A Role Model in Forgiveness

Until a few months ago, few outside the chareidi community of Bnei Brak knew of Rabbi Yisrael Leichter, a devout Lelover Chassid and director of a local soup kitchen. As detailed in a special feature appearing on p. A6, now the mainstream secular media has picked up on his heroic story, one that teaches a profound lesson to our generation.

Chazal (Yoma 35b) teach us that in the World to Come, when a man is asked why he didn’t learn Torah, being poor or rich will not be valid excuses, for the great Tanna Hillel, who suffered excruciating poverty, obligates the poor, and the great Tanna Rabi Elazar ben Charsom, who was astronomically wealthy, obligates the rich.

Rabbi Yisrael Leichter obligates those who feel deeply hurt by the actions of another. His lofty level of ahavas Yisrael, his acceptance of yissurim, and his pursuit of truth has led him not only to forgive the man whose negligence resulted in the death of his beloved four-year-old grandson two summers ago when he was forgotten in a hot car, but to dedicate himself to do all he can to help the shattered driver.

“I begin [Shemoneh Esrei] with three brachos of praise, then ask for knowledge, then ask that He return all of Am Yisrael to Him in teshuvah and then ‘forgive us… because we’ve intentionally sinned.’ I say this three times a day,” Rabbi Leichter says. “…I’m standing before Hakadosh Baruch Hu asking that He forgive everything, that He clean the slate and let me start fresh. Even more, I want Him to turn my sins into mitzvos — so how can it be difficult for me to forgive others?”

For Rabbi Leichter, forgiveness isn’t merely about lip service. As described in the article, immediately after the tragedy he turned his focus on the emotional wellbeing of the young man who was under house arrest. Exhibiting an extraordinary level of fortitude, and a counter-intuitive reaction to such a personal tragedy, Rabbi Leichter was mechazek the yungerman, and now, some 18 months later, he continues to call him every single day.

The grieving grandfather and the driver are now jointly establishing a nonprofit organization — Chaim v’Chinuch l’Drachim — to educate people of all ages around the world not to forget their children in the car.

Rabbi Leichter has also offered to testify on behalf of the defense at the yungerman’s upcoming trial.

“If I took a knife to cut meat, and accidentally cut into my own hand — it was a sharp knife, and I lost part of my hand — should I then go and take revenge on my other hand?” Rabbi Leichter asked the incredulous reporter for a major secular Israeli media outlet, in an attempt to explain his reasoning and actions.

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This powerful lesson can be applied in a great many situations that at first glance seem to be very different from the story of this heroic grandfather.

When an individual who is no longer on speaking terms with a relative, or engaged in a rancorous dispute with a former business associate, is asked by a well-meaning acquaintance about making amends, the oft-heard answer is, “How can you possibly ask me to forgive him? Do you have any idea what he did?”

While forgiveness may seem like a lofty — even unattainable — concept to a deeply aggrieved party, were we to heed the wise words of Rabbi Leichter and apply them we would realize that forgiving is very much within reach.

Tragically, we have grown so accustomed to the divisions amongst us that we often fail to recognize the very potent dangers they represent. “The greatest evil in the world is machlokes, which is worse than idol worship,” the Shelah Hakadosh writes. And, according to the Mishnah (Uktzin 3:12): “Hakadosh Baruch Hu did not find a vessel to contain brachah other than peace.”

The Bnei Yissaschar (Agrah D’Kallah, Parashas Korach) explains this to mean that even when one is in all respects worthy of a bounty of blessings, if he engages in machlokes he does not have a vessel in which to contain the brachah. His vessel is effectively riddled with holes; no matter how many wonderful things are poured into it, the vessel will remain empty because everything leaks right out.

In most cases, both parties engaged in a bitter dispute consider themselves to be righteous and claim the mantle of being the victim. Often each side is so convinced of being in the right that any other possibility is simply inconceivable. And generally, at least one side is certain that the other is purposefully, even viciously, persecuting them.

In reality, much of the time what is perceived as intentional aggressiveness is actually unintentional, and is due to a failure to carefully consider all the ramifications. The dispute may stem from jealousy and self-centeredness or a mistaken perception of actually being threatened or attacked first.

Too often it is emotion and not logic that dominates the decision-making process. But when one does choose to apply logic, one realizes that only through being maavir on one’s middos and agreeing to forgive and move on even when no forgiveness is being sought, can the peace we so desperately need be achieved.