In 5570/1810, a large group of disciples of the Vilna Gaon, led by Harav Yisrael of Shklov, zt”l, set out by boat to Eretz Yisrael. On the way they encountered a fierce storm that threatened to capsize the boat. They gathered together to daven and plead for their lives, but the storm did not subside. The group decided that each individual, from the youngest to the oldest, would publicly confess his sins, and perhaps in this merit they would be saved.
The youngest member spoke up and related his sin.
“My family lived next door to the Vilna Gaon, with a thin wall separating our apartments,” he said. “We were able to clearly hear the Gaon learning Torah, and my father was so entranced by the sounds coming through the wall that he sat all day and listened, and couldn’t pull himself away to earn a livelihood. My mother spent a few days every week working in a shop, but we were twelve children, and her earnings did not suffice to support our family. The little food we were able to afford had to be divided among all of us.
“I thought of an idea, and one day, when I was nine years old I came from cheder and informed my parents that the melamed had said that he would be starting to serve lunch every day. The other family members were relieved, there was one more portion of bread to go around,” the young man continued.
“For two years I deceived my parents,” he continued. “For in reality he didn’t give us a meal…”
The rest of the group, as they listened to the “sin” that was being confessed, begun to weep bitterly.
“On Yom Kippur we implore Hashem, ‘Turn to the suffering and not to the sins,’” Harav Yisrael of Shklov cried out. “Now we beseech Hashem, ‘Turn to the sins!’ Look what is considered a sin!”
Immediately thereafter, the winds suddenly died down and the angry waves subsided, as the group began to recite Mizmor l’Sodah, in gratitude for the miracle they had just experienced.
* * *
In the beginning of this week’s parashah, we learn how the Ribbono shel Olam appears to reprimand Moshe Rabbeinu for telling Hashem, “Why have You harmed this people? Why have You sent me?”
We can’t possibly fathom the greatness of Moshe Rabbeinu, nor can we truly fathom what his “sin” was really about.
The Chasam Sofer teaches that although Hashem addressed Moshe Rabbeinu — so to speak — in a stern manner about his statement, He also granted him a great reward for it.
For though, technically speaking, it is indeed inappropriate to speak this way to Hashem, and one would theoretically be deserving of a punishment for such conduct, Moshe Rabbeinu did so solely out of his boundless ahavas Yisrael. He was fully willing to sacrifice his body and his soul for the benefit of his brethren.
Therefore, he merited a level of prophecy that even the Avos never reached. For since they never served as leaders of a nation, they never had the opportunity to exhibit such mesirus nefesh.
Writing in the Warsaw Ghetto, the Pieczesner Rebbe, Hy”d, quotes his father, the Grodzisker Rebbe, zt”l, as saying that when a Yid is moser nefesh for other Yidden it is even greater than being moser nefesh for the Ribbono shel Olam. It is comparable to the individual who is moser nefesh for the son of the king, an act that proves that his love for the king is so great that not only is he willing to be moser nefesh for the king himself, but even for a child of the king.
* * *
While, as mentioned, we can’t fathom the level of Moshe Rabbeinu, in every generation there are individuals who give of themselves to the benefit of others. We often take for granted those who are involved in serving the Klal, whether they are Rabbanim, Dayanim, mechanchim or devoted askanim. Though many have official positions, they are often grossly underpaid, and they go far beyond the call of duty. They willingly sacrifice huge chunks of their time, give up on their own learning of Torah, to be able to help others. As they struggle to feed their own families, they make themselves available from early morning until late at night to be a listening ear and to offer halachic rulings and wise counsel.
There is no doubt that they will receive great Heavenly reward for their actions. But this does not absolve us as individuals and a community from expressing to them our gratitude in a meaningful and practical way.