Every year I write an Annual Yom Kippur greeting. The following is the 24th edition of this series.
I looked at the man sharing the back seat of the cab with me. He was my age, and he looked almost exactly like me. The similarities were incredible; the chances seemed infinitesimal.
How did I end up in this cab, with this man?
Just a few minutes earlier, I’d paused to admire the beauty of downtown Sydney, Australia. Not the harbor or the bridge of the opera house. No, what had attracted my eye was the contrast between the brand-new, shining glass and steel towers, and the incredible sandstone edifice occupied by the Industrial Relations Commission. The sun was glinting off the modern glass towers, the rush of cars was filling my ears and the faint scent of salted air was touching my nose. And then the sky suddenly darkened and rain started pelting the street around me.
I had a flight to catch, and I didn’t want to needlessly ruin my suit. And so, I flagged down a cab. A man next to me was trying to do the same. But I knew cabs would be hard to come by.
“Where are you headed?” I asked.
The man was covering part of his head with a newspaper; I hadn’t seen one of those in a while.
“Airport,” he said. He had a clear American accent. He was no local. Neither was I.
“I am too,” I answered, “Let’s share a cab.”
“Okay,” he said.
Moments later, one of those big four-door Fords you can only find in Australia pulled to the curb. We both slipped into the back seat. The city seemed to have vanished: the shards of light gone, the sounds of the city muted and the smell of the ocean water replaced by the scent of plastic seats. Only after I settled in did I look up.
Sitting next to me was my doppelganger. The only difference seemed to be that he had a short beard and was wearing jeans and a loose-fitting button-down shirt. Otherwise, we could have been identical twins.
I didn’t know what else to do, so I stuck out my hand.
“Nick,” I said. He grasped it firmly.
“Jon,” he said. At least we didn’t share a name.
“Where to?” asked the cabbie.
“Airport,” we answered, together.
Moments later, we got moving. And moments after that, the traffic closed around us. It had formed as quickly as the rain clouds. I hadn’t factored this in, there was a chance I’d miss my flight.
It’d be an appropriate end to a frustrating trip from the States.
There was nothing to do about it now though. So, I turned to my seatmate. “What brings you to Sydney?” I asked. My wife was a little embarrassed by my willingness to talk to total strangers, but I loved learning about people.
Jon smiled back at me, “Writing, actually.”
“You’re a writer?” I asked.
I used to write, a long while back.
“How’d you get into that?” I asked.
“You want the long version or the short one?”
I look at the flooded streets and the unmoving cars. “I’ll take the long one,” I said.
“Well, it isn’t that long,” said the man, “I wrote a lot, back in college. After I graduated, I got a job as a tech writer. But I kept writing. My mother kept telling me to keep at it, and then something would pop. So, I did. In every free moment, I wrote. I got married after a few years and slowed down a bit. But I kept writing. The thing was, nothing popped. Nobody was reading my stuff. I’d get like three hits on one of my short pieces and that was it.”
“That doesn’t fund a trip to Sydney,” I said.
“No, it doesn’t.” he answered, “I was going to give up. I had other things to do. But my wife picked up my mother’s drumbeat. ‘Keep going,’ she said, ‘It’ll work, eventually.’ But eventually, her enthusiasm wasn’t enough for me. I mean, I’d contact agents but they didn’t want to hear from random guy like me. And I felt bad even reaching out. They were flooded by people, how were they supposed to know my stuff was any good, right?”
“And then,” Jon said, “I was in an airport security line and the lady behind me looked particularly frazzled. The line wasn’t going anywhere, so I asked ‘tough day?’ And she began to tell me about her day. She was a literary agent. She’d been at a conference. And people had been pestering her all day. She said she was on the toilet and people were trying to get her to read their work. It sounded crazy. I didn’t want to bother her, but I asked what she was looking for – just to be polite. And she told me. It happened that I had something that fit, to a T, on my phone. But I didn’t want to show it to her. She’d been pestered on the toilet, after all. I didn’t need to make the line worse than the TSA already had. Then she asked, ‘do you write?’ and I said yes. And she asked to see something. And I showed her that piece and she was smitten.”
“What happened next?” I asked, genuinely curious.
“It turned out she’d always wanted to be an agent. Since she was a kid. She was really good at networking and at determining what could work and what couldn’t. And she loved what I’d written. She read it right there in the security line. Before we got to the end of that line, she’d emailed me a contract. And she took it from there. She took that one short story and pitched it to an online network. And that one short story became a five-season TV series. It made her career, and mine. And ever since, I’ve been writing.”
“Wow,” I said, genuinely impressed.
“I used to write,” I said, “I used to be a technical writer too.”
“What happened?” asked Jon.
“I gave it up,” I said, “It wasn’t going anywhere, just like with you. I started using my spare time another way.”
“It started after I got married. I was a process manager in a large company. But at night, I used to visit investor and small business conferences. I wasn’t an investor and I wasn’t trying to raise money. I just thought I could be helpful and it’d be a great chance to network. I’d help people do pro-formas and write business plans and the such. Then my wife and I had kids and my time kind of dried up. But we had a few challenges along the way. It was the usual: getting them to sleep, moderating their behavior, all that kind of basic stuff.”
“I get that,” Jon said, “I’ve got five kids myself.”
“Me too,” I said, surprised to hear he had as many as I did. “Anyway, we had these friends who seemed to have it all under control. The mother especially. And so, we asked them for advice. And it worked, totally. And so, my wife started calling the mother her ‘mentor.’ She consulted with her regularly and the woman was really good with her advice. And then I had an idea. Maybe they could start a little club-based business, like Weight Watchers, but for parenting. It could do a lot of people a lot of good. So, I helped them put together a business plan and all that and I introduced them to some angel investors. And it all went so incredibly well. They now have chapters all over the world, with mentors and milestones and all that. And, as a thank you, they gave me 5% of the company.”
“Are you still a process manager?”
“No,” I answered, with a smile, “I’m in finance now. I invest specifically in what I call skills businesses; businesses that teach people life skills like cooking, personal finance, time management and so on. I get to empower people and make a living all at the same time.”
“So, what brought you to Oz?”
“I’m looking for opportunities. I’m an investor myself now, on a pretty big scale. But I don’t want to sit on my coattails. I can help people. So, I came here looking for things to invest in.”
“Any success?” asked Jon.
I shook my head, ‘no.’
“What are you here for?” I asked.
“Funny enough,” said Jon, “Finance. But not for a skills business. I want to finance a movie, based on a book I wrote about the Middle East.”
“Any luck?” I asked.
“None,” Jon answered, “The people I met with weren’t interested.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“The book’s a bit odd,” Jon answered, “It isn’t just entertainment. It is about showing a path to a better reality. It’s about creating an environment where people can learn a new way of doing things.”
“So, a skills business, of sorts.”
Jon smiled, “I guess so, yes.”
“Do you have a copy?”
Jon grinned and pulled a tome from his bag.
“I won’t be able to finish it on the cab ride,” I said.
“If you read the first two chapters and you like it, you can keep it.” Jon said.
So, I opened the book and started reading. It grabbed me at once. And I knew that this was something I wanted to finance. I fell into the book. It was amazing. We’d both come to Sydney to meet with other people. Or at least, we thought we had. But in fact, we’d actually come to Sydney to meet with one another.
Suddenly, I heard a sharp voice. “Sir, Sir!”
It was the cabbie. I snapped open my eyes. They’d been shut? And then I looked towards Jon. I didn’t mean to fall asleep reading his book. It was insulting.
But the cab was empty.
“Did the other guy leave?” I asked the cabbie.
“No other guy,” he answered, in a Filipino accent, “We’re here.”
And we were. The departures terminal was outside my window.
Hurriedly, I pulled my credit card from my wallet. But it didn’t say ‘Nick.’ It said ‘Joseph.’
I handed it to the driver, confused. But he didn’t notice. He just gave me back my receipt and helped me with my bags as I stepped out of the cab.
And then it hit me. I wasn’t Nick and I wasn’t Jon. I’d come here for a job interview. It had gone well. The job represented a great opportunity. But I wasn’t Nick or Jon. I wasn’t an author with a chance to change the world or an international financier who specialized in helping people deal with everyday problems.
I wasn’t Nick or Jon.
But I had been them, hadn’t I? I’d been a tech writer who wrote on the side. I’d met that literary agent in the security line, but I’d had nothing to show her – I’d taken a pause in my writing. I’d met the couple who were so good at raising children, but I had no investors to connect them with.
I hadn’t maximized the use of my free time. Certainly, I hadn’t been hurting anybody. But while I had been successful and I had been blessed with a beautiful family, I hadn’t accomplished all that I could have.
I’d been both Nick and Jon, I realized, but I’d become neither.
As I made my way through the airport, a tinge of regret threatened to swallow me up.
But I knew, somehow, that I’d have another chance.
The centerpiece of Yom Kippur is the ritual of Az-Azel. In that ritual, one goat is dedicated to the timeless relationship with G-d. That goat represents our creative and holy actions. The other is dedicated to Az-Azel, which literally means Goat of Disappearance. Our sins are placed on it, and they vanish as if they never existed.
Sometimes these sins are acts of destruction. Sometimes they leave a hole that can take generations before it is filled in. In a way, Yom Kippur enables us to accelerate that process.
But not all sins are destructive.
Some sins are only a failure to take advantage of blessings. Blessings, whether health, money, talent or chance meetings, are simply opportunities. But if we aren’t ready for those opportunities, then the things we could have done vanish without ever existing. These sins vanish like the stories of Nick and Jon; they exist only as day dreams of what might have been.
In our lives, we can only take one path. We can’t be both Nick and Jon. But if we fail to work and prepare ourselves for opportunity, then we can be neither.
To twist the Field of Dreams: “If you don’t build it, they’ll never come.”
I have a very recent example of this. Last Shabbat’s story, the Barn, almost didn’t exist. In a normal year, the reading of Vayeilech would have been combined with the one for the week before. I already had a story for the week before, and so I didn’t need to write one for Vayeilech.
But, at the urging of my wife, I did write a story. It is already the third most popular story on my website. More importantly, I had a chance to honor a friend’s father and provide my friend some small measure of comfort in his time of mourning.
But it almost didn’t exist. A bit of laziness and neither that story nor the man in the cab from that story (who forms the inspiration for this story) would have existed.
That is the kind of sin that does not need to be cast into oblivion, because it never emerges from it.
And that is the sin I am doing teshuva (repentance) for this year. I am doing teshuva for the opportunities I will never know about because I was not ready for them. Today, I know I am missing opportunities because my Hebrew is so poor. That lack locks me out of relationships with huge swaths of the country I live in. And my traditional Jewish learning is similarly bereft, robbing me of depth that I could use to benefit those around me.
As is tradition in a Yom Kippur greeting, I ask you to forgive me if I have sinned against you. And, I grant the same forgiveness to all of you, whether or not I am aware of your infractions.
In this way, I hope you are erasing my sins just as I am erasing yours.
But we should all remember erasure, oblivion, is a sad substitute for eternity. We should all remember that Yom Kippur represents not only an end to past regrets, but the beginnings of a new reality.
And so, I want to end with a blessing.
Please G-d, in the coming year, we can all find opportunities to use our time more productively. It is up to us to take them. Perhaps then, in a virtuous cycle, we will be able to bring new realities and opportunities into existence – for ourselves and for others.
And then, together, we will continually grow in our connection to the timeless divine.
May you be inscribed in the Book of Life,
p.s. For those who read regularly, this story is far more focused on me than most of the stories I’ve written this year. The reason is that this story also belongs to a set I’ve been writing for 24 years, not just this past year. Oh, and I have written a book about improving the Middle East and it’s a heck of a fun tale. Check out cityontheheights.com!
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Image: Nicki Mannix, Flickr