I don’t know if Harry really saw it, or he just imagined the whole thing. Either way, the experience shook him to the core and changed my life as well. Neither of us has ever been the same after that fateful evening.
It took place on a stormy night in the midst of the Days of Awe. The wind was howling, the thunder crackling and the sky lit up from the flashing bolts of lightning. I had a strange premonition that something eerie was about to occur, and my apprehension was soon confirmed by an anxious tapping on my front door. I ran to open the door, and there stood Harry, hair disheveled, shirt untucked and a look of excitement in his eyes.
“What happened? You look like you have just seen a ghost.” I nervously inquired.
“More frightening than that” he replied. “I’ve just been through the Shaar Hashamayim (Gate of the Heaven).” He then proceeded to tell me the whole fantastic tale.
“I had been surfing the web for eight or nine hours when I heard a loud clap of thunder. The lights went out for a few moments, and when the power was restored I saw a strange new icon on my computer screen. There was a picture of a ladder climbing into the heavens, with angels going up and down. Underneath appeared the intriguing name Shaar Hashamayim.
Naturally, I was cynical. ‘Sure. Hashem has a web site and uses Windows 2000.’ Still, I couldn’t contain my curiosity and clicked my mouse on the icon.
Three columns appeared on my computer screen: The Book of Life, The Book of Death and Undecided. I thought to myself, ‘What a cute idea for aseres yemei teshuva’ and just for fun I typed my name into the search field.
To my disbelief, my name appeared in the UNDECIDED column.
I was annoyed at what appeared to be a practical joke, and moved the mouse to double-click on my name. A new screen opened up with an amazing but chilling sight…
Harry: Age 47
This was all very unsettling, but I still couldn’t believe that this was for real. I was soon convinced otherwise. I clicked on the Mitzvos and Aveiros hypertext links and there appeared endless entries documenting every second of my life. In a state of shock, I slowly scrolled down and saw tables that looked like this:
I randomly highlighted an entry that read:
What I saw blew me away. On my windows media player I saw a playback of the entire incident. I was thirty years younger and davening in Yeshiva. I appeared to have intense kavannah as I swayed back and forth reciting the Shema. Then I heard a playback of the voice inside my head:
Shema Yisrael, if I win the lottery what should I buy first? Hashem Elokeinu, a Jaguar or a Rolls? Hashem Echad.
In a frenzy, I highlighted other entries. Some of the mitzvos were very impressive, but the aveiros were terribly embarrassing. My whole life was recorded in precise detail. I had forgotten most of these events years ago, but they were all here in the appropriate hypertext links.
As if responding to my very thoughts, a message flickered across the screen:
I had never realized that the book was written in HTML!
More unnerving thoughts raced through my mind. Was this a protected site? King Solomon’s concluding statement at the end of Koheles took on new meaning. “The final thing, everything is heard.” The Targum (the Aramaic translation) renders this: “All acts performed in private will become public knowledge in the world to come.” I shivered at the thought of my friends logging on to my file and viewing my entire life history.
I tried to get a hold on myself. Stay calm and don’t worry, I thought. I’m probably in good company. Surely my friends are in the same boat together with me. This comforting thought didn’t last too long. My eye caught an option on the tool bar entitled “Ranking”. I opened the screen and found that I could view my status in relationship to various groups. For years I smugly believed that I was religiously superior to most of my friends. What I now saw on the screen produced instant humility. I was at the bottom 23rd percentile of my group of friends and even lower when compared to other groups.
A thick cloud now hung over my head. I always assumed that G-d automatically inscribed me in the Book of Life each year, but now I saw that I was in the Undecided column, and for good reason. I thought of my family who needed me and of my unfulfilled plans for the future. I was too young to die and was scared.
Then I had a stroke of genius. If my life is recorded on a computer, I could use the delete key to wipe out my entire sordid past. My slate would be clean and G-d would move my name to the “Book of Life” column. Quickly, with a trembling hand, I took my mouse, highlighted a long list of aveiros, and pressed the delete key on my keyboard.
What a disappointment. A new message popped up:
In desperation, I hit the help button. Maybe an angel will fly out and help me out of this terrible mess, I thought.
No angel appeared, but a succinct message appeared on the screen:
Well of course. How simple. Why didn’t I figure that out myself? I quickly made a fist, tapped my chest a few times and said vidui, “Ana Hashem, Chatasi, Avisi… G-d I’m sorry”. I thought I was doing OK when another message popped up.
I was stunned, but I knew it was true. There was no use pretending in the Divine Court.
I began to think about the millions of aveiros that I committed. I knew I wasn’t the Gadol Hador, but always imagined myself a fairly good person. I never realized how quickly the moments of sin add up, nor did I realize how many different aveiros I committed in the course of each day. Slowly, the reality sunk in. I was classified a rasha because of my inadequacies and indiscretions, and there was no point denying the facts. I was devastated.
I was overcome with a sense of remorse, as I thought about my life. I wished I had not wasted my years and compromised my values. I promised myself that if I would survive this mess, the future would be different.
Suddenly, the computer screen started flashing and my media player was automatically enabled, playing joyous music. A new message appeared on the screen:
I couldn’t believe it. Was it really so easy to erase the past? I grabbed the mouse and highlighted all the sins I had ever committed. There were millions of entries, and I scrolled through them with lightning speed. With great trepidation, I pressed the delete key once again. Miraculously, all sins between man and G-d disappeared in a flash. (Teshuva is not effective for sins between man and man until one asks forgiveness from the offended party. I am still struggling with this dimension.) I was a new man with a clean slate and the past was gone. I checked my status on the initial screen, and I was now a tzaddik inscribed in the Book of Life.
Although I should have been ecstatic, something gnawed at me. True, I had eradicated millions of moments of crime, but I now felt like a person with no past. All those seconds wasted and gone forever. Millions of opportunities were lost in oblivion. Hashem had been so kind to me; even when I was a rasha he provided my every need, and I reciprocated with ingratitude and destructive behavior. I knew that my aveiros had distanced me from my Creator, and now I felt a longing to move closer to Hashem, like a lost child running into his parents outstretched arms. My thoughts were interrupted by more music and another flashing message on my monitor:
I then remembered the talmudic statement (Yoma 86b) that if teshuva is motivated by ahava (love of Hashem) all aveiros are transformed to mitzvos. Past sins actually become a positive force in one’s life.
Was it indeed possible that my sorry life was now redeemed? I checked my mitzvah column and now found that I had 89,364,252 mitzvos to my credit. What an amazing windfall. All my aveiros were now converted to mitzvos.
I was dumbfounded. Every year in the past, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur flew by, each offering a golden opportunity that I had missed. It was true that while sitting in shul I tried to do teshuva, but I was never really sincere or genuine. What a terrible loss! I was so lucky to have now seen the light.”
When Harry finished telling me his story, he inexplicably started to become very agitated. He suddenly leaped towards me, grabbed my lapels and shook me. He was yelling, and at first I could not grasp what he was saying.
“Tell them, Yankel, tell them,” he shouted.
“Tell who, Harry?”
“Tell the people. You must tell them.”
“Tell them what?”
“Tell them they are all crazy!”
“Because they use the delete key on their PC’s, but they don’t delete what really counts.”
And in a flash, Harry ran out.
“Harry, where are you going?” I called after him.
“Back to Shaar Hashamayim.” And he was gone.
I recently got an e-mail from Harry. Now he’s Rav Chaim, and he is living in the Old City near the Kosel Hamaarovi, the real Shaar Hashamayim that Yaakov Avinu saw in his dream.
Harry’s last words still ring in my ears. “They use the delete key on their PC’s, but they don’t delete what really counts.”
It’s a powerful message. And that is why I shared this story with you. Wishing everyone a Kesiva V’Chasima Tova. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.
Rabbi Yaakov 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.
Other Elul/Days of Awe stories by Rabbi Luban:
* The Angel's Deception
* The Pendulum
* An E-Mail from Hashem
* Changing Perspectives
* The Grand Slam
* If you received e-mail from an angel, would you heed… The Heavenly Call
* The Merry – Go – Round