As we prepare to celebrate the giving of the Torah, it is worthwhile to think of the many great teachers who dedicated their lives to its teaching and preservation. Partly on account of their modesty, it is easy to miss the sacrifices made by our greats to achieve what they achieved. One of the most important in this regard was the man whose unique stature caused the Jewish people to refer to him as Rebbe (Rabbi), plain and simple – Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi.
We should accordingly note a rare but revealing comment made by this great teacher. The comment appears almost tangentially in three places (AZ 10b, 17a, 18a), each time after a story of someone whose lifestyle had been questionable or worse. That individual then performs a heroic feat before dying, prompting a heavenly voice to announce that he will receive a portion in the world to come. Each time, the Talmud relates that when Rebbi heard of it, he cried and said, “There are some that acquire their world in an instant and there are others that acquire their world in many years.”
One might wonder why it was specifically he who said this; moreover what was there to cry about here? Rabbi Yaakov Reischer, in his Iyun Yaakov (on AZ 17a) commentary, suggests that when he said that others acquire their world in many years, he was talking about himself and the years of afflictions that were sent to cleanse him from a certain insensitivity that he had once shown.
Yet Rebbi was on a much higher level than the men in these stories, such that his lengthy afflictions reflect what was expected of him and the reward he could expect to reap. For not all portions in the world to come are the same; we know (Avot 5:23) that the gain is according to the pain. Moreover, R. Reischer seems to miss an additional statement of Rebbi’s: In the only story dealing with a Jew, the heavenly voice invites Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya to the world to come. Until now, he had only been Elazar ben Durdaya. That change prompted Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi to add, “Not only are penitents accepted, they are even called, Rabbi!”
If it is difficult to understand how someone can acquire the world to come in an instant, it is nearly impossible to understand how they can almost instantly acquire the title, Rabbi. At that time especially, the title was only conferred upon men of great stature who had spent many years in intensive Torah study with great masters. Elazar ben Durdaya, however, went a different route, being moved to intense supplication of God. The intensity of that supplication was so great that it apparently caused his death, but it also allowed him to be forgiven.
A rabbi is a reliable and qualified teacher of Torah, and humans are only able to discern that by objective standards. But that is because we can only judge based on what we are able to perceive. Since God’s perception is infinitely greater, He was able to see that Elazar ben Durdaya had also become fit to teach a very deep aspect of the Torah. Even if he did not have the standard mastery of other aspects; for God, this merited giving Elazar ben Durdaya smikha.
Hence I think that Rebbi was crying about something else. He understood the tremendous rebuke God was giving to the rest of us with these heavenly voices. In effect, they were saying that we need to realize the potential of an instant. Every instant is potentially so rich as to allow us to accomplish things that normally take many years.
This is not to say that we should attempt the spiritual acrobatics of Elazar ben Durdaya as our main strategy. In the same way that an instant has the potential to make us, it also has the potential to break us. And the only way to guard against the latter is the more normative strategy of the beit midrash, of growing incrementally one day at a time, such that the structure that we create for ourselves is truly solid.
Presumably Rebbi was the master of the latter approach, having created his own personal edifice one brick at a time. He had certainly accomplished a great deal and there is no question about his solidity. However, in doing so, Rebbi must have sacrificed the potential of many many instants of inspiration and dveikut. While there is no questioning that he chose the correct path, that does not take away from the fact that it was a path full of sacrifice. When Rebbe cried, he realized that the great sacrifice he made was not only physical, but spiritual as well. And about that, it is worth crying!