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In heaven on Yom Kippur, there was more at stake than the souls of two sinners.

By: Samuel H. Dresner

Two thieves were brought before the Heavenly Tribunal for sentencing. The first was a young man known as Nahum. He hid in the outskirts of the city, robbing from traveling merchants and stealing from the homes of the rich. Once a year, on the day before Yom Kippur, he left his lair for the city, where he divided his loot among the poor. Then he entered the synagogue and remained there until the great fast was over, standing all the while and praying with such fervor and sweetness that the stones beneath his feet almost melted from joy. When the fast day had concluded, he disappeared for another year, during which he resumed his livelihood.

The second thief was Yaakov Yoel, an elderly Jew with a long white beard. For most of his life he had worked in his shop, but in later years he turned the store over to his sons so that he could spend the rest of his days in the House of Study, where he pored over the holy books, prayed, ate, and slept. Only during the season of the great fair did he leave for the store, where, business being brisk, he helped out by tending the cash box. No one questioned the honesty of so pious a Jew. But the shocking truth was that from time to time white-bearded Yaakov Yoel looked first from side to side and then slipped a few coins from the cash box into his pocket. With this money he bought liquor and sweets, which he delighted in sharing with the other Jews after morning prayers.

The Heavenly Court took up the case of Yaakov Yoel first, and the old Jew began his defense: “It is from my own children that I took what I took, and from my own store. And furthermore … ”

But Satan the Accuser saw through these words. He leaped forward and cut the old Jew off: “And what about the red handkerchief?”

Yaakov Yoel hung his head. For on every market day after morning prayers, Yaakov Yoel would take out a red handkerchief and approach each person in the House of Study asking for a contribution for a pressing need. Soon his handkerchief was jingling gaily. All the while Yaakov Yoel smiled into his beard, thinking that, after all, wasn’t drinking with the other Hasidim a pressing need?

With that secret revealed, the Court turned to Nahum’s case. “What can I say, Master of the World?” the young thief began slowly. “All my deeds are known to you. During the year I rob, and not one holy word of Torah or prayer comes from my lips. On the day before Yom Kippur, I give my money to the poor, and for all of Yom Kippur I give my heart and tongue to God. That is the long and the short of it. Do with me as you will.”

Having heard from the litigants, all eyes turned to Satan. Assured in his bearing, the Accuser began a scathing indictment.

“These are no simple thieves! Take this Yaakov Yoel. All his learning and prayer, all his pious pretentiousness—they are nothing but crooked paths to other people’s pockets! Fraud! Scoundrel! That’s what he is. And Nahum is no better. True, one day a year he scrupulously keeps Yom Kippur. But it is not for the love of God. It is to return to his thieving ways with even greater lust in the delusion that he has been forgiven.

“Just what did these two Jews do with their stolen money?” the Good Angel retorted. “Did anyone ever see Yaakov Yoel eat a sumptuous meal? And did he, old though he was, ever lie down on a soft bed instead of the hard bench in the House of Study? And the bit of drink he brought with the handful of pennies he stole, did he not share it with others, that the hearts of his fellows might be warmed to better praise the Holy Name?

“And did Nahum buy houses, leave it as an inheritance to his family, or squander it on satisfying the passions of a young man? No. Each year he celebrated Yom Kippur by dividing his wealth among the poor and giving his heart to prayer. In any case, I would wager that had those who were robbed been aware of what was being done with their money, they would not have complained very loudly.

“Observe, honorable Court, how both Nahum and Yaakov Yoel, each in his own way, turned robbery into an act of benevolence, drawing holiness out of evil and light out of darkness.”

Having heard the arguments, the Court requested the Heavenly Scales, upon which Nahum and Yaakov Yoel placed their deeds. And this is when a dreadful thing happened. Nahum arose and poured out the years of his life on the black side of the scale. He shut his eyes tightly, for there was hardly a year that was not marked with thievery, and no thievery whose weight was not the equal of iron. Only the days of Yom Kippur might offset this. These he began to place on the white side of the scale. Though few in number, they were unusually heavy, for each day was saturated with tears, and each tear weighed more than iron. For a short moment, as the scales titled, he began to breathe easier. But alas, when Nahum had set the last Yom Kippur day on the scale, he saw that the pointer favored the dark side by a hair’s breadth. For a hair’s breadth, his soul was lost.

Now in fear and trembling, Yaakov Yoel set all the red handkerchiefs and fairs on the black side. Each handkerchief and each fair was full of coins, and each coin was as heavy as iron. But when he began to weigh all his study and prayer and other good deeds on the white side, he took courage, especially at the poundage of the joyous songs and passionate dances of the holy days and other happy times. But as with Nahum, the pointer remained a hair’s breadth from the side of goodness. For a moment Yaakov Yoel thought he saw the measure hand tremble. But the scales didn’t lie.

Both men’s evil deeds outweighed their good—just barely. Nahum and Yaakov Yoel looked at each other in resignation. Their feeling of guilt lasted only a moment, though. Nahum winked at Yaakov Yoel, who replied with a nod of his own. Unable to overcome a lifetime habit, taking care that no one was near, they slowly stretched out their hands to lighten the load on the black side of the scale. No sooner did their fingers touch the scale, than a piercing alarm shook the Upper Chambers. It was heaven’s first robbery.

Like a black raven, Satan swept forward. “Now your eyes have seen, O God, what good it does to squander all this mercy upon your creatures. See how they have the gall to pillage Heaven itself!”

The litigants began to sob. Tumult pervaded the Court. Even the Good Angel despaired as he made a final appeal.

“Is there no one to plead for these two Jews? Perhaps Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, the defender of all Israel, can be entreated to help, for he alone may be able to find some merit in their case and save them.”

Now the day of the heavenly trial was Yom Kippur itself. At that very moment, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak was leading his congregation in the synagogue of Berditchev and had come to the words “Man, his origin is dust.” During his worship he had been aware of a disturbance in Heaven, for black clouds of judgment covered the earth. He was summoned to the Court on High, and when he saw the two desolate Jews there, he extended his arms and cried out with a broken heart, “O Holy One! O Merciful One!”

At once a wave of love and compassion quieted the assembly; only the sobbing of the two Jews could be heard. The rabbi’s heart contracted within him, he lowered his head, and, in his holy way, began to chant the prayer contritely and with a sweet melody, explaining the words as he uttered them.

“‘Man, his origin is dust’—son of man, frail creature who comes from the dust of the earth.

“‘And he returns to the dust’—his fate is to become dust once again.

“‘By the peril of his life he obtains his bread’—sometimes, to feed his family, he is compelled to transgress.

“‘He is like a fragile potsherd’—nevertheless, when man sins, he is smashed like a bowl.

“Merciful and Holy One,” Levi Yitzhak continued, “while you hide your paradise and your presence, you plant the evil desire within us to inflame our hearts. Is it any wonder then that we are burned by the fire you yourself have placed within us? Let the heavens tremble, for what are they compared to the tears that flow from broken hearts?”

At Rabbi Levi Yitzhak words, all barriers burst. The gates of Heaven swung open. The rabbi saw his chance to beg not for just these two thieves, but for all humanity. “How long, O Eternal, can we bear our pain?” he said. “Send the Messiah to redeem the world from anguish and sin, as the prophet said… ”

ªIs it not enough that the rabbi of Berditchev wants to bring thieving scoundrels into paradise?” Satan protested. “Must he at the same time seek to hasten the Messiah?”

Before the rabbi could reply, a disturbance rose from his own synagogue. An aged Jew, weak from a long day of fasting, had fallen into a faint. Levi Yitzhak turned his attention from Heaven to earth and hastened to the old man. He embraced and caressed him and whispered in his ear until the man opened his eyes.

Meanwhile, the moment of grace had passed. And who knows, if that incident had not occurred in the synagogue of Berditchev on that fateful day, whether Levi Yitzhak might not have brought the Messiah!