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Poor Man’s Parable

Exactly what the seforim hakedoshim tell us about the essence of Gehinnom


Long ago in these pages, I wrote about a certain propensity of mine: “My mind is perpetually set on mashal-sensing mode, and with no discernible way to reset it, either. Everything I see and hear is at risk for being perceived in my mind as a rich, juicy parable for some deep truth about life and Torah.” I forthrightly acknowledged then that the tendency might be traceable “to early, sustained exposure to Shabbos afternoon Pirchei groups, or some other long-forgotten traumatic experience.”

Back then, I observed that not everyone shared my enthusiasm for mining profound meaning in things like, say, the then-relatively new invention called the GPS. Still, I wrote, I continued to have “a captive audience for my mind’s metaphorical meanderings: Me.”

But these many years later, I can honestly say that I’ve moved on, gotten over the reflexive framing of things I see and hear and read as springboards for moral and spiritual lessons. No more propounding of parables for me.

Well, almost.

An alcoholic has got to maintain a lifelong awareness of his weakness that yet lurks somewhere in the recesses of his personality and stay away from that first drink, lest it lead to a second and from there, who knows? And given the right “bottle of wine,” I, too, can be all too easily drawn right back into the maelstrom of manufacturing meshalim.

Like last week, when I came across a piece in the New York Times titled “Lost Passwords Lock Millionaires Out of Their Bitcoin Fortunes.” Bitcoin, of course, is the name of a “crypto-currency,” created, the article explains, “to allow anyone in the world to open a digital bank account and hold the money in a way that no government could prevent or regulate. This is made possible by the structure of Bitcoin, which is governed by a network of computers that agreed to follow software…[that] includes a complex algorithm that makes it possible to create an address and associated private key, which is known only by the person who created the wallet.”

And therein lies a major problem, because “the structure of this system did not account for just how bad people can be at remembering and securing their passwords.” This is not a small problem. Of the existing 18.5 million Bitcoin, “around 20 percent — currently worth around $140 billion — appears to be in lost or otherwise stranded wallets.”

The article tells the story of Stefan Thomas, a German-born programmer living in San Francisco, who has two guesses left to figure out a password that will enable him to unlock a small hard drive, known as an IronKey. It in turn contains the private keys to a digital wallet that holds 7,002 Bitcoin.

As of this writing, that’s worth about $220 million. Quite a bit of coin.

It’s been years since Thomas lost the paper where he wrote down the IronKey password. Think, “Where did I put that napkin?!” Users get ten guesses before the hard drive seizes up and encrypts its contents forever. Thomas “has since tried eight of his most commonly used password formulations — to no avail. ‘I would just lie in bed and think about it,’ Mr. Thomas said. ‘Then I would go to the computer with some new strategy, and it wouldn’t work, and I would be desperate again.’ ”

And my mind begins to shift into an old, familiar gear: But of course! Don’t we all harbor, somewhere deep within us, treasures of untold spiritual wealth, of unimaginable greatness? We just need the key, the password to unlock the door to our hearts and souls. Once, long ago, when we were still young and full of idealism, we knew the password needed to access those riches. But as we grow older, we get cynical, jaded, tired. But we still have a chance. Can we still recall what once we knew about motivating ourselves, aspiring, growing?

I read on. “Many people… have been forced to watch, helpless, as the price has risen and fallen sharply, unable to cash in on their digital wealth….‘Through the years I would say I have spent hundreds of hours trying to get back into these wallets,’ said Brad Yasar, an entrepreneur in Los Angeles who has a few desktop computers that contain thousands of Bitcoin….While those Bitcoin are now worth hundreds of millions of dollars, he lost his passwords many years ago and has put the hard drives containing them in vacuum-sealed bags, out of sight. ‘I don’t want to be reminded every day that what I have now is a fraction of what I could have that I lost,’ he said.”

By now, I’m in allegorical overdrive: This is exactly what the seforim hakedoshim tell us about the essence of Gehinnom! A person sits and watches helplessly, as the immense eternal wealth that could have been his sits just beyond his grasp — and there’s no one to put that wealth out of sight in vacuum-packed bags. And all the while, he’s burning up inside with regret that the Olam Haba he does have “is a fraction of what I could have that I lost.”

The article concludes on a more hopeful note: “Mr. Thomas said he also managed to hold on to enough Bitcoin — and to remember the passwords — to give him more riches than he knows what to do with…. As for his lost password and inaccessible Bitcoin, Mr. Thomas has put the IronKey in a secure facility… in case cryptographers come up with new ways of cracking complex passwords. Keeping it far away helps him try not to think about it, he said. ‘I got to a point where I said to myself, ‘Let it be in the past, just for your own mental health,’ he said.”

Following suit, I turn more upbeat, too: As sobering as that portrait of Gehinnom is, it’s not productive to dwell on it for too long. I need to think positive, too, focusing on the fact that every one of my mitzvos and ma’asim tovim ensures me of eternal, infinite wealth. And maybe I’ll yet come up with a way to access the internal password of the soul I once knew. But so long as it remains forgotten, I’ve got to say to myself, Let it be in the past, just for your own mental and spiritual health.

As the article ends, I emerge from my reverie. I’m in that old Pirchei state of mind, sans the corn chips and soda and the Golem stories, and surprisingly, it still feels pretty good. Who says life isn’t a parable? —


Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 845. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com

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