A Short Story for
the Days of Awe
Rabbi Yaakov Luban
At first, the Malach
(angel) did not plan to use the RMTF program on Henry. After all, it was
very powerful and left some people in a permanent state of shock. For
many, a few good conversations combined with DVD and E-Mail Therapy was
all that was necessary, but this approach did not work for everyone.
Henry Schwartz was a difficult case, and when everything else failed,
the Malach had no choice.
The Malach first met Henry on the 5:49 PM train out of Penn Station. The
Malach sat down next to Henry, pretending not to know who he was, and
began making small talk. After a few minutes, the Malach got right to
the point. "So what are you doing about 9/11, Henry?"
Henry was taken aback, "What do you mean by that?"
"Well, you know, it was a wake-up call."
Henry was tired and wanted to go to sleep. He was not interested in
wake-up calls at the present time. "Wake up and do what?" asked Henry of
this stranger who was intruding on his privacy.
"Wake up and change, of course. The whole world changed on 9/11, but how
"Why should I change? I am perfectly satisfied with the way I am. Stop
bothering me now."
The Malach pressed his point. "Don't you want a bigger share in
Henry was incredulous. "Olam Haboh? That's not my biggest problem right
now. I have a mortgage to pay and am struggling to keep my business
afloat. When I come to Olam Haboh, I'll be satisfied with whatever I
"But G-d isn't satisfied with mediocrity. He expects and demands
excellence," said the Malach.
"How do you know that? Do you have insider information? Look, G-d knows
me a long time. He knows that I am a nice guy and my heart is in the
right place. Maybe I have a few imperfections and shortcomings, but hey,
so does everyone else. G-d will overlook them."
"And how do you know that?"
"Intuition. I feel it in my bones."
The next day, when
Henry spotted the stranger approaching, he pretended to be asleep. The
Malach was not deterred by Henry's lack of interest, and he sat down
next to Henry on the train.
"I thought about your question."
Henry opened his eyes. "What question?"
"How do I know that G-d isn't satisfied with mediocrity?”
"Ok, tell me if you must. Did G-d speak to you last night?"
"No, but I know this. If G-d didn't care, He wouldn't have given you the
potential to achieve greatness."
Henry was annoyed. "Listen, I'm a good person, but I know my
limitations. I will never be a great person."
The Malach countered, "Don't you know the famous story of the Rebbe, Reb
Zisha (d.1800)? Reb Zisha said, ‘When I stand before the heavenly
throne, G-d won't say to me, Zisha, why weren't you like Moshe Rabbeinu,
or Zisha, why weren’t you like Rabbi Akiva? He will say, Zisha, why
weren't you like Zisha."
"So what does that have to do with me? I am not Reb Zisha."
The Malach pulled a DVD from his briefcase and handed it to Henry.
"Here, take this home and watch it when you have a chance." Before Henry
could respond, the stranger got up and exited the train.
Henry didn't know
what to make of this strange man, but when he came home he popped the
DVD into his computer just out of curiosity. Henry was ill prepared for
what he was about to experience.
Henry saw a movie of himself walking up a steep mountain. Half way up he
met the Malach, seated behind a large desk.
"Name," demanded the Malach.
"Where are you headed?"
"To claim my share in Olam Haboh."
"And exactly what type of Olam Haboh do you think you earned during your
Henry was taken aback. "Well, I think I did OK, more or less. I mean, I
know I could have done a little better, but overall..."
The Malach stared at Henry with fiery eyes, and Henry began to tremble.
"Henry Schwartz! At your bris, your father named you Chaim ben Yaakov
and the rabbi recited the benediction, zeh hakoton gadol yehiyeh, this
small infant will become a
Why didn't you fulfill your life- mission and become a gadol?"
Henry was speechless and had no answer. Suddenly, he fainted. Two angels
lifted him up and put him on a stretcher and carried him down the
mountain. Henry regained consciousness just as they passed a bold red
sign that read, "The Hall of Shame for Mediocre Souls".
The DVD ended and Henry sat motionless for a long time. Then, exhausted,
he went to bed.
The next day Henry
walked to the train, still shaken from the strange viewing of the
previous evening. How did the stranger produce a DVD with a movie of
Henry, and how did he know Henry’s Hebrew name?
Henry took his seat on the train and began to read the morning paper.
Henry’s friend Shlomo passed by, gemarah in hand, on his way to the back
car where a Daf Yomi group was in progress. “Want to join us today?” he
inquired. Henry smiled cordially, but he was not going to forsake the
morning paper. Henry loved trivia, and the ninety-minute train ride
allowed him to read the paper cover to cover.
About half way into the train ride, the Malach sat down next to Henry,
who at that point was reading a story about a plan to raise squirrels in
Bulgaria. He was annoyed that the stranger was about to interrupt this
“Henry, have you thought it over?”
“Thought what over?”
“The big change. Are you ready to restructure your life?”
Henry was agitated. “Listen, I don’t want to change. I don’t need to
change, and I will not change. Is that clear?”
The Malach nodded and gave a knowing smile. “Sure Henry. They all say
the same thing. But do you know that forty years from now you will look
back and wonder why you wasted so much time and accomplished so little
of lasting value during your lifetime?”
“Listen Mister. We live in the present, not the future. Who can think
about forty years from now?”
“Henry, use your imagination. Why don’t you check your e-mail when you
get to work?”
When Henry arrived at
his office, he turned on his computer out of habit, just as he did every
day. He had forgotten the Malach's last words, but when he checked his
e-mail inbox, he immediately saw the subject "Henry Schwartz - Forty
Years Hence". Henry opened the e-mail and was stunned to see an image of
his family and friends, much older, seated with somber faces in an
austere room. A rabbi stood at a podium next to a plain wooden coffin,
draped with a talis. When Henry clicked on the link beneath the image, a
Real Player video was enabled. In the video, the scene came to life, and
the rabbi began to speak.
"Dear friends, we are gathered here today to say farewell to our dear
friend, Chaim ben Yaakov, Henry Schwartz.
Henry was a great guy who will be fondly remembered for his wonderful
sense of humor. Henry had the unique ability to make a joke out of
everything. In fact, Henry Schwartz’s entire life was a big joke.
Henry loved trivia. For forty-five years, he religiously studied the
newspaper during his 90-minute train ride, and he gained a wealth of
trivial information. He knew things that most people simply did not know
or care about. Indeed, Henry lived a life of trivial pursuit.
Henry loved to bowl and as he got older, he played a wicked game of
shuffleboard. Appropriately, Henry left instructions to inscribe his
tombstone with this epitaph: ‘Here lies Henry Schwartz, sports
enthusiast, who lived to play and played to live.’
If I close my eyes, I can imagine Henry climbing a mountain on his way
to heaven with his bowling ball in hand, stopping a flying Malach and
inquiring in his inimitable way, ‘Hey, are there any bowling alleys in
To Henry, we say, ‘Dear friend, go now to Olam Ho’emes, the world of
truth, and claim the eternal reward that you so richly deserve.’”
Henry couldn't tolerate anymore of this, and he ripped the computer plug
out of the wall.
Henry was not about
to be intimidated by this mysterious stranger and he vowed to stand his
ground. The Malach, though, was not deterred and met Henry on the train
the next day.
"Henry, you've sold yourself short. Don't forget the speech given by the
"What are you talking about now?"
"The Netziv, Rav
Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1817-1893), the great Rosh Yeshiva of
Volozhin, made a special seudah (festive meal) when he completed his
magnus opus, the Haamek She'eila. At that occasion, he explained why
this milestone was so significant for him. As a young boy, he did not
show much interest in his Torah studies. One night, young Naftali
overheard his father bemoaning his lack of progress. With tears in his
eyes, his father told his mother it was time for their young son, Hirsh
Leib (his nickname), to leave the yeshiva and become an apprentice to a
local craftsman, so that he might learn a meaningful trade. Naftali was
deeply moved by his parents’ distress, and he rushed to them and
promised to apply himself to his Torah learning. From that day on,
Naftali grew to become one of the great Torah giants of the 19th
The Netziv displayed the Haamek She-eila and said with much emotion,
"Had I become a shoemaker or tailor, I never would have written these
volumes. After 120 years, I would have appeared before Hakodesh Baruch
Hu, and He would have demanded, ‘Why didn't you write the Haamek She-eilah?’
No doubt I would have responded in disbelief. ‘What, I am only a simple
shoemaker. How could I have written this magnificent sefer?’ ‘No’, G-d
would have insisted, ‘you were capable of authoring this profound work,’
and of course that would have been the case. Imagine, for eternity I
would have endured the anguish, pain and disgrace of not having authored
the Haamek She-eilah."
Henry stood before
the heavenly court and the prosecuting angel began his indictment.
"Before us stands a person of tragic proportions. Someone who could have
been a gadol in his own right, but instead, chose to be a person of
Henry couldn't remain silent. "Excuse me, your Honor, I am sorry to
interrupt, but clearly this is a case of mistaken identity. You see, I
am Henry Schwartz, and you obviously have the wrong party."
"There is no mistake Mr. Schwartz. You are Chaim ben Yaakov, are you
"Yes, but what you are saying is not true. I was not a potential gadol."
"Mr. Schwartz, look at the screen." A large video screen opened in front
of Henry and there appeared a parade of thousands of Jewish children,
with sweet and beautiful faces.
"Who are they?” asked Henry. "What do they have to do with me?"
The prosecutor responded with passion. "Mr. Schwartz, do you remember
the fire that closed down the Eitz Chaim Yeshiva in your neighborhood?
The local rabbis asked you to use your charming personality and great
sense of humor to lead a fundraising committee, so that the Yeshiva
could re-open its doors and service the local children. You could have
done it. Everyone loved and respected you. Why do you think Hashem gave
you your special sense of humor? He gave you that gift so you could
raise funds for the Yeshiva. These are the children, who would have
passed through the yeshiva, and their children and children's children
who would have remained religious as well. But you declined. Instead,
you wasted your sense of humor, and now your life is only a bad joke.
Henry was aghast. "But I had no idea."
The room filled with balloons, thousands and thousands of balloons,
floating up into the sky.
"What are these?" asked Henry, afraid to hear the answer.
"Those are the missed opportunities of your lifetime, the unfulfilled
potential of each and every day."
Henry tried to grab the balloons, but they just slipped through his
fingers and floated away. "Please, I just want one more chance. Can't we
turn the clock back a bit? Look, I didn't realize..."
Henry woke in a cold sweat, still pleading, "Please, can’t we turn the
clock back a bit...” When he realized it was just a dream, he said,
"Thank G-d this was only a nightmare." He tried to fall back asleep, but
was unable to do so.
The next day the
Malach spotted Henry on the train. "I see you are still reading the
daily paper during your ride home. Obviously, you are having difficulty
making significant changes in your life. I am left with no choice. I am
implementing an RMTF program for you. Then you will see the light."
Henry had many things to say to the intruder, but he nervously asked
first, "What in the world is that?"
"You know the famous story of the emperor without clothing? Why did the
emperor believe he was magnificently dressed, when in fact he was the
laughing stock of his kingdom? He thought this because no one gave him
feedback. Henry, you, like many people, have lived your life without
feedback, and that is why you are not in touch with the reality of your
soul. I am here to correct your delusional state by connecting you to an
"RMTF" program, which provides "Religious Modification Through
Feedback". Don't worry, you'll be a new man in no time at all."
Before Henry had a chance to protest, the stranger disappeared.
Henry didn't know
when the RMTF would be activated and he tried to convince himself that
he had nothing to fear in any event. Yet in spite of his own
self-reassurances, Henry was nervous all day. When Henry arrived at work
the next day, he discovered the RMTF display on his computer screen. The
revelations were devastating.
RMTF SUMMARY REPORT
August 5, 2003
6:00 am to 9:00 am (10,800 seconds)
Moment = 1 Second of Missed Opportunity
Pray with proper
Study Torah on
endearment to spouse and children
Thank Hashem for
His kindness through various blessings
with a greeting, smile, humor, compliment
amounts of tzedaka to the needy with a smile
home to fellow worshippers
Not speak loshon
recent lessons about meaning of life
Throughout the day, Henry received regular RMTF
updates. By the time he left the office, he was a nervous wreck. Henry's
elaborate edifices of self-deception, so carefully constructed during
his adult life, had come crashing down like the Twin Towers of the World
Trade Center. Henry was completely exposed and he had nowhere to hide.
That evening, Henry waited anxiously for the stranger to appear. "I'm so
happy to see you", said Henry as the stranger took his seat on the
train. "I do not understand the things you have done to me, but please
turn off the RMTF. I cannot handle it. I got the point. You've changed
my life, and I'll never be the same. I trivialized my life and was
satisfied to be a spiritual midget, but now will strive for religious
greatness. I don't need feedback anymore."
The stranger was saddened. "As you wish." He got up to leave, and turned
back to Henry one last time. "Most people float through life, completely
oblivious to their inner potential. Henry, you woke up for a moment.
Make sure you don't go back to sleep." Then, the Malach was gone.
The next morning, as
Henry passed the newsstand, he was about to purchase the morning paper,
just as he had done everyday for the past twenty-three years. Suddenly,
he remembered the stranger saying, "The whole world changed on 9/11, how
about you?" Henry imagined thousands of balloons drifting into the sky,
and he heard the Malach ask pointedly, "Henry, why weren't you like
Chaim ben Yaakov?" Henry thought about many things, and then…
"OK class," said the teacher. "That's the
beginning of the story. You complete the end. Think about the internal
struggle that is being played out within Henry Schwartz between two
powerful human emotions: spiritual inertia and religious inspiration.
How will this conflict be resolved? Which force will be pre-eminent?
Will Henry Schwartz be able to sustain genuine changes in his life?"
"Personalize your story. Put yourself in his shoes, and imagine you are
Henry Schwartz. How would you finish the story? Would you be able to
make significant modifications?"
"Good luck class. I hope you do well. After all, your future for
eternity may well depend on it."
Rabbi Yaakov Luban
Rabbi Luban is the Executive Rabbinic
Coordinator of the Kashruth Department at the Orthodox Union. He is the
Rabbi of Congregation Ohr Torah in Edison, NJ.
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