When the Chofetz Chaim saw what others didn’t

By Rabbi Baruch Lederman

Rabbi Baruch Lederman

Rabbi Baruch Lederman

SAN DIEGO — Once, a burly, gruff looking, man who had served in the Russian army, entered a Jewish inn and ordered a meal. When Jewish boys were drafted, it was usually the end of yiddishkeit for them. The army brainwashed them to worship Mother Russia rather than G-d. He plopped himself down and ate in a most disgusting manner – stuffing an entire chicken down his mouth. It was revolting that this man, a Jew, could conduct himself in so repulsive a manner, not to mention the fact that he did not recite a bracha (blessing) or wear a yarmulke (ritual skullcap) while he ate. The innkeeper and the others present were sickened and embarrassed by this display; though none dared say anything.

The Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan) happened to be a guest at that Inn. He saw the young man and slowly approached him. Everyone wondered, what would the Chofetz Chaim possibly say to this man. What could he say? Surely this oaf would not listen to any rebuke, even from such a holy man.

The Choftez Chaim asked the man, “Is it true that you served in the Russian army?”

“Yes,” snorted the man, bracing his defenses for the oncoming tongue-lashing he was fully expecting.

“Tell me,” began the Chofetz Chaim, “How did you manage to keep your Jewish identity in those circumstances? So many Jewish boys entered the army, only to eventually give up their Judaism. They are forced to serve for 25 years without any kosher food, Jewish holidays, or any other vestige of Judaism.

Yet, when you could have easily gone to any inn, you chose a Jewish one. You still identify as a Jew. I don’t know if I could have done what you did. You are an inspiration. Where did you find the strength?”

The soldier, caught off guard and clearly moved, looked straight at the Chofetz Chaim, “It was so hard, they did everything to pound it out of us – to make us denounce and forget that we were Jews.”

“It is a miracle that you made it through. Now you can begin to learn the Torah and mitzvos that you were deprived of all these years.”

“But Rebbi, how can I possibly do that,” the soldier, now sobbing bitterly, responded. He continued through his tears, “I want to return to my heritage, but I am so far removed.

Surely it isn’t possible for someone like me to learn.”

“No,” said the Chofetz Chaim, “It is still possible. It is always possible. I can show you how.”

As the soldier spoke to the Chofetz Chaim, the stones on his heart began to melt. Had the Chofetz Chaim not understood and appreciated this man’s perspective, this amazing episode never would have occurred. What did happen was: from that day on, the former soldier began a path to repentance and as the years went by, developed into an observant, well learned Jew.

Dedicated by the Gombos Family in memory of William & Ida Laufer, Bela Gombos, Anita Silverman, and Teddy Zoltan.


Rabbi Lederman is spiritual leader of Congregation Kehillas Torah in San Diego.  Your comment may be posted in the box below or sent directly to him at [email protected]

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