The Chofetz Chaim and the Sabbath sinner
By Rabbi Baruch Lederman
SAN DIEGO– Hashem (G-d) commanded Noach to build an ark because He wanted people to have the opportunity to see what was going on and repent. Noach’s job was not just to build a boat, but to lead people back to the proper path. The Seforno (Gen. 6:8) teaches that Noach failed in this mission because he emphasized the negative when he spoke to them. He proclaimed, “You are sinners. You are transgressors.” To effectively influence them, he should have spoken about the positive – he should have taught them to know Hashem. When we are shown the beauty of Hashem, Torah, and Mitzvos amazing things happen as the following true story illustrates:
A Rabbi was speaking to a Jewish senior citizen group in the 1970s. He told them a story of a young man who was a talmid (student) in Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim in Radin, Eastern Europe. The boy was seen smoking a cigarette on Shabbos. This was a serious situation. The Yeshiva maintained an atmosphere of fastidious mitzvah observance. In addition to being a desecration of Shabbos, it posed a threat to the supreme mitzvah environment fostered within the Yeshivah. This act could have a damaging impact on the entire Yeshivah and this boy could be an injurious influence on the entire student body.
Many on the faculty felt that the boy should be expelled for this breach. It was decided that he should see the head of the Yeshivah, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Hakohen Kagen ztz”l, who was known simply as the Chofetz Chaim. Nobody knows what was said at that meeting, but it is said that the boy never violated Shabbos again.
The Rabbi added, “Would that I could have been a fly on the wall and heard the wise words eruditely employed by the Chofetz Chaim to persuade this boy to keep Shabbos faithfully.”
“I can only speculate what was said. Perhaps the Chofetz Chaim elucidated the sanctity and holiness of Shabbos. Perhaps he emphasized the importance of Shabbos. Perhaps he meticulously outlined the intricate laws of Sabbath observance. Oh how I wish I was there to hear how the Chofetz Chaim promoted Shabbos observance,” said the Rabbi as he segued into a brilliant sermon plumbing the philosophical depths of Shabbos. The Rabbi continued to speak masterfully.
After the speech was over and the audience had left, the Rabbi noticed that one man remained seated. When the Rabbi approached, he saw that the old man was pale as a ghost. Before the Rabbi could say anything, the old man blurted out, “I know what the Chofetz Chaim said to the boy.”
The Rabbi didn’t take this too seriously. It had long been established that no one knew what transpired within the room – the Chofetz Chaim never told anyone. “How do you know what happened?” he asked patronizingly.
“I know because I was the boy in the story.”
It was now the young Rabbi’s turn to turn white.
The Rabbi begged him to elaborate and the old man related, “It happened over 50 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I was frightened like anything to go into the Chofetz Chaim’s office. He was already an old man and I was a youth. I was afraid I would receive a long lecture and a berating. What actually happened is something I never anticipated. The Chofetz Chaim held my hand in his, looked at me with fatherly eyes and said, ‘Shabbos Heilegeh Shabbos.’ (Sabbath, The Holy Sabbath). He just kept on repeating these words over and over, that’s all he said, each time with more heartfelt and heartbreaking emotion.
“Then I saw a tear form in his eye. It rolled down his cheek, down his beard and descended upon my hand. That tear burned me as if it were on fire. I felt a shared sense of pain and astonishment. I suddenly perceived how important Shabbos is. I vowed to myself that I would always observe Shabbos completely and faithfully; and I always did, ever since.”
The elderly man then caressed the hand that bore the invisible scar of that precious tear. It had become his permanent reminder, indeed his sign for the “Heilegeh Shabbos.”
Dedicated Lizecher Nishmas Shlomo ben Yitzchok by his son.
Rabbi Lederman is spiritual leader of Congregation Kehillas Torah in San Diego. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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