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I’ve been thinking about free will lately. I just came back from an event called Pesach in the Desert. A wonderful time spent with about sixty like-minded people in the spare, hot wilderness far to the east of here.

I offered a class on one of my favorite stories from the Talmud, about Eliezer be Dordia:

Eliezer ben Dordia’s claim to fame was that he had slept with every prostitute on earth. One day, he heard of one more prostitute. She lived in a distant land at the edge of the sea, a perilous journey, and charged several hundred gold dinars for her hire. But this was his life, his reason for being, this was who he was, so he somehow collected the money and set out to meet her.

He traveled across seven rivers to the edge of the sea. He gave her the money, and they went into her chambers. Just as they were about to do it, to consummate, she let out a loud fart. She looked him directly in the eye. “That,” she said, indicating her release, “has as much chance of going back to its source as Eliezer ben Dordia does of going back to his.”

He ran from her room and into the hills. He sat between two mountains. “Mountains and valleys,” he cried, please intercede for me in the heavenly court and beg for my forgiveness!” “Sorry,” they replied. “We cannot bear true witness for you. We too are unworthy. We cannot do it.”

“Heaven and earth,” Eliezer ben Dordia pleaded, “intercede in the heavenly court on my behalf and beg for my forgiveness!” But they too claimed to be unworthy and unable. He next turned to the Sun and Moon, then to the stars and galaxies, with the same result.

Finally he proclaimed, “I understand, it’s all up to me.” He put his head between his knees and he wept. At the end of an hour, his soul left his body and a voice came from the heavens, “Rabbi Eliezer ben Dordia has been accepted into the World to Come.”

Hearing this, the great Judah Hanassi remarked, “Some of us, it takes an entire lifetime to gain the merit to enter the World to Come. Eliezer ben Dordia did it in one hour of weeping, and he gets called Rabbi.”

*

Certainly a perplexing tale to find in a code of sacred law, the story of Eliezer ben Dordia bears interpretation on many levels. But I’d like to focus on just one for now.

The last words we hear from ben Dordia are, “I understand, it’s all up to me.” This is, in a way, his final lesson.

We tend to think of free will in the abstract. It seems to me that way at least. In my tradition, Judaism, and I imagine in others, free will is a fundamental, bedrock principle. Yet rarely do we seem to confront what that truly means; we bump around life, going from place to place, activity to activity, work, eating, sleeping, mostly in a kind of fog. But what free will actually means is that at every given moment, this moment, any future is possible. We literally have the freedom, always, to choose whatever world we wish to create. This is true for us as individuals, and as a species. From this point on, we can build whatever is deepest in our hearts. All we really need to do is, like Eliezer ben Dordia, wake up to the true depths of our freedom.

At this time of year, as we move from the energy of slavery and make our way towards the promise of freedom, I pray that we find the strength to see the full scope of our free will, and ultimately that we come to exercise it in the service of building a world of peace, justice and freedom for all people, all creatures and the earth.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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