A 14-year-old boy who suffered from serious mental illness would, from time to time, visit the Bnei Brak home of Hagaon Harav Elazar Shach, zt”l. During each visit he would pour out his heart to the venerable Rosh Yeshivah about his plight and seek chizuk and advice. On one occasion, Harav Shach — who was then already in his eighties and was feeling ill — was notified that this bachur was approaching his house. The frail Gadol quickly rose from his seat and, despite his weakness, rushed towards the bachur and warmly welcomed him. For a long hour Rav Shach sat and spoke warmly to the troubled youngster.
After the bachur left the house, an individual who was particularly close to Rav Shach and was present at the time respectfully asked for an explanation.
“Please teach us,” he said, “what is the limit of the obligation to help another? Even if the Rosh Yeshivah wouldn’t be a Gadol Hador, even if he wouldn’t be a Rosh Yeshivah, is a Yid in his eighties, weak and ill, required to rise and walk towards a 14-year-old boy like this?”
“You are right,” Rav Shach replied. “From the viewpoint of what my obligation is, I was not obligated to conduct myself the way I did. Perhaps even to the contrary… I was supposed to wait until he approached me, and then speak to him briefly and try to help him as much as my limited physical strength allowed…
“But you and I know that this bachur has a very serious illness. He was here two weeks ago and a month ago, and will be back two weeks from now… I try to calm him and give him encouragement, but I can’t heal him. This would take a miracle, and I can’t create miracles.
“There is, however, a way that even I can perform a nes,” Rav Shach continued. “When Hakadosh Baruch Hu sees that a Yid strains himself to do even more than the derech hateva, then Hashem also helps lemaalah miderech hateva…In Shamayim they certainly see the efforts I put into trying to help this bachur, efforts that go beyond the borders of teva. I hope that this bachur will merit from Shamayim a hanhagah above the rules of teva….”
One of the most oft-quoted pesukim — Ve’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha — appears in this week’s parashah. Our obligation to fill our hearts with ahavas Yisrael is a fundamental precept that serves as a gateway to many other mitzvos. Ahavas Yisrael often entails undertaking actions that may be difficult for us, even to the degree of mesirus nefesh, as described above. It also may entail refraining from taking actions that may seem crucially important, as the following story illustrates.
A delegation from a town near Radin arrived at the home of the Chofetz Chaim asking for his help. The mikveh in their town was terribly dilapidated, and they beseeched the Chofetz Chaim to come and personally arrange for its repair. Though the Chofetz Chaim was elderly and weak, with great mesirus nefesh he would habitually undertake long and arduous journeys on behalf of Klal Yisrael.
Since this town was only a short distance from Radin, it was assumed that the Chofetz Chaim would travel there immediately. But to the delegation’s surprise, the Chofetz Chaim seemingly ignored the matter. Months passed and the Chofetz Chaim appeared to have entirely forgotten about the spiritual crisis in the nearby town.
One Friday morning, the Chofetz Chaim was returning from davening Shacharis, when he suddenly turned to one of Radin’s wagon drivers and informed him that he wished to undertake a journey at once. Even before eating breakfast, the Chofetz Chaim climbed into a wagon and set out.
The Chofetz Chaim’s talmidim were astonished by the trip. They knew that their Rebbi avoided traveling on Thursday afternoons because of its proximity to Shabbos, and here he was traveling on a Friday morning!
It turned out that it was in response to the townspeople who had come to seek his assistance.
“I did not forget about the problems of those townspeople,” the Chofetz Chaim later explained. “The reason I did not travel there [initially] was because the Rav in that town is someone I did not wish to visit.” (The “Rav” was known for acting in an inappropriate manner and his hashkafos were troubling as well. Visiting him would have been misconstrued as approval of his actions.)
“However,” the Chofetz Chaim continued, “if I came to his town without paying a visit to the Rav, it would cause him to be embarrassed in front of his community. Therefore, despite the great importance of the issue, I decided not to travel to the town at all.
“On the way home from davening, I happened to hear that that Rav had left for his summer vacation. Once I knew that the Rav was not at home, I could no longer delay my journey even by an hour, so I asked the first wagon driver I saw to take me there. Baruch Hashem, I was successful in rectifying the matter.”
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It takes the crystal-clear view of pure daas Torah to know when protecting the feelings of another person — even an individual who is acting inappropriately — takes precedence over another pressing mitzvah. But as this story illustrates, the degree to which we must be careful not to embarrass another person is part of the mitzvah of Ve’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha.