It is written, “The Torah of the Compassionate One is whole” (Psalm 19:8). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that Torah – the Divine Teaching – encompasses every aspect of human existence. For example, the Torah teaches us how to relate to our Creator, other human beings, other creatures, and the earth; moreover, the Torah teaches us how to relate to our own souls and bodies. The Torah is therefore “holistic” in its approach to life, and the following stories about the Chofetz Chaim can serve as examples. These stories are found in the memoirs of his son, Rabbi Aryeh Leib Hakohen Kagan:
1. My father’s first public address was delivered in Radin’s main synagogue and dealt with the various mitzvos relating to honesty in business. Afterwards, he visited every Jewish-owned store in the town to check that its weights and measures were accurate.
2. For the last forty years of his life, my father sold his sefarim (books) through emissaries who traveled far and wide…In earlier years, he would arrive in a town with his sefarim and deliver an ethical discourse before the community. If ever upon arriving in town, my father would learn that he had been preceded by a visiting rabbi, maggid (preacher), meshulach (institutional fundraiser) who was planning on addressing the community, he would immediately leave the town without even opening his packages of sefarim. Even if my father had preceded the other visitor’s arrival, he would quickly leave town so as not to hurt the other person’s opportunities to speak and earn something for his cause. [A maggid was a wandering Jewish preacher and storyteller who depended on the contributions of each audience for his livelihood.]
Once he arrived in a certain town to find that a visiting maggid had preceded him. As my father prepared to head on his way, a distinguished delegation from the community approached him, imploring him to remain. They assured him that while they would not allow the maggid to address them, they would compensate him in full. My father, however, was not agreeable out of concern for the man’s feelings. Then the maggid himself came to my father and implored him to remain in the town; he assured my father that he had already been compensated and that it was perfectly all right with him if my father would address the community. Reluctantly, my father agreed. He later told me:
“Though the maggid was compensated, nevertheless, in his heart, he probably felt hurt that he had come to speak and was pushed aside in my favor. Thank God, I did not repeat my mistake. Later when a similar situation occurred, I refused to accede to the community’s entreaties. However, I promised to return at a later date. I did return, and thank God, my stay was very successful.”
3. Every embittered soul would come to my father to pour out his troubles; my father always felt the person’s pain and sought to help however possible, whether with money, advice, or moral support and encouragement. All this was done in the way of peace and without fanfare.
For her part, my mother would make her rounds of the town one day each week carrying a sack into which people would put food for the poor. She would distribute the food herself. Understandably, as time went on, every impoverished soul would find his way to my parents’ house where he would seek assistance from my mother. She always came to the person’s aid, whether he needed medicine for an ailment, food and clothing, money to make a child’s wedding, help in starting a business, or assistance in attaining a loan. Never did she refrain from helping someone even if this meant borrowing money and becoming burdened with personal debt. When my mother passed away, my father hung a sign in the beis midrash (house of study) stating that whoever had extended a loan to my mother should come to him and receive the money.
4. Introduction: It is written, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). It is also written, “Who is the person who desires life, who loves days of seeing good? Guard your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit” (Psalm 34:13). The Chofetz Chaim therefore wrote extensively on the various mitzvos regarding ethical speech, including the specific prohibition against loshon hara - evil speech. For example, it is forbidden to speak in a derogatory way about others or in a way which can cause them hurt or harm. The Chofetz Chaim reminds us that we are also forbidden to listen to such speech. The Torah does permit such speech on special occasions when it serves a constructive purpose; however, there are strict guidelines as to when this type of speech is permitted. His first work on this theme was titled “Chofetz Chaim” – Desiring Life, and it was through this work that he became known as the Chofetz Chaim. Regarding his devotion to this mitzvah, his son writes:
With regard to shmiras haloshon (guarding one’s speech), it is my feeling that my father surpassed his entire generation. Most incredible was the fact that he was not a man who refrained from talking, and he was the main speaker at every gathering; nevertheless, no one ever claimed to have heard my father say something improper or derogatory.
…I once asked my father why he published his work on proper speech, Sefer Chofetz Chaim (and its related work, Shmiras Haloshon) anonymously. He replied: “It was not in my merit that these works came to be published; it was in the merit of the Jewish people. For perhaps through the dissemination and study of these works, we will see a diminishing of this sin (loshon hara), which caused the death of the generation in the Wilderness, the destruction of the Second Temple, and our dispersion among the gentiles. Thus, the honor for publishing this work is not mine!”
In our next letter – with the help of Hashem - we will discuss the Chofetz Chaim’s focus on the mitzvah to guard our health.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
P.S. The above vignettes from the memoirs of the Chofetz Chaim’s son appear at the end of the book, “Chofetz Chaim”: A Lesson a Day. This book contains a daily lesson on the mitzvah to avoid loshon hara. It is published by ArtScroll: http://artscroll.com/linker/hazon/ASIN/LADH
One can also subscribe to a daily e-mail lesson on this theme by writing to: email@example.com
In a previous series, we had special article on this theme titled, “The Weed that Threatens the Garden.” A copy of this article is available upon request.