Today, the 24th of Elul, is the yahrtzeit – the anniversary of the passing – of a leading Torah sage who served as a loving and unifying leader of our people: Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hakohen Kagan (1839-1933). He became known as “the Chofetz Chaim” – the one who desires life, as this was the title of a book he wrote on the Torah’s prohibitions against various forms of unethical speech such as speaking in a derogatory way about others, slander, and gossip which leads to ill feelings between people. The title of this classical work is taken from the following passage in the Book of Psalms:
“Who is the person who desires life, who loves days of seeing good? Guard your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Turn from evil and do good, seek shalom and pursue it.” (Psalm 34:13-15).
The Chofetz Chaim was a living example of what he taught, and Rabbi Aryeh Leib Hakohen Kagan, a son of the Chofetz Chaim, writes:
“It is well known among our generation that my father was not only one who preached well, but also one who beautifully fulfilled – with alacrity and a sense of mission – all that he sought from his listeners.” (Chofetz Chaim – A Lesson A Day)
In this letter and in the upcoming letters, we will begin to discuss, with the help of Hashem, the leadership role of the Chofetz Chaim. We will also review some of his life-giving Torah teachings which are especially appropriate for this season of spiritual renewal, including those teachings which give us a deeper understanding of the spiritual significance of Zion.
The Chofetz Chaim was a Kohen. The Kohanim are a family of ministers within the Tribe of Levi, and they are the descendants of Aharon, who was the first “Kohen Gadol” – Chief Minister – to serve in the Sanctuary. In addition to serving in the Sanctuary, the Kohanim serve as Torah educators, for when Moshe blessed the Tribes of Israel before they entered the Promised Land, he gave the following blessing to the Tribe of Levi, including the Kohanim:
“They shall teach Your social laws to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel” (Deuteronomy 33:10).
Regarding the educational responsibility of the Kohen, it is also written:
“For the lips of the Kohen should safeguard knowledge, and people should seek Torah from his mouth; for he is a messenger of Hashem, God of all the hosts of creation.” (Malachi 2:7).
Aharon, the first Kohen, was a leading sage who was known for his great love of people; moreover, he strived to increase unity and shalom within the Community of Israel. Aharon is to serve as a model for us all; thus, a leading sage of the Second Temple period, Hillel, taught:
“Be among the disciples of Aharon, loving shalom and pursing shalom, loving people, and bringing them closer to the Torah.” (Pirkei Avos 1:12)
The Chofetz Chaim, a descendant of Aharon, was known for his great love of people, and this leading sage strived to increase shalom and unity within the Community of Israel. As a result of his great love and wisdom, including a deep understanding of human nature, he was often asked to mediate disputes between individuals and communities. For example, the book, “Sparks of Mussar,” states:
“From every corner of Russia, requests began pouring in to mediate disputes that were sundering communities. Both sides agreed in advance to rely on his judgment. The requests were so numerous that he could not answer them all, but he succeeded in many cases in restoring harmony.”
The Chofetz Chaim was part of the Lithuanian Torah communities whose members were also known as “misnagdim” – opponents, as they had opposed certain aspects of the chassidic movement which began towards the end of the 18th century. Although the Chofetz Chaim was not part of the chassidic movement, the chassidic rebbes, also known as “admorim,” greatly respected the Chofetz Chaim, and his works were also studied by chassidim. In the following excerpts from the noted biography of this great sage by Rabbi Moses M. Yoshor, we find a description of the unifying role of the Chofetz Chaim among misnagdim and chassidim:
“In the final decades of his life, when his position of authority was well established, and his person was revered throughout the house of Israel, the Chafetz Chaim became a vital unifying influence….He became a prime force in motivating the rabbis of the misnagdim and the admorim of the chassidim to unity…They stood together to work for the salvation of the people of Israel and its Torah.” (The Chafetz Chaim, page 539)
The Chofetz Chaim also strived to increase shalom and unity through giving us a deeper understanding of the mitzvos which guide our relationships with others. For example, the Chofetz Chaim wrote a book titled, Ahavas Chesed – Loving Loving-kindness, and this book discusses various mitzvos which remind us that others are justly entitled to our love and concern. Among the practical mitzvos discussed in this book are interest-free loans, hospitality, helping people with their problems, treating workers fairly, and tzedakah – the sharing of one’s resources with those in need.
Regarding the Chofetz Chaim’s concern for workers, the noted scholar of Jewish history, Rabbi Berel Wein, writes:
“He emphasized the rights of the laborer to fair and timely wages, and publicly denounced the excesses of the owners of factories, land, and capital” (Triumph of Survival).
The Chofetz Chaim was known as a master of halacha – the detailed requirements of the Torah path. Through his teachings and published works, he demonstrated that ethical behavior and a devotion to “mussar” – character development – were based on halacha. When the Chofetz Chaim began to publish halachic works, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, a leading sage who was the founder of the mussar movement, stated: “The Chofetz Chaim has proved that mussar and ethics are halacha.” (The Chafetz Chaim, page 438)
The Chofetz Chaim sought to fight the growing selfish materialism and decadence of the modern age through stressing mitzvos such as Torah study, prayer, and Shabbos – mitzvos which make us aware of the higher spiritual purpose of life. Rabbi Berel Wein writes:
“He fought for the retention of the sanctity of the Sabbath as the foundation of Jewish life. He placed the yeshivos (academies of Torah study) at the center of the Jewish world and described them as the only hope for the Jewish future. Indeed, he founded and directed one of the world’s major yeshivos in his own town of Radin.” (Triumph of Survival)
The Chofetz Chaim was concerned about the serious problems facing the Jewish people and the world; however, he felt that the ultimate solution to these problems is a spiritual one. He therefore wanted the Torah to once again become the dominant and unifying force in Jewish life, so that the wisdom of the Torah could be applied to the issues and problems of the day. This was why he actively supported the new international Jewish organization, Agudath Israel, for this organization recognized and stressed that the fulfillment of the Torah is the raison d’etre of the Jewish people, and it was therefore willing to be guided by leading Torah sages of the era. He himself became a member of the council of leading Torah sages that guided Agudath Israel. This organization represented the majority of the Jewish men and women who were known as “chareidim” – a biblical term for those who are fervently loyal to the Divine word. (An example of this term appears in Isaiah 66:5.)
In 1923, the Chofetz Chaim attended the first international convention of Agudath Israel which took place in Vienna, where he was a featured speaker. An article about the Chofetz Chaim’s visit to the Agudath Israel convention appeared in the “Forward” – a Yiddish, secular, and socialist newspaper published in New York which was popular among many of the Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe. The article is dated September 23rd, 1923. In the following passage, the reporter for the Forward describes his impressions of the Chofetz Chaim:
“When you see this tiny ninety-year-old man for the first time, it makes a singular impression on you. You feel a quiver of awe and love in your heart – a tremendous reverence and respect, beyond any limit. When you take a closer look, you see the face of an angel, a ministering servant of God. The Shechinah, the Divine Presence, rests on that face, and you have to shut your eyes against the radiance streaming from those two small gray piercing eyes. When he stands on the dais speaking, two rabbis support him with their arms. The entire Assembly stands as it listens to him. His voice is weak, but clear. He summons the Jews to unity, to peace, to goodness, to reverence of Heaven, to love of fellow-man, to deeds. His small figure trembles as he speaks. His white beard glistens from afar, like fresh-fallen snow. He is not cynical. Through his eyes, the entire world shines with potential wisdom and goodness. So, I imagine, Hillel the Elder must have looked – the Sage in the Talmud.” (The Chafetz Chaim, page 433)
Through his words and deeds, the Chofetz Chaim reminded us of the great potential within the human being to emulate the life-giving Divine attributes. As he wrote in his book, “Loving Loving-kindness” (Part 2):
“Scripture records (Genesis 1:27) that, ‘God created the human being in His image.’ The commentators take the statement to refer to His attributes. He gave the human soul the capacity to emulate the attributes of Hashem, the Blessed One - to do good and act with loving-kindness with others.”
I heard from my own teacher, Rabbi Aharon Feldman, the following story about the Chofetz Chaim: There was a leading sage in Israel during the 1950’s who had been a yeshiva student in Lithuania before World War I. During this period, many young Jews were attracted to various revolutionary and secular movements, including communism, which promised to create a new and better world for all humanity. This yeshiva student began to wonder which was the best path to achieve this noble goal – the path of the Torah or the path of the secular revolutionaries. He decided to travel to Radin and discuss his doubts with the Chofetz Chaim. When he arrived, he was told that the Chofetz Chaim had just gone into his room to pray. A woman from another village had arrived and asked the Chofetz Chaim to pray for her baby who had become seriously ill. The student decided to wait outside the house of the Chofetz Chaim. His curiosity got the better of him, and he walked over to the window of the Chofetz Chaim’s room. Standing there in awe, he saw the loving face of the Chofetz Chaim drenched with tears, as he cried out to Heaven on behalf of the baby. The student stood by the window deep in thought and decided to return to his yeshiva. He did not even wait to speak to the Chofetz Chaim. Years later, when this student became a head of a prominent yeshiva, he told his close disciples that when he saw the Chofetz Chaim weeping and praying for this child, he realized that he was given the answer he was seeking:
The path which can produce overflowing love for a single human being is the path that can lead to a new and better world for all human beings.
Be Well, and Shalom,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
The following books are mentioned in the above letter:
“The Chafetz Chaim” by Rabbi Moses Yoshor – It is published by ArtScroll, and the following is a direct link to information about this book: http://www.artscroll.com/Books/chsh.html
“Triumph of Survival – The Story of the Jews in the Modern Era 1650-1990” by Berel Wein (Shaar Press) – It is published by ArtScroll, and the following is a direct link to information about this book: http://artscroll.com/linker/hazon/ASIN/TRIU
“The Chofetz Chaim – A Lesson A Day” (ArtScroll)
“Sparks of Mussar” by Rabbi Chaim Ephraim Zaitchik – This is a “treasury” of brief teachings from certain great teachers from the mussar movement. It also has inspiring stories. The author is Rabbi Chaim Ephraim Zatichik, and the publisher is Feldheim: www.feldheim.com .
“Loving Loving-kindness” (English edition) – It is published by Feldheim.