Holes of Holiness

Holes of Holiness

By: Rabbi Uri Allen Posted: September 30, 2019

Rosh HaShannah 5780

“I walk down the street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I fall in.

I am lost… I am helpless.

It isn’t my fault.

It takes forever to find a way out.

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I pretend I don’t see it.

I fall in again.

I can’t believe I am in the same place.

But, it isn’t my fault.

It still takes me a long time to get out.

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I see it is there.

I still fall in. It’s a habit.

My eyes are open.

I know where I am.

It is my fault. I get out immediately.

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I walk around it.

I walk down another street.”



Does this poem rhyme with your experience at all? Do you have things in your life that you are trying to avoid, holes in the sidewalk that you can’t help but fall into? I sure do! There are more of them than I would like to admit sometimes, but there they are, waiting for me to trip up. I suspect we all have patterns that are similar. It’s only human nature to be creatures of habit. Yet it can be hard to escape those pitfalls and sometimes we find ourselves in a deep hole struggling to get out.

This poem could be about a lot of things. But one of the ideas that it evokes is the feeling of getting stuck and feeling ourselves trapped in a hole. As I suspect most of us know from experience, it can be very difficult to get out.

The habits and patterns that we fall into can be almost anything.

Maybe they are little things like eating too many sweets and junk food. Some of us just can’t resist them. I mean we know they are delicious and we know they add unwanted calories, but there they are tempting us. Just a few chocolate covered treats, what could it hurt?

Maybe we get stuck on social media, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Sure, there are other things to be doing, but the world we see on our screens can be so inviting and entertaining. See all those people out there? Their vacations, their clothes, the food, the drama –all we need is our smart phones and we can vicariously live through the lives of celebrities, and influencers, and friends. What we don’t realize is that we haven’t done any living at that moment. We’ve fallen into a hole again, and have become stuck.

Maybe you get stuck in the rush of politics and debate. You find yourself flipping back and forth between CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, not so much to get the facts of the news, but to see how the news is reported. Or even worse perhaps, and I am guilty of this too, watching ‘that other channel’ just to be confirmed in my biases about ‘them’. The feeling of righteous indignation, the shaking of your head at the talking head on the TV, the rush of your blood boiling, we think these things will make us feel better but in reality we are just stuck in a hole.

Some in this room or in your lives may have more serious sticking points. By statistics, our community includes individuals who struggle with addiction to substances, to alcohol, or drugs. To them, the dangerous sidewalk they travel upon can be anywhere. It’s the wedding or the bar mitzvah, it’s the dinner out with friends. It’s the everyday stuff that can trigger these addictions. This is another kind of getting stuck.

We have individuals among us, our family and our friends, perhaps even ourselves who have battled depression, or anxiety. Many are fighting that war as we speak. This is like the hole in the poem too. Stuck.

We are conditioned to be creatures of habit. It’s part of human nature. It’s evolutionary and hard-wired into the human genetic code. This is a double-edged sword though. Some of our habits are great! Some are not. Our patterns that get us stuck are not just harmful, but after a while, after a lifetime perhaps, we come to rely on them. We get comfortable with them. We even retreat to them for a twisted sense of comfort. And they can get in the way of living our best life. And from time to time, when we notice how stuck we actually are, we cry.

Since we are humans, we all have stuff like this to varying degrees. We all get stuck from time to time. But we can get unstuck, and we can change our habits. Remember, the poet not only learns to get out of the hole, but also learns how to avoid falling in in the first place. This Rosh Hashannah, I would like to humbly offer an approach to getting unstuck so we may all live the lives that we want and deserve.

But first podcasts.

This year I found a new teacher and Rabbi for myself through the wonderful world of podcasts. His name is Rabbi Joey Rosenfeld. He is part of the Shefa Podcast Network, which is dedicated to applying the inner teachings of Torah, of Kabbalah and Hasidut, to the experience of our souls. His show is called Inward and you can find it in on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

Rabbi Joey is not only a teacher of Torah, but he earns a living as an addiction counselor, helping individuals who continuously get stuck and fall into holes, rise up and start living again. He’s only 28 years old or something but his knowledge of Jewish tradition is as broad as it is deep, on top of being fluent in psychology, philosophy, history, and even pop culture. His perspective on life and his teachings are a result of the unique combination of his Torah knowledge and his work with addicts. I recommend his podcast to you with no hesitation, especially if you are interested in understanding a Jewish view on the human condition and how to navigate this world.

In one of the episodes, R. Joey recounts a story from the Talmud about Elazar ben Dordaya. Despite it coming from the Talmud, the context and content of the tale is a bit racy and titillating. Elazar ben Dordaya was famous. But not for his scholarship or his wealth or his innovation in Jewish tradition, rather he was famous for sleeping with prostitutes. In fact there was not one he did not have relations with.

He heard that a certain prostitute in a town near the sea charged a wallet-full of money for her services. As a connoisseur, he of course had to see for himself. So he gathered the necessary funds and crossed seven rivers in order to get to her. During the initial part of the encounter, she passed gas – talk about an awkward moment! But then right there in the middle of the action she says something unexpected. “Just as this wind will not return to its source, so too Elazar ben Dordaya’s repentance will never be accepted.”

Feeling robbed of the experience he wanted with this woman, and completely rejected and dejected, not to mention afraid that any attempt at teshuva will be rebuffed, he retreated to the hills and the mountains. He called out, “Hills and mountains, plead for mercy for me!” They replied, “Before we pray for mercy for you, we must pray for ourselves”. He turned to the heaven and earth, “Plead for mercy for me!” They replied, “before we pray for mercy for you, we must pray for ourselves.” “Sun and Moon, start and constellations, plead for mercy for me”. Once again, R. Elazar ben Dordaya received the same answer – before we can pray for you, we must pray for ourselves.

Greatly distressed he turns inward. In a moment of deep awareness he declares, “It all depends on me alone”.

He placed his head between his knees and wept until he died. Just then a heavenly voice came forth and said, “R. Elazar ben Dordaya is destined for eternal life”.

What is going on here? A Rabbi who visits prostitutes who also seem to traffic in moral philosophy? You have to admit, it’s pretty unusual. So let’s speak it out.

A Rabbi, but also a sinner, is confronted by the object of his sin – a prostitute – and told that he will never be able to repent. He seeks outside help from the forces of nature only to break down in solitude at the realization that there can be no external remedy. Upon realizing that it all depends on him alone, he cries himself to death. Elazar ben Dordaya is stuck. Yet according to the story he is rewarded with eternal life, for his final mortal words. How is crying one’s self to death a sign of meriting life eternal?

I want to suggest that it is the tears themselves that provide an answer.

What was he crying about anyway? Was he crying over his sins? I mean, he must have known that he was a sinner before this, so why didn’t he cry previously? Is he crying because he has no hope of repentance as the prostitute said? Is he crying because the mountains and stars and sun and moon would not come to his aide? Is he just crying because he is stuck? Rav Shagar – Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg – a leading Israeli religious postmodern thinker, philosopher, and Rabbi who passed away in 2007 has an analysis of Dordaya’s tears.

He explains that up until this point, R. Elazar thought that repentance and change did not depend on him, but rather on outside help. His tears are for all of the time he wasted on searching for external assistance. Once he realized that his salvation was contingent on him, and him alone, he broke down at the recognition that he had been searching in the wrong place all along. It’s sort of like the final scene of the Wizard of Oz transposed to the Talmud. Not that there is no place like home, but that the search for a better life somewhere over the rainbow, is an illusion. It was all right there all along, inside of him. Wasting time, according to Rav Shagar is one of the biggest sins there is. Remaining stuck is a big sin.

The second reason for R. Elzar Ben Dordaya’s crying is a discovery that is both wonderful and frustrating. He is the sinner just as he is the ba’al teshuva – just as we all are. He realizes that he has control and agency over his sinful actions and behaviors, just as he does over his repentance. This can be depressing just as it can be liberating. The confrontation with the self, with our capacities, and our strengths, with our lesser qualities and deficiencies – in other words, when we are truly honest about ourselves and with ourselves, we cry. And these tears are simultaneously filled with regret and hope.

The narrator of the poem and Elazar ben Dordaya present us with a deep and abiding truth. The only person that can get you unstuck is you.

The only way to escape our past patterns is to do it yourself. The only way to truly become a ba’al teshuva, one who can return to their source, is to do it yourself. The only way to avoid falling into the hole over and over again is to see it, recognize it, and make a different choice. It all depends on you alone.

Until we accept that each of us as individuals are responsible for how we got here and for the road ahead, we will never be able to weep tears over our past nor weep for the opportunity of the future. We will only cry from the pain of being stuck.

Elazar Ben Dordaya’s tears are tragic just as they are redemptive. He would not have merited eternal life without them. Ours can be too. When we are stuck, we can wallow in desperation wondering who will save us. Or we can declare clearly, or through tears perhaps, that it all depends on us.

In this light, getting stuck is not simply a bump in the road, but it teaches us the way out. Remember the narrator of the poem, who falls into a deep hole in the sidewalk? She actually needed the hole. She needed to get stuck because it is only through the encounter with the trials and travails of our lives, by noticing them, by welcoming them gently and without judgment, and by being curious about the Torah that they can teach us – only then can we climb out of the hole. We can’t ignore it and pretend it will just go away. We have to see it, know it, cry about it, climb out, and walk around it next time.

Or walk down a different street altogether. Only then can we cry, not just tears of sadness and regret, but perhaps tears of joy and freedom and possibility.

It’s easy to find God in the highest moments of our lives. That’s not a challenge at all. In fact we expect to experience something transcendent when we are happiest. Elazar ben Dordaya and our poet are teaching us that the places we get stuck are not devoid of holiness, or God, or possibility. How will we ever get out of this hole, we might say? Ah, But that’s the secret. When we look at our failures, our missteps, and our character traits that get us stuck – and we cry about them–we not only get unstuck, but we merit eternal life. Because it all depends on you. It all depends on us.

Shannah Tovah