The Failure of Success
The Talmud depicts a strange story (Avoda Zara 17a):
“Rabbi Elazar ben Dardaya didn’t leave a single prostitute on Earth that he never visited. On one occasion he heard of a certain prostitute in the cities of the sea who received a bag of coins (a large sum) as her fee. [So] he took a bag of coins, and crossed seven rivers [to be with her]. At the commencement of their encounter, she blew a breath from her mouth and said, “Just as this breath is impossible to return to its place, so too, Elazar ben Dardaya will never be accepted in repentance.” He went and sat between two mountains and hills and said, “Mountains and hills, beseech mercy upon me.” They responded, “Before we beseech mercy for you, you must beseech mercy on us, as it says, “Although mountains will move and hills will topple…” He said “Heaven and Earth beseech mercy upon me.” They responded, “Before we beseech mercy for you, you must beseech mercy on us.” He said, “Sun and moon beseech mercy upon me.” They responded, “Before we beseech mercy for you, you must beseech mercy on us, as it says, “The moon will be humiliated and the sun will be shamed.” He said, “Stars and constellations beseech mercy upon me.” They responded, “Before we beseech mercy for you, you must beseech mercy on us.”
Elazar then said, “The matter [repentance] truly depends [not on them] but on me.” He placed his head between his knees, he moaned in cries until his soul left him. A heavenly voice called out, “Rabbi Elazar ben Dardaya will receive the afterlife”.” (For brevity, I did not quote all verses here)
Unless we believe in talking mountains and inanimate creations, we are forced to view this story as a metaphor. Certainly it is impossible to have slept with so many. So this story didn’t happen exactly as stated, but it very well might be depicting an actual person with an insatiable desire, spelling out fundamental lessons with exaggeration and metaphor. To excel in your process of thinking, the Rabbis crafted such metaphors for the purpose of analysis. So do not lose this opportunity by reading on immediately. Study this metaphor, think it over, and then come back and continue from the next line.
The first idea is that no man – not even one called Rabbi – is immune to sin. “For man is not righteous in the land that does good and doesn’t sin”. (King Solomon, Ecclesiastes 7:20) But this man’s sin was without satisfaction. That’s what it means by the fact that he slept with “every” prostitute. This refers to insatiability. This drive is generated not from reality, but from fantasy. For why did he need to change his partner each time he had intercourse? Pleasure has a range, and after a limited amount of time in any pleasure, we recognize that the next act will not offer an unexpected satisfaction. Unless, we are like this Rabbi…
Upon hearing some reputation of that woman in the cities of the sea, who was so costly, he imagined a satisfaction beyond compare. He spared no cost nor restrained any effort (traversing seven rivers) to experience this woman. This means that human lust can blind a person to reason. One might spend all his money, and exert himself for weeks, for a few minutes of pleasure. To us, it is incomprehensible. But this Talmudic portion wishes to teach of the capabilities of man, so we are aware, and guard against it.
We then read, “At the commencement of their encounter, she blew a breath from her mouth and said, “Just as this breath is impossible to return to its place, so too, Elazar ben Dardaya will never be accepted in repentance”. This is another proof that this is a metaphor, for why would a prostitute attempt at losing business? Now, what does this mean? And why with “this” prostitute does Elazar wake up to repentance?
A breath refers to the most intangible of objects. Elazar, although full of fantasy about this prostitute, faces the reality of how empty (like a breath) his fantasy truly is. She cannot provide the satisfaction he anticipated, for a fantasy surpasses reality by design. It was here and now that Elazar reached the height of what he felt the physical world could offer him, and it didn’t last. It wasn’t special at all. It was over.
This is the identical fate most wealthy people face. After decades of striving, and earning millions, they finally travel to every imaginable location, buy the finest jewels, homes and autos, and eat the most exotic foods. And have experiences like Elazar. “Now what?” are the words they utter. They have nothing left in life to look forward to. They thought the physical life would provide the satisfaction they imagined. But for these poor souls who followed the dreams and advertisements of the masses, they wasted their lives on that, which cannot come true. Fantasized pleasures only live in fantasies.
Now, attaining the “greatest of pleasures”, Elazar had nothing left to seek in his physically oriented life, the “breathless” void was intolerable….the thought of punishment finally rocks his world. He fears not being accepted by God in repentance. What does he do? He makes a mistake. He “beseeches” two mountains and valleys to seek out mercy for him. But mountains and valleys are inanimate. Plus, what can they do even if they were alive?
What this means is that Elazar blamed the physical world for his sins, as if they made him sin out of their tempting design. Beseeching the physical world at every turn, Elazar tried to defend himself before God. Of course he wasn’t talking to mountains, planets or stars. He was talking to God. But he said in other words, “Let all creation be at fault”, as if they should come to his defense. But after much denial, Elazar ultimately realized that the matter truly rested on him.
Rabbi Heshy Roth explained so well: the physical world “responding” that Elazar in fact had to atone for them, means Elazar sinned against creation. That is, he misconstrued the true purpose of creation. Creation is to act as a means to study and approach God. Instead, Elazar abused creation to satisfy his lusts. Creation “responded” to Elazar that he had to atone for them, meaning, he had to correct himself by ridding his false view of the world’s purpose, and that it could not possibly meet Elazar’s impossible, lustful expectations. In truth, no conversation transpired between Elazar and creation. This – as Tosfos says – merely means that this is how creation “could” respond. It would say to Elazar that he is accusing the wrong party for his lustful life. He should not accuse creation asking it to atone for him, but he must truly accuse himself, and atone for abusing creation.
The verses cited mean to say that man will distort creation, as did the idolaters who worshipped the sun and moon for example. Eventually, the sun and moon will be “ashamed”, meaning the worshippers will be exposed. Thus, these verses address man’s distortion of creation…the exact meaning of the metaphoric response by the sun and moon. Just as idolaters will soon be shown as living a lie, in our metaphor, the sun and moon again accuse Elazar of living a lie.
Notable is the detail given about the first creations to which Elazar approached. All other subsequent creations, were simply addressed by Elazar as “he said” to the sun and moon.” But the Talmudic Rabbis formulated the first as “and he sat between two mountains and hills”. Why mention that he sat? Just say, “he said” like all other cases. And why mention “two” mountains? Perhaps this detail describes Elazar’s first attempt at seeking mercy. The Talmud metaphorically refers to the female body, as two mountains. This is sensible, as this would be Elazar’s first line of defense, claiming the temptation of a woman’s physique as too alluring to resist. “Sitting” between the two mountains also indicates an intimate relationship not seen in all other creations that he addressed. I thank my friend Josh for highlighting this distinction. And since next, Elazar addresses “heaven and Earth”, we might ask why the redundancy…he already addressed the Earth in the “mountains and hills”. But with our suggestion that two mountains refer to a woman, the question vanishes.
In the end, we see that the more man satisfies his urges, the more he excites them. The Rabbis taught, “There is a small limb in man; if he starves it, it becomes full. If he feeds it, it grows hungry”. (Tal. Succah, 52b) Hence, Elazar sought “every” prostitute.
Man becomes quite disturbed when he continues a path where physical gratification and success is his sole objective. For nothing in our imagination can be satisfied in the real world. So Elazar’s encounter with the expensive prostitute ended in a void. Fantasies by definition are flawless, while the real world was not created to satisfy us physically, as an end. King Solomon said, “All is futile.” The Rabbis question how this wise king can oppose God’s words that each day’s creation was “good”. They answered that God was talking about the proper use of the physical as a good. In contrast, King Solomon was addressing man’s use of the physical for physical gratification, and nothing more. In such a case, it is futile, and man will never be satisfied, as we see in Elazar’s case.
If man is unfortunate enough to satisfy every wish, he will find nothing to live for after the last toy has been purchased. He will find a void. This is why the rich and famous who “have it all” really have nothing, and take drugs, drink, and destroy their lives. They know nothing else than what society trains everyone: “the physical is what you want”. With no other idea about achieving happiness, they spiral downward seeking other physical pleasures and more stardom. But it’s useless, and there is no escape. King Solomon was correct: seeking the physical is futile. The only way out is to come to terms with reality, as Elazar did. He finally accepted the matter as “depending on him”.
The failure of success, is only when we seek success as an ends. But if we live in line with reality, we will not seek to die rich, but to live humbly, with our attention focused firmly on a life of wisdom. This will offer us the richest lives, and the deepest fulfillment and happiness. The fact that the rich are always traveling (translate as “escaping”) while the Einsteins and Newtons of the world locked themselves in labs for weeks, teaches that one immersed in study and wisdom is most fulfilled. Vacations for the wise would be painful. Why leave what you love?!