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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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..."