Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

27 Elul 5759 - September 8, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Home and Family
Last Chance
a story, by Y. L. Chodosh

He fixed a pair of astonished eyes upon that face. It was him, no doubt about it. It must be Uri, but could it be?

R' Shimon the Mashgiach took another good look and could not help feeling an overwhelming sense of surprise and emotion well up inside him. What, actually, had happened to him, he could not help asking himself.

Uri Kahane stood in his usual place in the beis midrash of Yeshivas Shaarei Ora, in front of his stender, his siddur open before him and his eyes squeezed tight in concentration. He was weaving gently to and fro in utter dveikus, total submission, as tears trickled down his cheeks and suppressed sobs punctuated the words of his silent supplication.


R' Shimon Skanfreund, a talmid chochom, a serious, sensitive, perceptive Jew, the kind of man of refinement whom they refer to as a baal neffesh, had been appointed to the position of Mashgiach in the yeshiva some fourteen years before.

He loved the students and was beloved in return. His moving shmuessen were famed throughout the yeshiva world as a penetrating Mussar experience shooting straight from the heart and piercing deep into the hearts of his audience, in turn. Aside from giving these marvelous talks, R' Shimon was also noted for his fineline understanding of the human soul. He had frequent talks with his students, in which he would try to motivate them, rouse them, chastise them. For some, the mere fact of his sincere caring would touch them profoundly and sow in them the seeds of spiritual growth, plow deep furrows in the fertile soil of their souls, irrigate those seeds and ferment them into producing fruits of diligence, application, devotion, piety and the burning desire to continue to grow and flourish.

The Mashgiach's first talk accompanying the heralding siren of the shofar of Elul had, the previous year, rocked the very rafters. He had stood by the oron kodesh, somewhat bowed, his eyes streaming with tears, and in a cracked voice, had repeated the famous familiar words of R' Yisroel Salanter, Father of the Mussar movement.

R' Shimon spoke with measured quiet, in a muted Elul whisper, which was heard like the distant reverberation of dozens of alarm bells slicing through the awed silence that permeated the beis midrash. Year after year, the event undoubtedly carved its mark in the yeshiva: the succeeding maariv was never `just another maariv.'

The atmosphere in the yeshiva was tense. Elul screamed voicelessly from every nook and corner. The Mashgiach would sit in his corner for hours on end, studying Mussar. His voice wafted up and filled the air of the beis midrash, gentle, poignant, pensive, punctuated by heartrending sighs. His succeededing talks were more frequent, more demanding, more specific and much more effective.

They hardly left anyone indifferent to the yeshivishe Elul aura that permeated deep into the souls. Came morning, hardly any of the benches were bereft of otherwise oversleeping students, and nowhere, or hardly nowhere, did you hear the usual casual chuckles of routine remarks, or see the occasional huddling of camaraderie outside the beis midrash during study time, as was wont during the year.

Almost. With the exception of Uri Kahane.

Only Uri remained complacent, indifferent, becalmed, smiling, as usual. While his companions were sacrificing themselves upon the altar of Torah, ensconcing themselves securely within Torah tentfolds, wrestling earnestly, fiercely, relentlessly with their own inner yetzer-demons and their respective wily strategies, doing their utmost to truly improve, to Be Good, Uri remained in the rear, in arrears, lagging, lax, mediocre. Middling in middos, middling in learning capacity, altogether average. No less, mind you, but nothing more.

R' Shimon's perceptive eyes absorbed the fact that the Elul revolution had, for some reason, skipped over Uri without leaving a trace behind, and called him in for a private talk. The Mashgiach spoke heart-to-heart, delicately plucking at his heartstrings, rousing, injecting confidence, showing faith in Uri's power to change, to improve. But the words seemed to reach as far as the ears alone, without penetrating the inner ear and the thin membrane that leads to the brain and heart. Several days passed and Uri was the only one who did not show up on time for tefilla, the only one who lazed around, who still took life easy and shied away from study. The Mashgiach summoned him again, this time to reprove him more directly, in harsher tone. He vividly described the awesomeness of the approaching Judgment Day, portrayed the open Books of Life and Death displayed before the King of kings, and repeated the age-old formula for inscription in the former: tshuva, tefila u'tzedoka. Uri listened politely; he heard every word uttered by the Mashgiach, but his indifference seemed only to increase.

The third time was on motzoei Rosh Hashona. The Mashgiach again sent for Uri and with overt pain, declared, "Uri, I am disappointed, very disappointed in you." And Uri, mirroring some of that pain, replied, "I want to, I truly would like to do tshuva. My heart knows the pain of my soul. I am aware that I am not O.K. I truly wish that I could also be swept up with the contagious atmosphere of tshuva, but I just can't feel it. I am indifferent. It just doesn't move me. Nothing seems to touch me, to affect me. My yetzer has the upper hand; I am in its power and I can't do anything about it. Believe me, I want to be alright. I want to be good, but it doesn't go." The Mashgiach was at a loss for an apt reply, but said one thing, "If you truly desire to do tshuva, Uri, you will succeed. Heaven always guides a person along the road he truly desires to follow. Remember that..."


He fixed a pair of astonished eyes on his face. It was him, no doubt about it. Uri. Could it be? R' Shimon looked at him once more with surprise and emotion. He looked and asked himself - What, actually, had happened to him?

It was less than a week before Yom Kippur and Uri Kahane was standing in his usual place in the beis midrash opposite his stender, bowed, submissive, hunched over his open siddur, in which he had buried his tear- stained face. His eyes were tightly shut and he was weaving to and fro with utter adherence. Hot tears seeped through, drop by drop, to be absorbed by the worn pages. Choked sobs punctuated the fervent prayer. He looked like he was climbing sheer precipices reaching for the skies, like one determined to ascend a ladder whose end reached beyond sight. He stood among the crowd of worshippers, but his spirit and soul - so it seemed - soared 'way up high, in a far-beyond.

Slowly, few by few, the worshippers finished their silent devotion. The sholiach tzibbur began the repeat- service. But Uri was still engrossed in the silent one. The chazzon reached kedusha, continued through past modim, but Uri was oblivious. The tefila was over and the hall emptied out as the yeshiva students went their way, to their rooms, to the dining hall, or wherever...

He paced the three steps backward long, long after all had disappeared. He wiped his eyes and nose and sat down, drained and exhausted. His eyes, shining with a solemn glow of happiness, dilated with surprise when the figure of the Mashgiach entered his field of vision and stood before him in full regal stature, beaming down on him with a look full of paternal love and warmth.

"So you have finally reached the turningpoint," R' Shimon stated.

Uri smiled abashedly and said, "Yes, I have."

Uri got up and began to recount what had happened and how it had all come about.


"It was on Thursday night. I went to bed and fell asleep. I had a dream and found myself critically ill, writhing in pain and surrounded by my friends who looked greatly concerned. I felt my strength ebbing by the moment; my condition was rapidly deteriorating. My eyes closed and I felt my soul separating and returning to its source.

"In my dream, I felt my soul soaring up and standing before the heavenly Court. I was gripped with awe, fear and trembling. Wagonloads after wagonloads came rushing towards me, filled with radiant angels, each one bearing a load of good deeds and merits, prayers and acts of charity and kindness, hours of Torah study, all of which I had accumulated to my credit, mitzvos such as tefillin, shmiras Shabbos, arbaas haminin, and so forth. These were piled high upon a huge scale which rapidly filled.

"I don't know exactly how to describe the dreadful suspense and terror that gripped me.

"Then came a carriage full of suffering: toothaches I had experienced, insults, degradations, humiliations, sleepless nights for this reason or that. All these were heaped onto the scale of my merits. Finally, all was done and silence reigned. I was taut with dread.

"I would never have thought that even in one's sleep, a person's emotions could be so powerful. I heard this eerie silence and trembled like a fluttering leaf. And then, within the dream, I heard a distant thumping of approaching hoofbeats. My doom. All my hopes sank.

"A train of carriages appeared, bearing black clad angels, too gruesome to describe. They, likewise, bore sacks upon sacks, these filled with sins, debts, malicious acts, ugly deeds I had committed. The defending angels receded and the prosecuting ones filled the scene to present their case against me."

Uri wept under the impact of the memory. "It was horrible, Mashgiach. These black angels ran to and fro, heaping their black sacks upon the other side of the scale. Could these be heavier than my good deeds? This opposite side of the scale filled so quickly! Here were the hours spent in idleness, frivolity, evil talk, prayers of mindless gabble and babble, the sleep of fellow students I had disturbed, never to be returned. Blessings rattled off without an iota of concentration or conscious thought. The array was vast; the numbers boggling, their weight staggering. All these were mine? Truly? My heart sank as the pile kept on growing with other sins: parents dishonored, teachers disregarded, friends mocked, foods consumed without a proper kashrus level or gorged like a glutton...

"It was unimaginably horrible. The scale soon tipped down on the black side and began descending lower and lower. I stood there undergoing a medley of feelings: shame, horror, dismay, despair. Overwhelming of all the emotions was the utter mortification. Tears started rolling down and I stood there, helpless, waiting in the deep and deathly silence.

"Then came the ringing pronouncement: `Uri Kahana: you are being sentenced to nether Sheol.' I thought I was paralyzed with fear, but I was able to fling myself down. I wept, `O Merciful G-d, A-mighty King, have pity on this mortal. I want to repent! I want to be good! I want to make amends. Please! Give me just one la-a-st cha-a-nce!'

"I sobbed and wailed, I screamed aloud. I begged and beseeched. And I promised with all my might. `I will repent! Just see how I will repent! I will do everything for Your sake. Let me try once again. Let me show You that I can do it! Give me one more chance, for Your sake, for the sake of the Torah. I promise with all my heart that I will be strong, I will be adamant against temptation. I will not give in to the yetzer hora ever again. I will devote myself body and soul to Your holy Torah. I will prove myself worthy of a second chance. I will become humble, forgiving; I will mend my ways, measure my deeds, improve my speech. I'll do everything for just one more chance. Please, Hashem, spare me. Let me show that I mean what I say!'

"I prayed as I had never prayed before and hoped that my plea would be answered. I was determined that if I was given a second chance, I would prove worthy of it. And lo! My request was granted and a heavenly voice rang out, `Uri Kahane, you shall return to the lower world to atone for your deeds, to mend your ways and make a fresh start.'

"I was more terrified than before. I had had the best opportunities to do good. I had lived in a city of Torah, had attended a fine yeshiva, and still, I had succumbed to a weak nature. What would guarantee a reversal with this second chance? How would I know what setup would be provided for me this time round? What if I found myself in a bad environment where temptation lurked at every turn?

"But my Merciful Father had compassion on me and promised, `Uri, don't worry. You will continue to live in the same city, in the same neighborhood.'

"`And the yeshiva?' I asked in trepidation. This was my only hope; without the supportive atmosphere of the yeshiva, I would surely be lost.

"`You shall return to the same place, the same yeshiva.' At this point, I made a strange request. I said, `Ribono shel Olom, if I return first as an infant, by the time I reach yeshiva, I will have forgotten this dream. I will have forgotten why I was sent back and what I was meant to repair. Please, Hashem, have pity, and send me back down to earth in the same condition, at the same age, in the same circumstances, and with full awareness. Let this memory remain stark and vivid in my mind, lest I slip and stumble again.' In His great mercy, Hashem granted this request as well, and sent me back to earth just as I had been, to start everything from beginning."


""A cold sweat bathed my forehead. A chill autumn wind blew through the window. I shivered involuntarily - and awoke. I opened my eyes in alarm. My head was pounding and I felt a dread terror grip my innards. The impact of my nightmare held me in thrall. I tried to fall asleep again, but couldn't.

"Suddenly, I leaped out of bed, washed my hands very meticulously, and sat down by the small table in my bedroom to try to rearrange my thoughts. I recalled my dream, stage by stage, and tried to apply its message to my daily life. No, it hadn't been a prophetic vision of any kind. I saw it simply as an especially kind message from Above, a flash of heavenly assistance, a booster, a brief glimpse that had opened my eyes and heart, and had given me a thorough shake- down. Just what I had needed...

"How fortunate for me! I now had that opportunity to make improvements, to mend my loose ways. I still had HOPE! It wasn't too late! And here I am, Mashgiach, like a new creature, fresh, at the threshold of new growth, with a new pure heart and a strong determination. Hashem gave me a second chance, and I am determined to try my very best and fulfill my promise."


Uri finished talking and lowered his eyes to the ground, ashamed at having bared his heart so fully. R' Shimon drew a bit nearer and grasped Uri's hands warmly in his own and blessed him, "Chazak ve'ematz -- Be strong and courageous." He lingered for a moment, turned to go, then spun around for a parting thought. "Your story has made a very deep impression upon me, Uri," he admitted.


Yosef Chaim Kahane, son of Harav Hagaon R' Uri Kahane, is a new student in the yeshiva, having just entered shiur alef this Elul zman. He gazes reverently upon the distinguished figure of Hagaon R' Shimon Skanfreund shlita, the elderly Mashgiach, who is standing near the oron kodesh, leaning on his time-worn stender. His face beams with a holy aura, and his flowing white beard frames a fine face solemn with a yeshivishe Elul. He begins his famous annual shmuess with the selfsame tale.

Yosef Chaim stares at him, mesmerized, and thirstily drinks in every single word that is uttered. There is an added dimension of joyful recognition in these young eyes, lacking in the eyes of all the others around him, who are similarly hypnotized by the Mussar message.

And when the shmues is over, Yosef Chaim leans over to his seatmate and whispers, "It's true, that story. I know. It happened to my own father..."


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