There is a popular Talmudic narrative that probably owes its prominence to its lurid (at least to Western ears) content. It is the dramatic story of Elazar Ben Dordia who was governed by his lust for harlots to the point that once he traveled seven rivers to sample the favors of a prostitute who was renowned for her “skills”. During their moment of intimacy, she broke wind, and told him, “Just like this gas will not return to its original place, so too, Elazar will not be returned and atoned.” At this point Elazar, struck by the poignancy (and the pungent nature) of this statement asks the mountains, the constellations, the heavens and earth to advocate on his behalf, but he is refused by all. He realizes that it is up to him alone, and his remorse for the wasteful life he has led ends up killing him. A heavenly voice welcomes Rabbi Elazar Ben Dordaya to the world to come.
The context of the story is a discussion of whether one can return from being an idolater and live. The Talmud concludes that if one has provocatively and willfully engaged in this ultimate betrayal, the return from it would be so perilous that the process itself would be fatal. The Talmud then asks whether the same would hold true for other sins, or is it only idolatry that exacts such a price. The answer given is that one does not die from turning away from sins. The Talmud challenges this answer by relating the aforementioned story where it seems that the process of turning away from sin did in fact take Elazar Ben Dordaya’s life. The Talmud answers that because he was so profoundly addicted to this behavior, his devotion to these base desires was tantamount to idolatry. In other words, abject and fatalistic submission to any desire is as false of a god as one can have.
It is presumed in this passage that all desires have the potential to govern one’s life, but that acts of will can conquer and even transform those desires. The first step is to acknowledge, like Elazar does that it is no use appealing to others when in the end, it is we who have control.
The Maharal of Prague points out that Elazar’s last name “Dordia” means dregs in Aramaic. He says it is indicative of how out of control he was. His first name El-Azar means literally that God will help, so his name personifies the struggle of being helped out of the dregs, the misery of not being in control of your desires. Once we are so out of control that we worship that which is antithetical to our well-being then the return is so perilous that survival is not possible. The narrative witnesses that everyone is redeemable, but not everyone survives the redemption.
But since redemption, is the preferred goal over survival, even this story might be considered optimistic. When Elazar Ben Dordia is through asking for support from those things that were here before he was and will certainly outlive him, he is thwarted in his efforts. It is then he says: אין הדבר תלוי אלא בי (This process depends on me alone).
It is a sobering message to realize that we are responsible, but an empowering one as well.
There may always be french fries, and they may be engineered to be addictive and tempting, but we don’t have to eat them. That does not exonerate the complicity of the food industry, but focusing on the battle that is won more handily, the one between the fries and our bellies, may be a better use of time.