The judges of Israel, who also serve as spiritual leaders, are to be “God-revering people of truth who hate improper gain” (Exodus 18:21). The ancient and revered Aramaic translation of the Torah known as Targum Onlelos renders the above description of the judges in the following manner: “God-revering people of truth who hate to receive money.” In what way do they hate to receive money? In his discussion of this translation of Targum Onlelos, the commentator, Ramban, explains that it means that the judges should never accept money from people as a gift or a loan, so that they won’t show favoritism to these people if they ever appear before them in court.
The above teaching is just a sample of the many Torah teachings regarding high standards of honesty and integrity which are to guide our judges and leaders, and the spiritual leader of “Old Jerusalem” whom we shall discuss in this letter, can serve as an example:
In the previous letter, we accompanied a leading elder sage, Rabbi Avraham Shaag, and his noted young disciple, Rabbi Chaim Sonnenfeld, on their journey from Hungary to Jerusalem in the spring of 1873. Soon after his rebbe passed away in 1876, Rabbi Chaim, who became known as Rabbi Yosef Chaim, was recognized as a leading sage, and he also became a leading community activist. Before he arrived in Jerusalem, the Torah-observant Jews of the sacred city had begun to build new Jewish neighborhoods outside the Old City walls, and Rabbi Yosef Chaim had a major role in the continuation of this process of urban pioneering. He also had a major role in the establishment and support of various community projects which were guided by the teachings and precepts of the Torah. These projects included agricultural settlements, educational institutions, and projects helping the needy, including orphans.
R’ Yosef Chaim was known for his great integrity, for the Torah principle of honesty guided all his endeavors. A person who is known for his or her integrity is referred to in Yiddish as an ehrlicher mensch – an honest and upright human being. This Yiddish term appears in the following story:
After the birth of one of his sons, someone conveyed to Rabbi Yosef Chaim the following blessing regarding the baby: “May he grow up to be a frumer Yid (a pious Jew).” R’ Yosef Chaim responded: “First and foremost, let him be an ehrlicher mensch!”
The above comment of this sage of Zion is in the spirit of the following Divine teaching conveyed to us by the psalmist, King David, regarding one who is worthy of going up to Zion’s holy mountain and standing in the Temple:
King David asks, “Who may ascend the mountain of Hashem, and who may stand in the place of His sanctity?” David then gives us Hashem’s answer: “One with clean hands and a pure heart; who has not taken My Name in vain, and who has not sworn deceitfully.” (Psalm 24:3,4)
The very first quality mentioned by Hashem is “clean hands” – a metaphor for honesty; thus, the commentary, Metzudas David, explains:
“This one is worthy: the one whose hands are clean of dishonest financial gain.”
The mitzvah of “tzedakah” is the Divine mandate to share our resources with those in need. R’ Yosef Chaim was in charge of distributing various tzedekah funds; moreover, tzedakah contributions from benefactors all over the world were sent to him to be distributed as he saw fit, for he was internationally known not only for his wisdom and loving-kindness, but also for his devout honesty. R’ Yosef Chaim was especially careful not to derive any personal financial benefit from his community activism, and the following three stories can serve as examples of his high standards:
1. Once, while R’ Yosef Chaim was accompanied by R’ Moshe Blau en route to an important communal matter, they were stopped by a porter carrying a large sack of sugar who was apparently unable to find the address written on the slip of paper in his hand. When R’ Yosef Chaim discovered that this was his own address, he asked the porter who the sender was. The reporter replied that it was sent from the Diskin Orphanage. (R’ Yosef Chaim served as the spiritual supervisor of this orphanage.) R’ Yosef Chaim returned home immediately and asked his wife how the sack came to be delivered to them. She explained that she had asked the purchasing agent of the orphanage to add a sack of sugar to his next order so that she could buy it at the wholesale price offered to the orphanage.
Hearing this, R’ Yosef Chaim explained why the sugar should be returned immediately. “Always,” he cautioned, “avoid deriving personal benefit or favor from community activity, lest the purity of your motives become tainted.”
2. The term “Rav” refers to a distinguished rabbi. After World War I, leading sages appointed R’ Yosef Chaim as the Chief Ashkenazic Rav of Jerusalem. Great Britain had begun to rule the Land, and the British government appointed Lord Herbert Samuel, a Jew, as the High Commissioner. Lord Samuel was a secular Zionist, and he had difficulty understanding the devout Jewish men and women of the “Old Yishuv” – the communities in the Land of Zion that preceded the modern Zionist movement. He was especially annoyed when they resisted all attempts to get them to incorporate into their spiritual culture the ideals stressed by most of the leaders of the World Zionist Organization, such as the ideology of nationalism and the values of modern western culture.
During this period, a posh reception was given in Jerusalem for the upper echelons of British society and their associates. At the party, Lord Samuel engaged in a conversation with the noted professor, Yaakov De Haan, who had developed close ties with Rav Sonnenfeld. Lord Samuel asked the professor why he, “an intellectual of international repute and a man of the world,” was attracted to the devout Jews of the Old Yishuv who resisted the attempts to bring them the “cultural enlightenment” of the west. Professor De Haan replied:
“Do not be so quick to judge, my dear lord. Let me tell you something that took place just several weeks ago between the head of this group and myself. I head a fund based in Amsterdam whose purpose is to support great individuals involved in spiritual pursuits. At the last meeting of the fund’s directors, it was decided, for various reasons, to dissolve the fund. I then suggested that there would be no more fitting way of disposing the remaining assets of the fund than to present the money to Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld in Jerusalem. After long deliberations, I succeeded in convincing the directors to go along with my proposal, and I set out for Jerusalem bearing a check for a large sum of money. Knowing the abject poverty in which Rav Sonnenfeld and his family live, I proceeded directly to his home to deliver this substantial sum. After greeting him, I handed Rav Sonnenfeld the check and explained how the money had been obtained. Rav Sonnenfeld thanked me for my efforts on his behalf but calmly and firmly refused the money. I was taken completely off guard by this refusal and began to protest that this transfer was in complete accord with the fund’s very purpose and that it was being arranged with the unanimous approval of the fund’s directors in a completely legitimate manner. Rav Sonnenfeld replied, ‘This is not for me, and I am not taking it.’ ”
“Tell me, Lord Samuel,” continued the professor, “Can you find among your ‘progressive’ circles anyone so incorruptibly pure and scrupulous?” Lord Samuel, aware of the reality in his own circles, was greatly impressed by De Haan’s narrative, and he asked the professor to repeat the story to Lady Samuel. After hearing the story, Lady Samuel insisted on personally seeing this saintly man that very day.
Immediately following the reception, she set out for Battei Machseh (a Jewish neighborhood in the Old City where Rav Sonnefeld lived), and she was accompanied by members of the diplomatic corps. She came near the entrance of the synagogue in Battei Machseh just as Rav Sonnenfeld was concluding the afternoon prayers. When Rav Sonnenfeld was informed that Lady Samuel was waiting outside the synagogue to greet him, he went outside to speak with her. Those who were in the area were amazed to see the elite of British society standing awed in Rav Sonnenfeld’s saintly presence amid the ancient structures of the Old City. This encounter made a lasting impression on Lady Samuel and her entourage.
3. Mr. Isaac Nussbaum of Halberstadt, Germany, was a wealthy friend of R’ Yosef Chaim and his family. He urged R’ Yosef Chaim to allow him to build a spacious, beautiful home for the Rav, atop one of the structures in Battei Machseh. R’ Yosef Chaim thanked him for his generous offer and led him to the window of his modest dwelling, which faced the Temple Mount.
“Look out the window, Mr. Nussbaum,” said R’ Yosef Chaim wistfully. “See how the house of Hashem, our Beis HaMikdash (Holy Temple), lies in ruin, its site occupied by Arabs. Can you really want to build a mansion for me? It is enough for a servant to be like his master. As long as the Palace of the King is destroyed, this simple dwelling will suffice.” Mr. Nussbaum then asked to provide the elderly R’ Yosef Chaim with a car and driver for the many trips he took for various mitzvos, but the sage declined this offer, as well.
In the next stage of our tour, we will learn about the great honor that Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld gave to a noted Sephardic woman of Old Jerusalem who was a great tzedakah activist, and whose honesty and integrity served as a model for all to emulate.
Be Well, and Shalom,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. The men and women of the Old Yishuv, together with those in the Diaspora who shared their spiritual views, became known as “chareidim” – a term which has several connotations. The Hebrew word chareid can connote fervent concern or zeal, and it can also refer to the “trembling” that can result from intense loving concern or awe. This word appears in the verse where Hashem promises to be close to “the poor and broken-spirited person who is chareid regarding My word” (Isaiah 66:2). The commentary, Metsudas Tzion, explains that this term connotes “hastening”; thus, the verse is referring to someone who hastens to fulfill the word of Hashem. The Prophet Isaiah uses the related term chareidim to describe those who are fervently loyal to the Divine teachings in an age when many people are ignoring these sacred teachings, and he refers to these loyal souls as those who are “chareidim regarding His word” (Isaiah 66:5).
The above stories reveal that Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld was among the chareidim regarding the Divine teachings, including the teachings regarding honesty and integrity.
2. The above information is found in the following work: “Guardian of Jerusalem – the Life and Times of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld (Mesorah Publications). For further information on this recommended work, visit: http://www.artscroll.com/linker/hazon/ASIN/GUAH