As a young scholar, the great Chassidic Rebbe R’ Bunim traveled extensively on business throughout Eastern Europe. In his own mind, however, his real occupation was not the pursuit of wealth but the opening of souls.
One rainy winter night, R’ Bunim happily found shelter from a frigid downpour at an inn along his route. As the innkeeper welcomed him in and served him a hot drink, R’ Bunim glanced around and noticed that the place was bereft of customers. “How’s business these days?” he asked.
“See for yourself,” came the reply, “it’s not so easy. The peasants aren’t coming around anymore – who knows why. The landlord’s threatening to throw me out for late payment. And to top it off, I’ve got a year’s worth of fine whiskey sitting down in the cellar, untouched. I invested a fortune in that stuff, believe me, and I’m lucky if I can sell one glass a night.”
The conversation moved on to other things. After a while, the innkeeper bid his customer good evening, retired to his quarters, and R’ Bunim sat down with a book of Talmud in one of the empty chairs.
Aside from the wind, and the crackling flames in the fireplace, all was quiet. A few hours had passed when all of a sudden the silence was smashed by a tremendous racket of pounding and banging. Rav Bumim watched in alarm as the innkeeper came rushing downstairs in his nightclothes, removed the beam from across the entrance, and opened up.
There on the doorstop, drenched and dripping in the darkness, stood a miserably bedraggled Jewish wayfarer. “Let me in!” the man said tearfully. “I beg of you! I don’t have any money on me, but please! All I need is a dry corner. I’ll catch my death if I spend the night out here! I won’t last till morning!”
The innkeeper invited the man in, brought him a change of clothes, then showed him a place by the fire, for which the traveler, still shivering uncontrollably, thanked him profusely. “Like I said,” the man apologized, “I can’t pay, I hope you forgive me. I’ve run into hard times.”
The innkeeper said it was all right. Nothing to forgive.
“Would you mind doing me one more small favor, then?”
The innkeeper regarded his guest with a level gaze.
“Can you spare a small shot of vodka to warm me up a bit?”
The innkeeper nodded politely and descended to the basement, and Rav Bumim returned to his learning. A few minutes later, up came the innkeeper with a large jug. He poured out a drink, set it on a tray, and was taking it over to the fireside when Rav Bunim was startled by the sound of glass breaking on the stone floor.
That precious whiskey of his, thought Rav Bumim to himself. Poor fellow must be exhausted.
The rabbi had just gone back to his sefer when again came the sound of shattering glass.
Strange, thought Rav Bunim. He watched out the corner of his eye as the innkeeper went back behind the counter and poured another glass. He’d just started off towards his guest when, to R’Bunim’s astonishment, the innkeeper gave what appeared to be an intentional swipe of his hand across the tray. That made three.
What’s going on here? thought Rav Bumim. Does he get rid of the dregs this way, or are my eyes playing tricks on me? Should I say something about b’al tashchlis? [the Torah prohibition against the unnecessary destruction of valuable objects.]
Rav Bunim kept quiet.
Now the innkeeper poured a fourth time. He set the brimming glass carefully on the tray, paused, took a few steps, then knocked it brusquely off. No question this time. He’d done it on purpose.
The innkeeper stood there with an inward-looking gaze, seemingly unperturbed by the mess around his feet, and was mumbling unintelligibly. Is he crazy? wondered Rav Bumim. He seemed sane enough before!
The innkeeper was pouring a fifth glass. He set it on the tray, paused, muttered something under his breath, and then, with a grimly satisfied smile, crossed the room to serve his guest. The bedraggled traveler, who had dozed off, roused himself long enough to down the drink, then his head dropped. In a few seconds he was snoring noisily.
R’ Bunim sat there, mystified, and felt he must understand what was going on. “Excuse me, my friend,” he began carefully, with a casual air, not knowing what to expect. “Sorry if I’m intruding, but I couldn’t help noticing what’s been going on here. If you wouldn’t mind telling me, what in the world –”
The innkeeper stopped his cleaning and eyed the Rebbe shrewdly. “So,” he said, leaning on his mop, “you were looking on? Is that it? Wondering if I’ve lost my mind?”
R’ Bunim nodded.
“Ach, dear Rebbe.” He gave a wry, bitter little laugh. “Not totally mad, at least not yet. What you see is just what happens when a man stands by like an idiot as his family goes hungry. I see my wife turning gray from worry, the kindele getting thinner before my eyes. When I heard that banging on the door, you think I jumped out of bed because I hoped for some long lost relatives? Ha! Running down here half asleep, I was already counting the travelers, and the coins, and thanking the Almighty for inclement weather! Maybe it’s a few, I was thinking. Maybe a whole wagonload out there in the rain, and on a night like this, who knows, they’ll be wanting a few nips! In my mind’s eye I was already in my hat and coat handing over three months’ rent! Eich veis, so what did blessed G-d in His wisdom send me instead? That poor devil of a Yid without a penny to his name. So I say to myself, all right, what’s it to me if I give him a dry bed and a shirt ‘till morning. No skin off my back. What kind of wickedness could prompt me to say no? Thank Heaven, I haven’t drifted that far from my holy roots!
“But when he asked for my vodka, Rebbe, that’s when I complained! The hours I spend in this cold shack like a spider waiting for a fly, and when somebody finally comes my way, I have to give him my whiskey on the house! What can you do, I had no choice! But as I was pouring it out, all of a sudden I was just disgusted. Not at him, poor Yid, but at myself! Here’s a fellow Jew almost freezing to death and I begrudge him a nip of whiskey to revive his spirits? What have my troubles done to me? Oi! Has the hospitality of Avraham Aveinu so departed from my soul that I can’t even do a little act of kindness anymore — maybe to save a life — without a shvere hartz [a depressed heart]? This is the only inn for miles around. It’s I who’s been sent to rescue him, but I don’t deserve the privilege! So when I poured that first glass, all I felt was my selfishness and I said to myself, that’s not how it should be! So I poured again, and again, and it looked to my eyes like some poison brew. So I whispered, ‘Father in Heaven, are You going to take everything? Give me back my Jewish heart!’
“That’s when I felt a little different. It was a glass of kindness I poured, at last. That fellow didn’t know the difference — he drank it in his sleep — but my Father in Heaven knows, and He knows I know. I could have danced for joy.”
Most of us engage in acts of kindness. We give charity, we do good deeds. We fulfill our obligations. But much of the time, says the Chofetz Chaim, our kindness falls into the category of good deeds performed because there’s no good way out.
Let’s say somebody calls and asks if we can host so-and-so for Shobbos. We say yes because we’d be embarrassed not to. Or a fund-raising appeal is made in shul and we automatically raise our hand along with everyone else; to do otherwise would be noticeable.
Or let’s say someone comes to our office asking for charity. We recognize that this person is in need, we have no reason to doubt it. But something inside us, something we ourselves don’t bother to identify, prompts us to say, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I left my wallet at home.”
It’s true. The wallet’s at home. But the fact is, if we really wanted to, we could find a way to give anyway. We could borrow from someone, or write a check. But that hidden part of us which finds it easier not to give than to give; the part, when it comes right down to it, which is somewhat annoyed by the person’s intrusiveness, and thinks he’s a little too aggressive, inconveniencing people at their workplace like this; something within us which isn’t inclined to give in the first place (I work hard for my money, can’t he get a job?) prompts us to put this matter off a little. Of course I’ll give him something! I’m generous, more than most. But nothing terrible will happen if he has to wait a little bit.
Let’s say the same individual shows up again a few days later, this time at our home, and our first reaction is, “Excuse me, but didn’t I already give you something at the office?” The person, ashamed, reminds us what happened, and immediately we remember, and say, “Oh excuse me, of course! You’re absolutely right.” And we do give him something, a very nice amount.
Such kindness merits a reward.
But it’s not love of kindness.
Ahavas chesed means giving of ourselves eagerly. The more we let go of, the more we have. The more we give, the more we’ve got left. That kind of real happiness can be ours every single day.
A person who refrains from doing acts of kindness because he “has more important things to do,” is thereby distancing himself from his own essential self. If his own well-being as his only real responsibility, he’s not emulating G-d. He becomes an intelligent animal out for its own survival and comfort.
And that’s how a person can lose his essential self, the divine quality that makes a human being human.
Based in part on a lecture given by Rav Fischel Schacter. With the kind permission of Michael Rothschild, Director of the Chofetz Chaim Foundation
Sarah Shapiro is the author most recently of Wish I Were Here: Finding My Way in the Promised Land, and editor of All of Our Lives: An Anthology of Contemporary Jewish Writing, published this year.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.