“Where in the world am I?” Sam asked with much trepidation. “Am I in heaven now?”
“No. In a time warp,” the angel answered tersely.
“A time what?”
“Time warp,” the Malach repeated deliberately.
Sam was stunned. “Maybe I’ve lost my mind,” he thought to himself.
“Mr. Stein, why don’t you have a seat, and I will explain exactly why you are here.”
Sam slowly sat down.
“You are fortunate to be here, Mr. Stein. You recently committed a crime that was so egregious that you forfeited your share in Olam Habah. But we are giving you a second chance to reclaim your place in eternity.”
It occurred to Sam that he might be dreaming. He pinched himself to no avail. “You are not dreaming, Mr. Stein. Do you know to which incident I refer?
Sam knew. Due to a terrible error in judgment, Sam mistakenly accused a coworker of being a petty thief and had her fired. The ensuing damage was horrific, and Sam would have given anything to undo the past and correct his awful mistake. Sam listened intently as the Malach continued.
“We are sending you back into your own past, turning the clock back 30 days, just before the unfortunate incident occurred. The same set of circumstances will repeat themselves, but you will have a chance to choose more wisely this time around. Of course, you understand that you will not recall being here, nor will you realize that you are re-experiencing this event again.”
Sam protested. “But at the time that I made my decision I was certain that what I did was appropriate. I will probably make the same bad mistake once again.”
The angel smiled. “Yes, you are correct Mr. Stein. But this is a rehabilitation center for people who leap to conclusions and don’t give others the benefit of the doubt. We intend to retrain you before you return to reality.”
Sam could not believe this was happening, but he was excited about the incredible opportunity to right the past.
The Malach concluded the discussion. “Mr. Stein, I hope you choose more wisely next time. If you will now walk down the corridor, you may attend your first instructional class.”
Sam walked into the hall and was surprised to see a large group of people seated in the room. Comments erupted from the audience. “Hey, you too.” “Look, another one.” “Welcome to the club.”
Soon a Malach walked to the front of the room and the class began.
“Do you know why you are here? Because you are all fools! You have acted with callous indifference, and the results have been catastrophic. Hopefully, you will leave my class in a far more thoughtful state.”
The audience began to grumble and Sam wondered why the angel felt it necessary to start the lesson by attacking the students.
“You are offended, and you think I am off the mark. Well then, let me ask you the following question.
The Torah requires a person to be dan likaf zechus – to give one the benefit of the doubt. Now, is it smart or naive to judge people in a generous fashion?”
The audience was silent for fear of being attacked by the aggressive angel. The question was also a minefield. Who would say that the Torah expects a person to be naive? The Malach took the initiative. “Why are you so quiet? I am sure you all have an opinion. Mr. Stein, why don’t you give us your honest view of this matter?”
Sam stammered, “Well, I think it’s good to give the benefit of the doubt, but you know there are times…….I mean it depends on the situation, every case is different. Of course sometimes……”
“Mr. Stein”, the Malach interrupted, “don’t beat around the bush. Your honest opinion please!”
“Well then, if you must know, I do think it is naive. Life is not black and white and a person must assess the facts and formulate an educated opinion.” Sam gained confidence as he spoke. “Yes, a person who ignores compelling evidence and gives everyone the benefit of the doubt is really a simpleton.”
The audience applauded Sam for his courageous stand.
The Malach was quick to respond. “Thank you for your candor Mr. Stein. You have articulated your position well and struck a responsive cord with the entire group.” The audience was smiling and nodding their affirmation.
“In fact, this is precisely why you are all here today in our rehab center. Because you people thought it foolish and naive to be dan likaf zechus, you have made terrible errors of judgment and destroyed innocent people’s lives in the process!”
The Malach had the upper hand now, and no one was smiling anymore.
“So let’s see if G-d thinks it’s naive to give people the benefit of the doubt. The Rabbis derive the mitzvah to judge favorably from the Biblical verse, Bitzedek tishpot amisecha – with righteousness judge your fellow. Now let me ask you. Why is it tzedek, righteous, to judge people favorably? It is compassionate, merciful, generous, doing a favor. But what does it have to do with being righteous? Anyone know?”
The audience was silent.
“I will tell you why. Because giving people the benefit of the doubt is the intelligent and shrewd thing to do. That’s why it’s characterized as tzedek-righteous, and not compassion.
I know you are not yet convinced, but you will soon come around and see the light.”
Abruptly, the Malach ended the class. “That’s it for today. Think it over and we will reconvene tomorrow.”
The next day, the angel began immediately to hammer his message.
“Ok, let’s be honest. You people have consistently jumped to conclusions which turned out to be false and erroneous.”
The students shifted in their chairs and shook their heads in disbelief.
“You obviously think I am exaggerating? Ok, I will prove my point.
Mr. Goldberg, do you remember last week you were angry at your son’s teacher for giving a 20 page homework assignment. You called every single parent in the class and complained that the school hired incompetent teachers. What did you discover when you went to the principal?”
“Well, they did have three months to do the assignment, but my son didn’t tell me, so how could I know?” stammered Mr. Goldberg.
“You didn’t know. Hmm. Mrs. Hertz, do you remember how angry you were at your friend Leah for buying the exact same outfit as you. You thought, surely she saw you wearing it at the class play a week earlier. And what did you discover when you told her she lacked common sense?”
Mrs. Hertz quickly defended herself. “She was sick and didn’t come to the play. She never saw my outfit. But my error was an honest mistake. Her daughter had the lead part, and it was logical to assume she was at the play.”
The Malach chose another target. “And Mr. Feinstein, do you remember recently telling your friends that the Greenblatt’s are cheap because they don’t buy their children clothes that fit properly?”
“Yes, but it wasn’t my fault, Mr. Malach, because I didn’t know that both Mr. and Mrs. Greenblatt had lost their jobs. I had no way of knowing.”
“And Mrs. Shore, do you recall spreading the word that Chaim Green once spent two years in prison because he embezzled money from his company?”
“But I head that from my best friend Chani. She told me she heard it first hand from a friend who knew Chaim back when he was incarcerated. How was I to know that Chani exaggerated a bit and didn’t really hear it first hand but fourth hand, and that it wasn’t Chaim Green but rather Chaim Wein who stole the money?”
The Malach leaned back in his chair and smiled. He waited a few minutes while the audience shuffled uncomfortably in their chairs. Finally, he spoke in a hushed tone and quiet voice.
“My friends, don’t you see the pattern? There is a common denominator to each of these episodes. It’s always the same story. Mr. Stein, would you care to tell the audience what that unifying thread is?”
Sam scratched his head. “I guess it was bad luck in each case that there was a misunderstanding.”
The Malach became agitated. “You still don’t get it, do you? Does anyone else understand?”
No one volunteered to answer the question. “Alright, I’ll have to spoon feed you people”, said the Malach in exasperation. “It was not bad luck. In each instance a piece of information was missing. You all made assumptions that turned out to be erroneous because you didn’t know the whole story.
Remember the classical detective story. There are five people in a secluded mansion and one is found brutally murdered. It is apparent that one of the four survivors is the murderer. Everyone assumes it was the butler. He had the motive and the ability to commit the crime. But along comes the brilliant detective and he is not convinced. Reality is not always the same as appearance. He investigates and carefully examines the evidence. He goes through the crime scene thoroughly, and follows up on every lead. He doesn’t trust anyone. Ultimately, the detective solves the mystery and discovers that the crime was not committed by any of the four, but rather by the most unlikely candidate, the Chief of Police.
The mitzvah of bitzedek tishpot amisecha, judging your fellow righteously and giving him the benefit of the doubt, teaches that every person must be a sleuth, a Sherlock Holmes or Inspector Poirot. Don’t be fooled by the evidence. Don’t believe what people say. Don’t assume anything. Probe, explore, talk to all the parties, learn all the facts and discover the rest of the story before formulating an unjustified opinion – or you will miss the boat.
You people have been naive because you leap to conclusions without investigating the facts. That’s just as foolish as leaping off the Empire State Building and imagining that you are Superman.
Remember these lessons well: Don’t be a fool!
Ok, that’s it for today. Class dismissed.”
No one spoke when the class ended. The Malach had hit them hard and they were finally beginning to hear the message.
“Class, this is the final session. It’s time for me to tell you a famous joke.
There was an aspiring actor who wanted to be in a Broadway play. Finally, after ten years of auditioning he landed a minor part. After hearing the report of the cannon, he was supposed to say his classic line, ‘Hark, I hear the cannon’s roar’.
The young actor practiced day and night, ‘Hark, I hear the cannon’s roar, Hark, I hear the cannon’s roar.’
The great day arrived. The theater was packed; the curtain rose and the play began. Finally, the cue for the aspiring actor echoed through the hall as the cannon let out a thunderous blast. Boom!!!
The aspiring actor was startled to death and he yelled out, ‘Hey, what in the world was that?’
Why do I tell you this story? Because, it has a great lesson. The actor forgot his lines because the cannon sounded so real.
Well that’s exactly what happens in life. G-d asks us to give people the benefit of the doubt, but most people think like you that it’s naive to do that. So G-d says, ‘Ok, I’ll teach you a lesson!’ He arranges situations that seem compelling and you jump to conclusions. Then you discover you made serious mistakes. If you are smart, you say to yourself, ‘I’ve got to be more careful from now on.’
Part of the mitzvah of Bitzedek tishpot amisecha is to learn from the past to be more discerning in the future. Unfortunately, many people never learn from their mistakes. Why? Because, G-d doesn’t give us easy tests. He presents realities that seem so compelling that people say, ‘This time there’s no question, he’s guilty as sin!’ The blast seems so loud that we forget our lines and instinctively cry out, ‘Hey, what in the world is that?’ That is why most people make the same terrible mistakes over and over again throughout their lifetime.“
The Malach let his words sink in and then concluded his talk.
“You will now return to normal life. You will not recall being in my class, but the lessons you learned will be embedded in your memory. Next time you must decide whether or not to give the benefit of the doubt, don’t get back on the merry-go-round. Take a deep breath and say to yourself, ‘Hark, I hear the cannon’s roar. I will not forget my lines.’ Maybe you will remember to act intelligently.”
Sam was about to go into the Yeshiva office when he noticed Leah walk to the area where petty cash was stored. Leah unlocked the drawer and removed the contents, closed the drawer and returned to her desk. No doubt Leah did not realize that he observed what had just transpired. Sam was aghast.
In the back of his mind, Sam heard a faint voice say, ‘Hark I hear the cannon’s roar. Don’t jump to conclusions before you investigate and find out the whole story’. But Sam blocked out this nagging voice, “This time there is no question”, he thought. “Leah is guilty as sin”.
Sam knew what had to be done. He called the executive director and told him the story. “Mr. Brown, it pains me to make this call, but I’m doing this lishaim shamayim (for the sake of heaven). Leah Pearl is a petty thief and she must be dismissed from her position. Even though there was probably no more than $50 in the box, a crook is a crook and she should not be employed by our institution”. Mr. Brown concurred.
Three days later Mr. Brown notified Leah that her employment was terminated. Not wishing to embarrass her, he told her and the entire staff that her job was eliminated for budgetary concerns.
Leah’s husband had passed away suddenly two years earlier. The loss of her husband and the challenge of raising three young children by herself were extremely difficult burdens and had brought on a bleeding ulcer. Losing her job added further stress, as she could no longer provide for her children, and her ulcer now required hospitalization.
While Leah was in the hospital, her children initially stayed with neighbors. Eventually the neighbors found it too difficult to care for the children, and they were placed in foster homes. This made Leah’s condition even worse.
One day Sam saw Leah’s six-year-old son walking in a mall with his foster parent. Sam asked the little boy where his mother was, and with tears in his eyes, he said she was in the hospital the past few months.
Though Sam was upset with Leah, he decided to visit her in the hospital to discuss her children’s well being. On the way, Sam thought to himself, “Isn’t it amazing how G-d punishes people for their misconduct? What Hashgocha Protis (Divine Providence)!" Sam was now more certain than ever that he had done the right thing.
Sam walked into Leah’s room and was shocked to see her. Leah was a shell of her former self. Sam felt sorry for her and asked how she had become so sick.
Leah told Sam about the stress in her life, which led her to her medical condition. Leah concluded by telling Sam the following.
“Yesterday, Rabbi Rabinowitz, the principal of the Yeshiva, came to see me. Rabbi Rabinowitz has been a good friend. He knew how hard things were for me. In fact, three days before I was fired, I came to Rabbi Rabinowitz in tears because I had no money to buy supper for my three children. Rabbi Rabinowitz gave me the key to the petty cash drawer and said to take whatever was in there. He said he would return the money the next day. When I was let go from my job, he tried to intercede, but Mr. Brown insisted the Yeshiva had to trim the budget. It’s nice of you to come as well and express concern for my children and me. It means a lot to me.”
Sam almost fainted on the spot.
The Malach sat behind the desk and looked sternly at Sam Stein. “80 times”, said the Malach. Sam had no idea what he meant.
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
* Changing Perspectives
* The Grand Slam
* If you received e-mail from an angel, would you heed… The Heavenly Call