The Chofetz Chaim; Man of the Century

The December 31, 1999, edition of Time
magazine was dedicated to the “Man of the Century”: the individual who they opined had the greatest impact on the world during the 20th century, Albert Einstein.

Shortly thereafter, an article by Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss was published in the Jewish Press that discussed who in the Torah world had the distinction of being the “Man of the Century.” Who, it asked, was the single individual who had the greatest impact upon Torah Jewry during the 20th century? The author wrote that the number two person might be the subject of debate, but the number one person was unquestionably the Chofetz Chaim.

Hardly a day goes by in our lives that we do not hear or learn something from the Chofetz Chaim. It can be from Mishnah Berurah, Shemiras Halashon or Ahavas Chessed; a mashal, dvar Torah or an inspiring story. It’s a mark of pride for someone to even say that he knew someone who knew someone who saw the Chofetz Chaim. It is fascinating to hear the reverent accounts of Harav Shimon Schwab, zt”l, or Harav Chaim ­Pinchas Scheinberg, zt”l, of the one or two times they were zocheh to meet the Chofetz Chaim. His influence and persona are larger than life.

When I was younger I was sure the Chofetz Chaim was a Rishon who lived in the times of Rashi or the Rambam. I was in disbelief when I was informed that he was niftar in 1933 at the age of 96.

A few months ago the Jewish world was astounded to see an 82-year-old film that was not even known to have existed. I have heard many times of the great Knessiah Gedolah in Vienna in 1923, and that many of the great Gedolim of the time were in attendance: most prominently, that the 86-year-old Chofetz Chaim undertook the difficult trip to be there.

And here it was in front of us. A black-and-white film from that event, clear as day. But most exciting of all was the 11 seconds of film showing the saintly Chofetz Chaim himself, walking briskly, with his head down, as the Ramban suggests in his ethical letter, with no more of an entourage of two people, one on each side. The great Harav Yisrael Meir Hakohen Kagan, zt”l, right in front of our eyes!

After watching the footage a few times and sharing my amazement over it with my children, I began to think about it. As Torah Jews, we do not believe that anything “just happens.” If those images surfaced suddenly now, there must be an important message that Hashem is sending us. The beauty of this message is that Hashem sent it to us in such an endearing and uplifting manner, but it’s a message nonetheless.

I do not profess to know the ways of Hashem, but I can share my own reflection. If the Chofetz Chaim has “come to life” before us, we need to strengthen ourselves in the lessons and legacy he taught us.

Obviously there is no area in Torah that the Chofetz Chaim did not observe to the utmost, but perhaps we can point to five areas that are his greatest legacy:

Shemiras Shabbos. There are numerous stories of the Chofetz Chaim telling people who sought his brachah that Shabbos is the greatest source of brachah, and enhancing their Shabbos observance would be the greatest merit.

Moshiach. Rabbi Zorach Shapiro, z”l, lived in the home of the Chofetz Chaim for some time. At the end of his life, when he lived in Monsey, New York, he related that the Chofetz Chaim was greatly preoccupied with Moshiach. He would speak to a small gathering every Friday night. The main topic was always Moshiach. When he walked in the street, if he heard a loud noise, he would look up and ask “Moshiach?” The Chofetz Chaim also stressed the need to learn Seder Kodshim so that when Moshiach arrives there will be individuals who are proficient in the halachos so the avodah can resume as soon as possible.

It was he who prevailed upon Harav Chaim Brisker to begin learning Seder Kodshim in his yeshivah.

Being connected to Hashem. The Chofetz Chaim related many meshalim that emphasized our relationship with Hashem and taught that we have a responsibility in this world. The Chofetz Chaim lived “Shivisi Hashem l’negdi samid”; his every act was measured and calculated based on Halachah.

But perhaps more than anything else, the Chofetz Chaim is the symbol of ahavas Yisrael. He wrote, spoke and encouraged Klal Yisrael to increase feelings of unity, and most notably to be extremely careful in the laws of shemiras halashon.

The Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation has done a great service to Klal Yisrael by increasing awareness of the seriousness of lashon hara. The drawback, however, to overexposure is that we become desensitized to that potent message, and easily sink back into our regular habits.

Rabbi Yisrael Reisman wryly notes that we should take the signs that read “Shivisi Hashem l’negdi samid” off the aron kodesh in front of our shuls — we hardly need them there. Anyone who walks into a shul is aware that the ­Shechinah resides there. Rather, they should place those signs atop their computers. People turn on their computers and forget that Hashem is watching and is aware of their every move.

That doesn’t only apply to what people view on their computers, but also to the things they type. The Chofetz Chaim’s message about shemiras halashon needs more strengthening than ever. Despite the fact that the Gedolim have prohibited the use of unfiltered internet and non-parnassah related internet use, there are people who post mean and hurtful comments on news articles, blogs and social media groups, without realizing the severity of what they are writing. In a way, these comments are more severe than spoken words, because when they are typed on the computer it’s harder to have them removed, and countless people can view them.

In the recent past, I have heard some disturbing stories about posts people have written knocking others for various reasons. It is all too easy to hurt someone via the computer because you cannot see him in front of you. But the damage and the severity of such lashon hara is not diminished.

The footage of the Chofetz Chaim was made available the week of Parashas Tetzaveh, the parashah dedicated to the garb and Avodah at the inauguration of the Kohen Gadol. It was also the week before Purim, the holiday dedicated to our reconnection with Hashem even in exile, and our recommitment to ahavas Yisrael.

How wonderful it would be if seeing the Chofetz Chaim inspired us to truly internalize his messages.

May we be zocheh to see his saintly face in living color very soon.