Sincere repentance that comes from the depths of one’s soul has a mighty power to lift one from the depths — even for a person who is so evil that it seems he can’t get any worse. Sincere repentance doesn’t depend on time and amount but is measured by intensity, thoroughness and quality. With one correct decision, a person can in one second repent.
“Yesterday, he was hated by G-d, despised, distant and abominable, and today he is beloved, pleasant, close and a friend.” (Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance)
The Gemara (Avoda Zara 17a) brings the case of Elazar ben Durdaya who was completely sunk in decadence up to his neck. He was so sunken in sinning that he harnessed all his time, efforts and money to doing sins. When he reached the peak of sin in his utterly degenerate behavior, he began to experience feelings of remorse and decided to repent.
However, changing seemed impossible to him and he thought he couldn’t do it alone. So he went between two mountains and asked them for help: “Mountains and hills, seek mercy for me!” But they told him, “Before we ask for you, we have to ask for ourselves”, as it says (Isa. 54:10) “For the mountains shall depart and the hills shall totter.”
He appealed to the heavens, and received the same answer.
Elazar ben Durdaya finally arrived at the obvious conclusion and declared, “It all depends on me!” The same physical and mental powers that he had invested in sinning, he now harnessed to repent. He put his head between his knees [a newborn’s position, symbolizing he wanted to be reborn anew], and profusely wept from his heart.
He wept and wept with so much remorse and anguish until his soul departed in purity. At the moment of his passing, a voice came out from Heaven and declared, “Happy are you, Rabbi Elazar, that you will be welcomed into the World to Come!” The gemara adds that when Rebbe, the Jewish leader of that generation, heard that heavenly voice, he cried, “Some acquire their World to Come in a few years, and some get it in an hour!” Rebbe also added, “Not only those who repent are welcomed, but they are even titled ‘Rabbi’!”
Why did Rebbe cry? Shouldn’t he have been thrilled with the power of repentance and the fact that a person can gain his future world with just an hour’s repentance?
Some make the error of thinking that Rebbe was jealous of Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya because while most of us have to toil and gain our eternal world with much sweat and toil over our lifetime, Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya sinned his whole life and then received his eternal world with just an hour of effort.
But it’s impossible to attribute such an outlook to Rebbe. The reason for Rebbe’s tears is because he realized the great value of every second of life in a concrete way. A person can completely turn over his life in just one hour. All it takes is just one hour to reach the loftiest levels that a human being is capable of. Rebbe discovered the immense power that resides in every person, a power that enables a person to lift himself up from the abyss to the heights. He was crying because he was demanding more of himself.
And if Rebbe cried, what should the rest of us be feeling?