The Duke of Plonguny was the wealthiest noble in the district. When he decided to renovate his castle, he contacted an outstanding artist, Thomas Kordtheim, and asked him to paint a huge, magnificent landscape for the long southern wall of the banquet hall.
“I would like you to create the most beautiful masterpiece you have ever produced,” the duke told the artist. “I want it to take you a full year – without working on any other piece of work. Each week that you devote yourself to this masterpiece, I will pay you one hundred crowns to cover your expenses. Then, when the work is complete, I will reward you with 100,000 crowns for your work. However, you must agree not to take on any other assignments or to work on any other painting during the entire year.”
The artist agreed to these terms, and made all the necessary preparations. He took the measurements of the wall where the painting would hang and purchased the finest canvas money could buy. He prepared a fresh palette and an ample supply of oil paints. He mounted the canvas on a huge, specially built easel, and began to sketch the mountains, rivers, glades and valleys that would compose a breathtaking panorama of the highest mountain in the kingdom.
At the end of the first week, he had a rough drawing of the main components of the picture. Just as he had promised, the duke sent an allowance of 100 crowns to cover Kordtheim’s expenses for the past seven days. The following week, the artist started mixing his paints, and daubed here and there on the canvas to test the colors. He took his time; a whole year stretched out before him. After a few hours of intensive work, he thought to himself: "Why not take a break now and again so that I won't tire myself out?"
Each day, the breaks became longer and longer. By the end of the first month, Kordtheim had become quite accustomed to a leisurely pace of work. During the second month, he wasn’t even ashamed of the fact that on some days, he “rested” more hours of the day than he painted. It wasn’t difficult to learn to be lazy.
However, regardless of how much progress he did or didn’t make on the duke’s masterpiece, each week a messenger arrived with the hundred crowns the duke had promised him. His wife was delighted with their new wealth, and began dressing in the elegant silks and laces of the nobles. When the money continued to flow in, she suggested to her husband that he take a chalet in the mountains so that he might observe firsthand the world of nature which he hoped to capture in his painting.
For an entire month, the family enjoyed a luxurious vacation in the mountains. Even when they returned, and Thomas again sat down to his easel and paints, the work hardly progressed. He had grown so accustomed to a life of leisure that he ignored the fact that the day when he would be asked to present his masterpiece to the duke was not far away.
It was only during the final month of the year allotted to him that Kordtheim suddenly woke up to his folly. He had let eleven months slip through his fingers. There were only a few patches of color on the wide expanse of canvas before him. There was so much to do still! How would he ever finish on time?
He locked himself into the studio for hours at a stretch. He ate only sporadically, there, next to his canvas and paints. At night he lighted lanterns to continue
working. Now the mountains were filled in and he started on the foreground. Dark circles under his eyes attested to the fact that he was denying himself sleep, but he had no choice if the work was to be finished on time. It was a race to the final minute. As it was, he was not doing his best work, and there were details which he had to forego.
The duke sent a message that in three days’ time he would be sending his men to collect the masterpiece. He asked that Kordtheim accompany the men to see that the painting was transferred without harm, and to collect his reward.
This announcement raised the artist’s frenzied activity to an even higher pitch. Shortly before the duke’s carriage arrived, he added the last dab of paint to his masterpiece, and stepped back to examine his work.
“It will have to do,” he thought to himself. “If only I had more time, I could improve it so much!”
He hurriedly signed his name in a corner, and put down his palette and brushes. He must wash and change his clothing before the duke’s men arrived.
“Tell the children to clean my brushes and to tidy the studio,” he called out to his wife as he rushed to wash and dress. “I have to get myself presentable before they get here!”
Everyone bustled about, cleaning Kordtheim’s equipment and tidying the studio. The clatter of horses in the distance sent the family scurrying to see to last minute preparations. There was a sharp knock on the door. A few minutes later, Thomas was on his way to the duke, his masterpiece safely stowed on the wagon behind him.
Understandably, Kordtheim was tense and pale as they rode to the castle. Would the duke realize that this was not his best work? Why had he waited till the last minute? Would he be richly rewarded, or castigated and even thrown into the dungeon? His imagination ran wild as the horses galloped up the mountainside toward the castle.
Fortunately, the duke was not critical of the painting. The flaws which stood out to Thomas were invisible to him. The artist accepted his reward gratefully, and promised himself never to repeat his mistake.
A year ago, G-d inscribed us for another twelve months of life. All year long, He made His “payments” faithfully, a hundred crowns a week.
But as the year draws to a close, in the month of Elul, we hear the sound of the shofar each morning in the synagogue. Rosh Hashanah is coming!
We look back over the year that is nearly over, and ask ourselves: Did we serve G-d as faithfully as He looked after us? Did we use His blessings constructively?
The answers embarrass us. Why did we use the gifts He gave us merely to enjoy ourselves and did we fritter away our time, talents and resources?
The shofar blasts of Elul admonish us to stop and make a reckoning. Where do we stand?
If, like Kordtheim, we find ourselves “in the red”, we know there is still time to double our efforts and try to keep our end of the agreement. Our situation is summed up by the words of Daniel:
“Yours is the righteousness” – You have kept Your part, and given us everything we needed during the past year – “…ours is the shame-facedness,” for we have not kept our part of the bargain and fulfilled Your commandments.
As the New Year draws near, we stop and take stock of our “accounts.” This is one reason we recite Selichos, give extra tsedokoh, (charity) and try harder to find favor in the eyes of our Creator before Rosh Hashanah arrives.
Like Thomas, we realize that we must work "overtime" if we are to straighten out our accounts with the Creator. Hopefully, we will remember in time, and be found worthy of our full reward.