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 about you?"
"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 Olam Haboh?"
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 get."
"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 brief lifetime?”
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 gadol. Henry! 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 fascinating story.
“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 this place?’
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 Netziv."
"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 century.
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 insignificance."
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 not?"
"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.
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 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
* A Story for the Days of Awe
* The Grand Slam
* If you received e-mail from an angel, would you heed… The Heavenly Call
* The Merry – Go – Round