. He should do this rather than waiting for these words to penetrate his heart on their own.
This is what happened to Nebuzaradan (Gittin 57b), the Babylonian general who conquered Jerusalem at the time of the destruction of the first Temple. He saw blood seething on the floor of the Temple, and the Children of Israel did not want to tell him whose blood it was. In the end they admitted that it was the blood of the prophet Zechariah, whom they killed for having rebuked them. Nebuzaradan then had all the members of the Great and Minor Sanhedrin killed, along with hordes of men, women, and children, more than 94,000 in all. However the blood did not stop seething, and Nebuzaradan said: “Zechariah, Zechariah, I have killed thousands of your people. Do you want me to kill them all?” Only then did the blood stop seething, and at that instant Nebuzaradan repented. He told himself that if the death of a single man was so difficult to atone for, how crushing would his own sin be after having killed so many people! Now his repentance and eventual conversion were due to the wickedness with which he killed such a great number of people. Similarly, Elazar ben Durdaya arrived at repentance through the rebuke of a woman of ill-repute from beyond the seas.
Everything that has been stated up to now allows us to understand the repetition of the verse: “This is the law of the burnt-offering: It is a burnt-offering.” There are two paths that enable a person to be awakened to Teshuvah (hence two instances of the word “burnt-offering”). In the first, a man hears the rebuke of a righteous person, which helps him to elevate himself (oleh, from the same root as the word olah [burnt-offering]). The second path is more difficult. It consists of paying heed to words of rebuke emanating from the wicked, words that should normally not penetrate the heart of the listener, but which the listener himself can penetrate into his heart. He does so by using his own free will to completely nullify himself before G-d. This is what constitutes “This is the law of the olah [burnt-offering]: It is a olah [a burnt-offering].” The word olah occurs twice: Ascending toward G-d by means of a Tzaddik’s rebuke, and ascending toward G-d by means of a rasha’s rebuke. This is why the word mokdah (“flame”) is written with a small mem, for it alludes to one’s complete submission to G-d.
The Midrash (Mechilta Yitro) recounts that Jethro practiced every possible form of idolatry, yet despite this he managed to awaken himself and say, “Now I know that the L-RD is greater than all the gods” (Exodus 18:11). He merited being called Reuel (“friend of G-d”), as well as receiving the name Yitro (“abundance”), a name that brings modesty and self-effacement to mind (Shemot Rabba 27:8). It was precisely through idolatry that he arrived at that point, which shows us that each and everyone can submit himself and grow spiritually by yielding to G-d and paying heed to rebuke, thus coming closer to Him in the process.