A renowned goldsmith was summoned to the royal palace.
"I understand," the King told him, "that you are a master craftsman. And thus I have a request to make of you. I would like you to marshal all of your talents and create for me the most breathtaking golden goblet of which you are capable."
Needless to say, the goldsmith was delighted by the challenge – and by the fee that such a project would carry. He promised to have the goblet ready within a year, assuming he was provided with the necessary raw materials: one kilogram of pure gold, and three hundred diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires and turquoise.
The cost? Ten thousand gold pieces per month!
A bit expensive, perhaps, but the King went along.
The goldsmith began the project on schedule, but did not invest himself in particular. To be quite honest, his greatly increased income catapulted him into a life of luxury. But he soon began living beyond his means and found that he had to start selling some of the materials meant for the goblet in order to maintain his lifestyle.
And thus the kilogram of pure gold dwindled to half a kilogram, the diamonds disappeared one by one, and so did the other precious stones. From time to time, the goldsmith would recall the project and devote an hour or two to the goblet. But he did not put his heart into it and soon returned to his amusements.
And then one day, he received a note from the royal palace. The year was drawing to a close and he would be expected to present the goblet to the King in one month's time.
The effect of this reminder can hardly be understated. With the deadline approaching, the goldsmith suddenly grabbed hold of himself. Looking at the goblet in its present state, he was overcome with embarrassment. Was he going to present this humdrum piece of work to the King in thirty short days? Was this all that his great talents could produce?
Although half the gold as well as the gems were gone, the goblet staring him in the face could still be salvaged. The goldsmith forgot the difference between night and day in a Herculean effort to do just that. He set about engraving beautiful designs, adding exquisite flowers and irresistible bunches of grapes. Slowly but surely, the goblet became a rare feast for the eyes, a masterpiece.
The goldsmith toiled until the last minute, adding a flourish here and some fanfare there. On his way to the palace, he polished the goblet to the point where it seemed to generate a light of its own.
Those gathered at the palace were bedazzled by the goldsmith's masterpiece. Agreement was unanimous that a more beautiful goblet had never been created.
But amidst the praise and admiration, the royal treasurer stepped in to weigh the goblet. He discovered that half the gold was gone and that the precious stones which had been supplied to the goldsmith were not in evidence.
Embezzlement! he charged. A betrayal of the King's trust!
Needless to say, the goldsmith turned white. He begged the king for mercy. "In the merit of the pleasure I have given you this goblet, I beg you to forgive me! In the merit of the labor which I invested in this shrunken goblet!"
Our task this Elul is, of course, to make something of the little "goblet" of our lives that we have fashioned over the previous eleven months. For we know that we will soon have to come before the King. Before the King of Kings.
But how do we redeem our goblet, how do we polish it?
By putting in an additional hour of Torah study, by praying with greater concentration, by doing an extra act of kindness. We may not be able to make up all that is missing from our performance over the last year, but we will at least be able to show Him that we have done His bidding during this final month. And on the strength of this, we can beg forgiveness – during the Days of Judgment – for that which is lacking, for the resources we have misused.
Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, the saintly founder of the Mussar Movement, noted that the very trepidation we feel at the approaching Days of Judgment, is a great help (segulah) in coming through them successfully. For there is nothing more annoying to a judge than the indifference of a defendant.
What to Focus On
Although the time is short until Rosh Hashanah, our free time may even be downright scarce. What, then, should be at the center of efforts this Elul?
Rav Salanter provided an insightful answer to this question: First and foremost, he said, pay attention to the little things, the things which we can do without much trouble. For example, the Shema recitation in the morning and the evening – a three minute affair. Could anything be easier? A blessing before eating every item of food and one afterwards as well. Putting on tefillin in the morning.
Of course, noted Rab Salanter, on Rosh Hashanah we will be held accountable for all of our actions, but the "review" will begin with that which we could have performed easily – or those misdeeds which we could have refrained from without much effort, such as speaking ill of others.
In considering how we can "shape up" before the Day of Judgment, we do well to recall a very practical insight of the Sages: "Everyone who has mercy on other people will merit mercy from Hashem" (Tr. Shabbos 151b). In other words, we will be judged by the same yardstick with which we judge others. If we concentrate, during this month, on being more understanding of others, more forgiving of their mistakes, and more generous of spirit, we have reason to hope that Hashem will treat us in the like manner on Rosh Hashanah.