Some people can accomplish more in a single moment than the rest of us do in our entire lives.
The Baraisa (Avodah Zara 17a) recounts the story of Elazar ben Durdaya who dedicated his life to empty pursuits and pleasures. One day, a chance comment caused him to realize how meaningless his life had been. He immediately broke down in tears of sincere penitence, accepted responsibility for his misdeeds and committed himself to changing. At that moment he died, and a voice called out from heaven and said, “He has been readied for the life of the World to Come!”
When the incident was reported to Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, he said the sincerity of Elazar ben Durdaya’s teshuva was the key to its acceptance. He said some people acquire their place in the World to Come through many years of work, and some can acquire it in a single moment.
Doniel Goldrich* witnessed a similar moment of life-changing teshuva nearly 20 years ago. Doniel participated in a learning program sponsored by Partners In Torah. Once a week, Doniel and several other men from Lakewood drove to a synagogue in a neighboring town where they learned one-on-one with community members.
Doniel was paired with 38-year old Marshall Lichtenstein*. Marshall’s two sons attended the nearby religious Shalom Torah Center school, but at home the family kept very few practices.
Doniel and Marshall studied the Torah portion of the week together and used it as a springboard into many other topics, including Jewish philosophy, mitzvot and holidays. Over the two years that they learned together, Doniel was constantly inspired by Marshall’s excitement for learning and his passion for the material.
When Marshall was a young man, he had been diagnosed with a serious heart condition. But after years with no episodes, he assumed the condition had passed. However a year and a half after Doniel started learning with him, Marshall began feeling ill. After a battery of tests his cardiologist said that he needed a valve replacement as soon as possible. He went through open-heart surgery to have a pig’s valve inserted, and when the procedure was unsuccessful, his doctors performed a second round of surgery.
“Through the process we got to know him,” Doniel said. “We went to the hospital to visit him. He wasn’t religious at all, but he put on Tefillin in his hospital room for the first time. He was very appreciative that we visited.”
Committing to particular mitzvot can be a major source of merit for a person in a difficult situation, so Doniel suggested some small religious steps that Marshall could take. Religious growth is based on taking baby steps, and Doniel suggested a few preliminary ideas.
“I said to him ‘would you want to take on something, to bring to action things that we’ve talked about? It might bring fulfillment to your life. You don’t have to keep completely Kosher, but at some level you might consider keeping Kosher in your home, or maybe your wife would like to light Shabbas candles,’” Doniel said.
“That’s an amazing idea,” Marshall said. “Let me think about it.”
The following week Doniel spoke to him during their learning session after he had been released from the hospital. Doniel could see a difference in him, a certain excitement that he had never seen before.
“I could tell that something had changed. His face was lit up,” Doniel said. “Marshall said, ‘we can’t keep Kosher in our home now, but every Thursday night we go out on a date to particular restaurant, because of our favorite dish on the menu which is made of pork. We decided we won’t go to that restaurant anymore. We’ll change our weekly date because it’s not Kosher. It’s something we accepted on ourselves because of your suggestion.’”
“You could see the happiness on his face. It was not an easy decision. It was very hard,” Doniel said. “I told him how wonderful it was.”
For Marshall, it was a major step. To give up a favorite dish and restaurant takes a lot of self-control, but Marshall and his wife were committed to their decision. They understood that the value of their decision outweighed their enjoyment of the particular dish.
Ten days later, Doniel received a call from Marshall’s wife at 6:00 in the morning. She said that Marshall had passed away during the night.
Doniel put the family in touch with a local Orthodox funeral home which gave him a full kosher burial. Doniel and several of the other men from Lakewood attended the funeral. A Rabbi from the sons’ school delivered the eulogy. He knew Marshall and over the last two years had witnessed Marshall’s growing excitement for Jewish learning. The rabbi quoted the first Mishnah in Bava Kamma that refers to man as maveh, a word which comes from the root “to search or inquire.”
“He said that’s the root of human beings – we’re always searching, always looking to make ourselves better. This was Marshall. He was able in mid-life to become a searcher, to accept new opportunities.”
At the cemetery, Doniel and his friends made sure that Marshall was buried in the proper way. Everyone else had gone home after the service, but the men wanted to make sure everything was done perfectly. They threw shovelful after shovelful of dirt into the grave until it was full.
“After we finished putting dirt in the hole, a woman came over to us, hysterically crying. She said ‘I’m Marshall’s first cousin. To see what I just saw, he must have done something in his life to merit having people like you burying him.’”
That was Marshall. With his one major decision, Marshall transformed his life both in this world and the next world. How much can we achieve, not just in one special moment, but over a lifetime of dedicating ourselves on the proper path?
* Not his real name
Michael Gros is the former Chief Operating Officer of the outreach organization The Atlanta Scholars Kollel. He writes from Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. The Teshuva Journey column chronicles uplifting teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. Send comments to email@example.com To receive the column via email or see back issues, visit http://www.michaelgros.com