The phrase which describes the task before us on the Yomim Norayim is cheshbon hanefesh — “a spiritual accounting.” On these sacred days each of us must evaluate his life honestly to eliminate all self-deception. To do this we must resist the temptation of creating alibis and flimsy excuses for our religious and moral failings. That this is a difficult task no one will deny, but we are capable of reaching this goal.

This truth is illustrated by a powerful narrative related in the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 17a) concerning Elazer ben Durdaya, who strayed from the path of Jewish life and became addicted to the allurements of lust and passion. One day when he was mocked by one who apparently shared his view of life, he was overwhelmed by his lowly moral situation, and realized that his life was being wasted. He felt an intense need to return to Hashem.

In his earnest desire to repent and with deep anguish, Elazer ben Durdaya sought external help, and he called out, “Mountains and hills, ask mercy for me.”

“Ask mercy for you? We must ask mercy for ourselves.”

“Heaven and earth, ask mercy for me.”

“Ask mercy for you? We must ask for ourselves.”

“Sun and moon, ask mercy for me.”

“Ask mercy for you? We must ask mercy for ourselves.”

“Stars and planets, ask mercy for me.”

“Ask mercy for you? We must ask mercy for ourselves.”

Elazer sat upon the ground, and after a long and seriousperiod of probing introspection, he placed his head between his knees and expired while crying, “Ein hadavar talu ela bi” — “It all depends on me — the responsibility is totally mine!” A voice emerged from above and declared, “Elazer ben Durdaya is worthy of Eternal Life.”

The explanation to this enigmatic story may be as follows:

Elazar ben Durdaya sought an easy way out of his personal dilemma. He tried to blame his corrupt life on external forces and not himself. First he appealed to the mountains and hills — symbolizing his parents (see Bamidbar 23:9, Rashi, Rosh Hashanah, 11a): “Declare it was not my fault. I was not disciplined; I was spoiled. You were too busy to take care of me and did not have the time or patience to supervise me properly.” But his plea was rejected.

In further defense of his shortcomings, he turned to heaven and earth — symbolic of the society in which he lived and the people with which he associated — “I could not have been anything else; my environment molded my total identity. Had I lived in another society and been exposed to a ‘purer air’ I would have been different. Why am I to blame?” But even this plea was rejected.

When they refused to accept the blame, he further declared, “Sun and moon, help me.” They are the symbol of affluence, as scripture says, “With the bounty of the sun’s crops, and with the bounty of the moon’s yield” (Devarim 33:13, Rashi). He cited the affluence of the society in which he had lived: “All I knew was material things; I was brought up in the ‘good life.’ I wanted pleasure; I was taught no other values. Was I to blame?” And this plea, too, was rejected.

Finally, when his despair reached an unbearable climax, he cried out to the stars and planets — symbolic of a predestined fate of evil within him (see Shabbat 156a concerning the effect celestial signs etc. may have on a person). He also blamed his problems on “the good luck alibi”: “I did not have mazal. You tell them...I could not help living the way I did...tell them it was not my fault.” Little did he realize that our Sages have said, “Ein mazal l’Yisrael” — “The celestial signs hold no sway over Israel” — through prayer and merit one can prevail over the fate they foretell (ibid. Tosafot). Do not blame it on mazal — blame it on yourself!

When his final plea was rejected, Elazar ben Durdaya probed deeply into his heart and soul and found the truth: “There is no one external factor to which I can shift responsibility. Ein hadavar talui ela bi — It all depends on me, I am totally responsible for my actions.”

Now that we have described the repentance of Elazar ben Durdaya, one may rightfully wonder who was this personality?

According to the Kabbalists (see Seder Hadorot) he was a reincarnation of Yochanan Kohen Gadol, who served for eighty years as a High Priest in the second Beit Hamikdash and became a heretic at the end of his life (Berachot 29a). Elazar ben Durdaya, with his brief realization and confession of truth, acquired the merits which Yochanan Kohen Gadol lost after eighty years of service of Hashem, and in only one hour of sincere attachment to Hashem the neshamah of Elazar ben Durdaya became worthy of eternal life.

There is, however, another beautiful and intriguing explanation given by Rabbi Yehudah Lowy, the famous Maharal of Prague (1520-1609). In addition to the simple meaning that the Gemara relates Elazar ben Durdaya’s agonizing experience, it could be said that the name Elazar ben Durdaya is an allegory.

The word Elazar (אלעזר) is a juxtaposition of two words “Keil ozeir” — (אֵ-ל עֹזֵר) — “G‑d helps” — and Durdaya (דורדיא), which in the language of the Talmud (Avodah Zara 32a) is the sediment which falls to the bottom of the wine barrel.

This episode is a metaphor to teach us that Elazar, “Keil ozer” —G‑d helps” — “durdaya” — “the one who is compared to sediment” — the one who has fallen to the lowest level and is like the sediment that has lost all its wine qualities — when he comes to the realization that “ ‘Ein hadavar talui ela bi’ — ‘It all depends on me’ — and I am the one who has to express sincere remorse and make the effort to change.”

When this incident was reported to Rabbi Yehudah the Prince, he used this unusual act of honest introspection and teshuvah as a text for a great moral lesson to his disciples: “There are those who obtain their world (Olam Haba) with many years of work, ‘veyeish koneh olamo besha’ah achat’ — ‘and there are those who acquire their world in one hour’ — in one brief instance of self realization and self transformation.”

On this great Day of Atonement, may we be inspired to emulate the example of Elazar ben Durdaya — to reject all rationalization for our failures and shortcomings and resolve that “we are responsible for our actions,” and return wholeheartedly to Hashem.

(הדרש והעיון, בראשית מאמר צ"ה)