During the week directly preceding Rosh Hashanah, we get up earlier than usual so that we will have time to recite Selichos. We ask G-d to forgive us, and we confirm our intentions not to repeat our misdeeds. Our prayers continue with a plea for Heavenly mercy, in the merit of our forefathers who fulfilled G-d’s every command faithfully. And, of course, we ask G-d to inscribe us for a new year filled with blessing, good health, prosperity, and every form of goodness.
But all this is not enough. The following anecdote makes it clear just what is missing:
William Gardener owned three different factories, plus vast estates and farmland. He sat at his desk, making plans for an upcoming trip. He needed to list all the merchants he hoped to meet at the fair, and to plan his budget for purchases carefully. He took several hours, but at last, the job was done.
“Good!” he said with satisfaction. “Those are the lists I must take with me on my journey. Now for a list of assignments, for those who stay behind to tend the grounds and to make certain that everything on the farms and the estate, in the factories, and in the mansion itself, will be cared for just as though I were at home.”
He took out a fresh sheet of paper and continued to write. “I must make one list for the tasks inside the castle, and another for each of the factories.” He took his pen and hand, and began to compile his lists.
When he was finished, he reviewed each page and made corrections and additions. Then with a sigh of satisfaction, he slipped all the sheaves of fresh paper into a folder, and labeled it: “INSTRUCTIONS.”
The next day, he called in the managers of each of the factories, and gave them instructions for the coming month, while he was away. Next, he summoned the estate manager, Thomas Wilson, and informed him in detail of his plans.
“I’ve prepared a comprehensive list of what needs to be seen to,” he told Wilson. “First, here are the daily tasks,” he continued, pointing to the top of the list. “Here are the items that you must check out once a week. If you remember to use this check list at least once a day, you can’t go wrong!”
Wilson took the sheet of paper, scanned its contents briefly, and nodded. He was not a man of many words. “Yes, Sir,” was all he answered, as he folded the sheets and tucked them into an inner pocket.
Two days later, the carriage was loaded, two fine horses were hitched to it. Everything was ready. Gardener climbed inside, called out to Wilson once again: “Be sure to go over the list of instructions every day! Don’t forget!”
Gardener gave a final wave of his hand, the driver clucked to the horses, and the wagon started to roll away.
The month passed quickly. Four weeks later, right on schedule, the carriage drew up in front of the Gardener mansion, and its owner climbed out, relieved to be back home. But his smile was soon replaced by a deep scowl. What was this? The front garden was overrun with weeds. The pathway was covered with caked mud. He looked up to the entranceway, and his jaw dropped. The windows were opaque with dust, and one pane of glass was broken. The splinters of glass were still scattered on the marble floor of the portico.
His glance ran over the entire front of the mansion, then to the carriage house and as much of the grounds as he could see. Everything was neglected. What had gone wrong?
He called to the footman to see to unloading his luggage, and rushed into the house to look for Wilson. The scene which followed was not a pleasant one.
Gardener berated Wilson; he gave him a tongue-lashing he would not soon forget. All the while, the manager remained silent, staring at the floor like a delinquent schoolboy caught without his lessons and no note from home.
When he had vented some of his anger, Gardener paused in his harangue against irresponsible managers who neglect their employer’s estate, and asked Wilson: “Have you nothing to say for yourself?
Hesitantly, the erstwhile manager spoke up. “But sir, you told me again and again to be sure to go through the list you gave me each day, and that is just what I did!”
“What do you mean, that is just what you did? That is just what you didn’t do. The entire mansion is camouflaged under a thick layer of dust. The gardens are neglected, the window pane in shatters, and in short, the place is in a shambles. How can you try to tell me that you followed my instructions?”
“But sir, you told me to be sure to read the instructions every day. That is just what I did each day without fail.”
“Hmmph!” snorted Gardener in disgust. “And when you finished reading the list, what did you do next?”
“I took this vellum envelope, carefully folded up the sheet of paper, and put it inside to protect it. I wanted to be sure that the paper wouldn’t get torn or worn out.” He slid the envelope out of an inner pocket to demonstrate. Indeed, the sheet of paper was well preserved; it looked almost as fresh as the day Gardener had first given it to him.
“And then what did you do?” Gardener pressed on with his investigation. “After you read the lists, what did you do next?”
The manager shrugged his shoulders slightly, as though to say that he didn’t understand the point of the question. “Why, I folded up the piece of paper, and put it back in the envelope, so I would find it right away the next day.”
“You fool!” roared Gardener. “You were concerned to see that a piece of paper not get torn or soiled, and you let my whole estate go to ruins!
“What do you think I made the list for, to give you something to read each morning? Why didn’t you DO something — everything written on your list — instead of just reading about it? What does it help for you to just read the list if you don’t take any action as a result?
"I didn't hire you to look after a silly piece of paper, but to follow my orders and look after my estate. If you can't DO something constructive to look after my assets, I have no need for you here!"
We, too, start our day by reading out a list, when we go to attend Selichos each morning before Rosh Hashanah. But if we merely read the "list", pay it lip service, and then go back home and continue living our lives just as we have until now, we are no better than the foolish Thomas Wilson, who preserved the written page, but lost his job and brought his employer major losses.
The reason we read the "list" is so that the instructions will become engraved on our hearts and souls, and we will fulfill it as second nature. If we prove ourselves loyal employees, our Employer will surely provide us with good health and all the tools we need to enjoy a new year of serving Him in joy.