It is easy to speak of teshuva (repentance), but, actually, the process of repenting is quite challenging. Much can be learned about repentance from the story of Eleazer ben Dordia recorded in Talmud Avodah Zara 17a:
It is noted that ben Dordia “did not leave out any harlot in the world without coming to her.” Upon one such visit, a voice came out of the harlot declaring that Eleazer ben Dordia’s repentance would never be accepted (since he had lost his place in the World to Come).” Ben Dordia was terribly shaken. He cried out first to the mountains, then to the heaven and earth, the sun and moon and even to the constellations, asking each in turn to plead for mercy for him. Each element of nature refused to plead for him, declaring that they had their own need for mercy. Finally, ben Dordia declared: “The matter then depends upon me alone!”
Ben Dordia put his head down and wept until he died, at which point a heavenly voice declared that Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordia had earned his place in the World to Come.
It is interesting to note the Talmud concludes this story with the reaction of the sage Rebbi, who wept and said “‘One may acquire eternal life after many years, another in one hour!” (Avodah Zara 17a).
One of the most important parts of the teshuva process is acknowledging and confessing one’s transgression(s). But, just stating one’s guilt, or, in ben Dordia’s case, admitting that he had sinned and seeks mercy, is only a first step. One has to truly feel regret for the improper actions. Ben Dordia finally realized that just as he alone was responsible for his actions, he alone was responsible for his repentance.
Why did Rebbi cry? Because ben Dordia’s repentance was so honest and heartfelt that it was immediately accepted. It was, indeed, so pure that he had achieved an almost unattainable level of repentance.
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