Rabbi Yitzchak Feldheim is a spiritual leader in the growing Orthodox Jewish community of Yardley, Pennsylvania. A few days before the onset of the High Holy Day season one year, an older gentleman shared with him a story that he felt captured the essence of these Days of Awe. (Names have been changed)
The train was about to leave. It was more than a three-hour ride from New York's Penn Station to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and almost every seat was taken.
Jack Eastman, a successful lawyer and an impressive looking gentleman, hopped on and settled in on the last remaining seat. Jack was sharply dressed in his black pinstripe Giorgio Armani suit, off white Valentino shirt with an arc spread collar, and split-toe Mezlon shoes. He placed his raincoat in the small compartment above his seat and pulled out a state-of-the-art laptop from his sleek leather attache case. Satisfied with his preparations, he settled in for the trip.
As the doors were about to close, in dashed Jason Gross, a disheveled looking 19-year-old, his hair unkempt, his clothing wrinkled and messy. With no seats available, Jason reached up to grab hold of the plastic hook next to his head. Just then the doors of the Amtrak train closed and the train sped off.
Jack had been working studiously on his laptop when he noticed the boy standing above him. How sad, he thought. The young man appeared to be totally lost, with nowhere to go. "Excuse me, would you like to sit down next to me?" A seat had opened up next to Jack and he offered it to Jason.
"Nah, it's okay. I'm just gonna stand here." Jason hadn't even made eye contact with him. He just stared straight ahead.
A half-hour past and once again Jack offered the seat. He could not get back to his work, wondering why this boy seemed so troubled. Jack had two kids: a boy of 15 and a girl of 12. He tried not to imagine his children ending up this way, but if they did he would want an older, caring person to help them.
Once again Jason refused the offer. He obviously wanted to be left alone. Another half-hour past and finally Jason's weary feet convinced him to accept the seat. He was happy to finally be able to rest. He muttered a meek word of thanks and rested his head against the cold window. Although his head bobbed back and forth from the vibrations of the train, the cool feel of the window against his cheek was refreshing.
"Do you want to talk? It looks like something's bugging you." Jack tried to recall some of the teenage jargon he heard around the house but his mind came up empty. Jason continued to stare blankly out the window.
"If I want to talk I'll let you know." For the very first time Jack made eye contact with this troubled young man. He had once heard that if you look into someone's eyes you can see what's in his soul. What he had seen in this boy's eyes was pure sadness. Just by looking at him you could see he was lonely and lost. Jack tried a few more times to extract from Jason what was troubling him, and how we could help, and finally Jason relented.
"It all started when I was around 15," Jason began to bare his soul as Jack sat back and listened carefully. "I was the type of kid who was into electronics and was generally viewed as a recluse. My parents constantly encouraged me to get together with friends and they would always bother me. I would tell them to let me run my own life, but they kept sticking their noses into my business.
"Well, one of the advantages of being electronics 'geek' is the ability to create and invent different things. And that is precisely what I did. I created my very own invention and made a mint off of it. I became a millionaire overnight. By then I was 17 years old. Sure enough I became popular. My parents tried to warn me about the 'groupies' who wanted to get close to me because I was rich. But I had had enough of their advice; I told them once and for all that they should stay out of my life. They pleaded with me and begged me, but the last time we spoke I hung up on them, insisting that they never call me again."
By now Jack was hanging onto every word of Jason's tale of woe. He watched closely as Jason shifted uneasily in his seat. He felt Jason's parents' pain, yet sympathized with Jason as well; he wondered how much suffering this boy had endured.
"Money helped me find a wife and we got married immediately, with neither of our parents present at the wedding. Nine months later we had our first child. Life seemed to be perfect. There we were a young couple living in a beautiful high-rise Manhattan apartment with a precious little baby. Then one day a shady character, one that in hindsight I should have stayed away from, offered me the 'chance of a lifetime' an investment that would allow me to retire. I invested the millions that I had made and waited for a phone call that never came. The entire thing was a scam. Just like that, I was poor again.
"When my wife discovered what happened she left me and took our child. I was evicted from the apartment and suddenly had no friends to turn to. My entire world had crumbled. Less than two months earlier I'd been sitting on top of the world and now I was penniless, homeless and lonelier than I ever been. I scrounged around like a beggar going from restaurant to restaurant pleading for food. Doors were slammed in my face; the humiliation was unbearable. Finally, starved and ashamed, I stretched out on a park bench, closed my eyes and went to sleep, thinking, 'This is where I'm going to die.'
"I don't know how long I had sleeping but a man tapped me on the shoulder. I had never seen him before and he didn't know who I was, but he sat down next to me and listened to my story. He cared about me and encouraged me to come back to his home, change my clothing and contact the only people that still cared for me my parents.
"I thought to myself, 'How could I use them like this?' For as long as I could remember I had treated them more like my worst enemy than my parents. I showed them no respect and refused to include them in any part of my life. And now that I needed them I should use them?! I felt remorseful and ashamed about my entire existence. But left with no other choice, I decided to write them a letter.
"I sat down and tried to write. Tears flooded my vision and stained my words. I poured out my soul to them and related the entire chain of events that had transpired since we last spoke. I imagined them reading the letter, and even though I knew they loved me, I was uncertain what their reaction would be. After all, I'm sure I had caused them great pain and frustration. I told them that I needed them in the worst way, but that I did not have the courage ask them in person to take me back. What if they refused to have anything to do with me? I knew it was cowardly of me but I had no choice. This was my last resort.
"So instead I asked them for a favor. I informed them of the exact train that would be bringing me back home. Approximately 50 yards from the train stop there's a large oak tree. If they found it within themselves to forgive me for my past sins they should hang a small white flag on one of the branches of the tree. And if not... then I'll just stay on the train and continue on to the next stop."
Jason was spent. He had just bared his soul to this complete and total stranger, but he had no choice because the stop was just ahead, and he didn't have the courage to look and see if the flag was there. Jack held what was now a little scared boy close to him. He had cried throughout the story and was anxious to do what he could.
The train slowed and the stop was near. Jason put his head between his knees and was nearly shaking with fear and apprehension.
One hundred yards.
Jack looked out of the window. The train had almost stopped completely. The sound of its screeching wheels was growing louder. Jason looked up, his eyes red, his face white. "So tell me... what did you see?"
Jack stared at Jason and smiled. "The... entire... tree... was... covered... in... white... cloth!!!"
Jason stood up, hugged his friend and walked toward the exit of the train. Standing there with tears in their eyes were his loving parents. At first he hesitated, but then ran into his parents' arms and held them closer than he ever had before. His mother and father too held their broken son close and whispered into his ears, "Welcome home, son, welcome home."