One fateful Rosh Hashana Day, the soul of Gershon Kleinbard stood in an endless line of living souls, each waiting to appear before the Master of the Universe for the moment of judgment and reckoning. Only the great tzaddikim sense this encounter; the vast majority of mankind is oblivious to this occurrence. Nonetheless, in the hidden recesses of their unconscious, each person is aware when they stand before the Almighty.
They were all here together with Gershon Kleinbard; the rich and famous, the poor and unknown, the strong and mighty, the weak and infirm. Each soul stood alone, unsupported by family and friend and gave an accounting for the past year to the Creator.
The stirring blasts of the shofar from synagogues around the world pierced the silence and announced that the Day of Judgment had arrived. Fear and trepidation prevailed as six billion souls marched in a single file procession, with the fate of the coming year hanging in the balance. The haunting chants of chazanim and congregations proclaimed the awesomeness of the day. As the words of Kivakoras roeh edro ascended to heaven, mankind trembled in response to the solemn words:
Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, who passes his sheep under his staff, so do You pass and count and judge the soul of every living being. And You record the verdict of their judgment.
On Rosh Hashana it will be recorded and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed. How many will pass from the world and how many will be created? Who will live and who will die? Who at his time, and who before his time?
Standing in judgment with all of humanity, the trivial trappings of life fade into inconsequence. Material wealth, physical pleasure, prestige and honor lose their value, and the meaning and purpose of life becomes clear. Alas, the clarity of the moment, experienced in the depths of each soul, rarely rises to the level of human consciousness. Yes, here and there a spark of recognition breaks through, and tears of remorse swell into people’s eyes at the moment of justice, but the teardrops dry quickly and life goes on as before.
As Gershon Kleinbard waited on line, a malach suddenly drew near.
“Gershon,” called the angel, “Are you prepared for the powerful question G-d will ask you and every living being today?”
“What question is that?” said Gershon.
“It is a simple question, but very difficult to answer,” said the malach. “Here it is.
“What have you accomplished this past year?”
Gershon was taken aback by the accusatory tone. “Why I accomplished a great deal. I oversaw scores of successful projects, was promoted to a better position and earned a salary increase as well. I view myself as a person of great achievement.”
The malach was undeterred. “That’s what you did for yourself, but what did you accomplish for others? Have you grown spiritually and religiously?”
Gershon continued to defend himself. “I’ve accomplished a great deal spiritually too. I daven three times a day, observe Shabbos, keep kosher and perform numerous mitzvos. What more do you want me to do?”
The malach shot back, “Gershon, you have been coasting. Yes, you did many mitzvos but you did the same ones in previous years as well. You failed to inject new feeling into your mitzvah observance and you are on the same spiritual plateau today as you were years ago.
The malach continued his assault. “Look, did you daven better this year than in the past? Did you have greater kavanah? Did you sense that you were standing before the Almighty when you prayed? Did you talk to your friends less during davening time?
“You put on tefillin daily. Were you inspired by the mitzvah even one time? Did you spend more time studying Torah? Do you speak less lashon hora? Did you practice greater integrity in your business affairs? Is your Shabbos more spiritual? Do you control your temper any better? Do you show greater sensitivity to others? Have you improved your character? If the answer to these questions is no, there has been no progress at all.”
“Wait,” Gershon protested, “It’s not true what you say. I thought of one thing. For years my employees have complained that I never show appreciation. This year, I began to say thank you on occasion.”
The malach laughed. “Is that it? There are more than thirty million seconds in a year. That’s thirty million opportunities for accomplishment and all you can show is a few thank you’s? No other growth and development? As a matter of fact, you have stagnated for the last two decades since you left Yeshiva, and you are no further advanced today than you were twenty years ago.”
Gershon would not yet concede the point. “You keep focusing on growth. Why is that the goal? What is wrong with simply doing mitzvos, even if I do remain the same?”
The malach responded. “Did you ever notice all living things have stages of development? A rock stays a rock and never evolves, but a person goes from infancy to childhood, then adolescence and adulthood and so on. Even a plant has many stages of growth. It takes years for a small oak seed to blossom and grow into a magnificent tree. Why did G-d make the world this way? To teach a fundamental principle: The purpose of life is to grow.”
Gershon was still resistant. The angel produced a mirror. “Gershon, look inside. What do you see?”
Gershon let out a piercing cry. The mirror showed a reflection of Gershon’s form, but instead of standing six feet tall, Gershon was only twelve inches high. “If your physical growth was stunted,” said the malach, “you would be devastated. Why are you indifferent and complacent with being a spiritual midget? Why should G-d renew your lease on life to remain just as diminished as the year before?”
Gershon could not stop gazing in the mirror as he contemplated how his life was a complete failure and loss. The words of the malach finally penetrated and hit home. Just then, another shofar blast wafted through the air, and the clarion call of the shofar pierced through Gershon’s heart.
After a long silence, the malach spoke once again. “Gershon, you have wasted your life and accomplished almost nothing. You are undeserving of a renewal this coming year.”
Gershon began to cry uncontrollably, and pleaded for his life. “Please, I’m too young to go. Do you think G-d will give me one more chance? I promise, things will be different this coming year, and I will not be the same.”
The malach inquired, “OK, Gershon, what changes do you plan to make? What course of action will you pursue? What areas of growth will be your focus, and what target dates of completion do you anticipate for this process of growth?”
Gershon couldn’t answer. “I’m not really sure yet, but trust me, this year will be different.”
The malach was about to point out that without a solid plan, nothing would ever change. Just then, Gershon’s turn was called and he was whisked away to face his Maker. The angel called after the soul, “Gershon! You said the same thing last year and the year before, and the year before that too.” But Gershon was already gone.
The malach moved on to the next person on line. “Excuse me sir. Are you prepared for the powerful question G-d will ask you and every living being today?”
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.