Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

6 Nisan 5759 - March 24, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Opinion & Comment
The Power of Tzedokoh

One mitzva leads to another. The following happened in the days of the Gaon of Vilna.

It was erev Pesach. The preparations for the seder were in high gear. The Gaon of Vilna would be spending the festival in a small town near Pinsk, but, oblivious to the activity around him, he was occupied in his study. On his calendar, erev Pesach was a regular day, and as soon as he finished his short preparations for the coming festival, he headed for the beis midrash.

It was deserted. Not a single soul seemed to be there. Suddenly, however, the Gaon spied someone ensconced in a hidden corner, enveloped in tallis and tefillin, studying with great fervor. He was unaware that the godol hador was standing nearby, staring at him, wondering that one could be so engrossed in study when everyone was so busy with preparations.

After a few seconds, he approached the man and asked, "Please tell me what you are doing here at such a time?"

The man recognized the famous figure and leaped up in awe. In a small, fearsome voice, he replied, "I really have no permission to tell my story to a soul, but you are surely an exception."

I used to be an incorrigible sinner. I was an informer and worked for the government. Due to my slander, many people met their deaths. Once, on the thirteenth of Nisan, I was walking along when I saw an old man lying in the market, helpless. He was enveloped in a worn straw mat and was weeping as if his heart would break. The Jewish spark in me suddenly flickered up and I approached him and asked why he was weeping. He reminded me that it was erev Pesach but despite all of his efforts, he had not succeeded in raising money for matzos and other necessities for the coming festival. My heart went out to him and I gave him five rubles. I saw his eyes light up and his spirit revive. I know that the sum I gave him was enough for him to celebrate the festival with his family in comfort.

Not long after, I learned that the old man had died and I forgot all about him. I continued plying my profession as a government informer.

Several years later, on erev Pesach, I was in a similarly difficult situation. I did not have enough money to feed my family. With no other resort, I wrote a letter slandering my fellow townsmen. The money I expected to receive for my work would suffice to sustain me and my family for a long time to come. I reread the letter, signed and sealed it, and went off to search for the chometz in my possession, as I always did each year.

As soon as I entered one room whom should I see but the old man, standing before me. He grasped me firmly and said, "Do not dare to deliver the letter you wrote against your fellow townsmen. It was decreed in the heavenly court that if you did so, you would forfeit everything in the World to Come, and would never be allowed to repent. Since you revived me and my family in my time of need through your generous five rubles, I asked permission to come here and reveal the decree to you before it was too late." Having spoken his message, he immediately disappeared.

I stood transfixed, thoroughly overwrought. But I soon rallied and scolded myself. "What a foolish dreamer you are. How silly of you to take note of an old man." I resolved to go ahead and deliver the letter but while I stood there, thinking my thoughts, the old man appeared before me again. He pleaded with me, "Think again before you act. Watch out! Go and tear up the letter and present yourself before the rabbi and ask him to prescribe a course of teshuvah for you before it is too late." Having spoken, he again disappeared. I could not help being convinced now, at his second appearance, and took his words to heart. I tore up the slanderous letter I had written.

Early the following morning I went to the rabbi of the town. When he saw me, he began trembling. I realized that he thought I had come with a threat or some evil plan, but I hastened to calm him. In a weeping voice, I said, "Don't be afraid of me, Rebbe. I have come to ask you to show me how to repent. I wish to atone for all my sins."

Upon seeing that I was sincere, he thought for a few moments, then said, "If you really mean what you say, go away to a city where no one knows you and remain there for seven years. Stay in the beis midrash and do not cross its threshold all the time. Do not worry for your sustenance; it will be provided."

That is what I did. That very day I traveled and came here. I stayed here for seven years. The kind townspeople saw my plight and made sure to bring me food each day.

The last day of those seven years was erev Pesach. The townspeople must have been very preoccupied with their own affairs, for they forgot to bring me food and I had not eaten. As I was sitting here, an old man suddenly entered the beis midrash. He was dressed in a purple robe and his white beard flowed down his chest. When he saw me, he approached and asked if I had already eaten that day. I complained bitterly that the townspeople had forgotten me and that I had not tasted anything all morning. "Very well, then, I have something for you," he said, and took out a piece of fresh bread that smelled heavenly.

wI was alarmed because I knew that the time for eating chometz had already passed, and I said so. The old man took out a watch and showed me that it was still permissible to eat bread. "But I have no water to wash my hands," I said.

He replied that when there was no water to be had, one was permitted to wrap the bread in a piece of cloth and eat without washing hands. I refused. I didn't want to be so lenient.

When he saw that I was persistent, he said that he would go and fetch me some water, and he left. As soon as he had gone, the old man whom I had helped so many years before appeared before me and rebuked me. "Sinner!" he said angrily. "Are you not aware that that man is Satan, himself? He is trying to trip you up. Take the bread and lay it on the ground at once!"

"I did so. It became soiled and unfit for eating. The old man then said to me, "For this you will have to remain her another seven years," and he disappeared.

"Those seven years are up today."

This awesome story can be found in the manuscript frontispiece of the Rav Alfas Book of Halochos, Vol. III, printed in Amsterdam in 5591 (1831). It was apparently copied from an older source. On the binding of this sefer are the words, in handwriting: "This Alfas set of eleven volumes was purchased from my own money. [One was given to me by my father-in-law and the rest was bought by money gathered and given to me by my father.] In honor of my purchaser, Mr. Zalmam of Warsaw, for the price of one hundred and twenty groschen. Signed: Shmuel Menachem ben R' Aharon Moshe Muggaten.

This story was printed in the Bais Yaakov Journal (Hebrew) in 5722 by Yaakov Malachi Hakohen.

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