On Sunday evening, September 18, Chazaq hosted a beautiful virtual program commemorating the yahrzeit of the Chofetz Chaim. Rabbi Labish Becker, Executive Director of Agudath Israel of America, spoke first.
Rabbi Becker shared three inspiring stories about the Chofetz Chaim. The first one happened in the 1970s. Rabbi Becker’s brother was in a cab in Israel. He asked the cab driver where he was from, and the driver responded that he was from a city not far from Vilna. It was an unusual response, so his brother asked him why he answered like that. The driver explained that he grew up in Radin and he remembered the Chofetz Chaim would walk in the street, and he, the driver, would run to catch a glimpse of him. He explained that he was embarrassed that he saw the Chofetz Chaim and was not currently wearing a kipah. Rabbi Becker said that this shows the incredible influence the Chofetz Chaim had. He added an addendum. He told this story at an Agudah convention, and Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky suggested that since this story took place 40 years ago and the cab driver was young then, by now surely with the influence of the Chofetz Chaim, he must be frum now and wearing a kipah.
The second story took place in the early 1950s. It was told by Rav Michel Twerski. When the Ponevezher Rav came to Milwaukee, he was asked to tell a story about the Chofetz Chaim. The Ponevezher Rav shared that he was collecting in a small town in Pennsylvania where there was little Yiddishkeit. It was a city in decline in terms of Yiddishkeit. However, there was one man who was filled with holiness. He was doing mitzvos with such enthusiasm that it was very noticeable. The Ponevezher Rav asked this man why he was so different from everyone else in this small town. The man explained that when he was young, he came to learn in the yeshivah in Radin during Elul. However, he was sick and had to miss yeshivah. When he returned after Elul, the Chofetz Chaim didn’t know what to do, as all the beds and blankets were already doled out, so there was no place for him to sleep. The Chofetz Chaim ended up giving him his bench in his office.
The boy tried to sleep but it was hard to sleep there. In the middle of the night, he heard the Chofetz Chaim come into the office. This boy pretended he was asleep, and he heard the Chofetz Chaim say that he felt bad that this boy had to sleep on a hard bench and it was cold and he had no blanket. Then he took off his own wrap and laid it on this boy. The man explained that the love and warmth from having the Chofetz Chaim do that stayed with him all his life and continued to inspire him in his avodas Hashem.
The third story was told by Rav Mordechai Shapira in 1986 at the Agudah convention. Rav Shapira said that there was a bachur who wasn’t keeping Shabbos properly. He was sent to speak to the Chofetz Chaim. He only spent five minutes with the Chofetz Chaim, but it changed his life. He became motivated to keep Shabbos meticulously and eventually this young man became a talmid chacham.
Rav Shapira asked, “What could he have said in five minutes to change that boy’s life?” Later, a man with a long white beard, who was attending the convention, approached Rav Shapira and told him, “I was that bachur. I will tell you what he said.” The Chofetz Chaim was sitting there and he was crying. He took this young man’s hand and a tear fell from the Chofetz Chaim and landed on the young man’s hand. Then the Chofetz Chaim repeated, “Shabbos! Shabbos! Shabbos!” The man with the long white beard concluded, “I can still feel the tear of the Chofetz Chaim on my hand. After that, I said I have to keep Shabbos.” This love from the Chofetz Chaim changed his life forever.
In each of the stories above, Rabbi Becker pointed out, the influence of the Chofetz Chaim changed the lives of those who saw him or came in contact with him.
Rabbi Becker stated that the Chofetz Chaim is so holy, his picture can give us inspiration. “What an incredible inspiration he was.” On the yahrzeit, the 24th of Elul, we should learn from his s’farim and think about his righteousness. “Let’s all learn from him. The Chofetz Chaim in shamayim will say, “All my beautiful kinderlach are thinking of me, so, Hashem, please be good to them.” Rabbi Becker said that we should think about his righteousness and use that holiness to merit a good, sweet year.
Next, Rabbi Henoch Plotnik, rav of Congregation Bais Tefila, shared a teaching of Rav Shach, who said, “My imagination of greatness can only reach as high as the greatness of the Chofetz Chaim. The words of the Chofetz Chaim are like the words of the Sanhedrin.” Rav Shach used to bring people’s sh’eilos to the Chofetz Chaim and he learned a lot from how the Chofetz Chaim answered. So, when Rav Shach would receive sh’eilos, he would ask himself what the Chofetz Chaim would say. “He was bigger than his s’farim. We need to appreciate this one-of-a-kind leader and how he impacted our world.” He had this reverence and understanding of the koach ha’dibur. Rav Stephansky was a youth and he wanted to see the Chofetz Chaim. He came late at night to Radin, and in the morning he came to his house and he heard the Chofetz Chaim talking about how you have to be particular in the order of davening and in never forgetting to daven. Rav Stephansky realized that he’d forgotten to daven Maariv the night before. The Chofetz Chaim had ruach ha’kodesh, and this was an example where he said exactly what Rav Stephansky needed to hear at that moment.
“Someone who makes his mouth holy, then Hashem gives him koach to say the exact proper thing at any given time.”
Rabbi Plotnik noted that Miriam, Moshe Rabbeinu’s sister, raised her brother and saved him and endangered herself to save him. She also didn’t mean to shame him when she spoke about him to Aharon, and Moshe didn’t mind. Still, she was struck with tzaraas, and we remember this. All the more so, we have to be careful with speech.
Following this, Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, rav of Agudath Israel of Flatbush, shared that there is not a second in the world where someone isn’t learning one of the Chofetz Chaim’s s‘farim. The Chumash tells us that Hashem blew life into man, and man became a living being. He was a being capable of speech, and that was the moment his soul and body connected. Speech is heavenly. “Our words are windows of our neshamah.” Rav Hutner taught a beautiful idea explaining why the Jews sang shirah when the sea split. In this world we rarely see Divine justice. However, there are moments when we see Shamayim in this world and our reaction is speech – shirah. “The power of speech is the power of the neshamah that Hashem blew into our nostrils.”
Rabbi Weinberger taught that the Chofetz Chaim was a holy person, with his feet on the ground but his head was in Shamayim. The Chofetz Chaim tried to instill within us the idea of living with Olam HaBa in front of us. If a person lives this way, he becomes a different person. “We have to try to emulate the Chofetz Chaim.” Watching our speech and separating ourselves a little, living a higher life, we can be heavenly people. “Be inspired by the Chofetz Chaim and who he was.”
This shiur can be viewed on www.TorahAnytime.com.
By Susie Garber