In 1924, a rabbinical conference was held in the city of Grodno, then located in Poland. The sages had gathered to discuss matters pertaining to Russian and Polish Jewry and to establish a program of action for the Va’ad haYeshivot, the council of yeshivas.
Those were difficult times. In Poland, Jews were suffering harsh anti-Semitism, while in Russia, Jewish communities were struggling under the weight of communist oppression. Many young Jews, influenced by modern trends and social movements, were drifting away from their traditions and people.
In attendance at the Grodno conference was the venerated Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, widely known as the Chofetz Chaim.
The question was soon raised as to how the rabbis should respond to the growing turmoil in the Jewish community. Should they even attempt to reach those who were influenced by decades of the Haskalah (Enlightenment), which stressed that the Jews change to adapt to society? If the “enlighteners” were not interested in hearing the message of maintaining tradition, then perhaps it would be better if the rabbis did not attempt to persuade at all?
Some cited the dictum of the Talmud (Yevamot 65B): “Just as it is an obligation to say something that one will listen to, so too it is an obligation not to say something that will not be heeded.”
After a lengthy and heated debate, the Chofetz Chaim stood up. All eyes turned to the beloved leader.
The Chofetz Chaim began with a story. He recounted an incident that had occurred in the Ukrainian city of Kiev some 50 years earlier. It was a freezing cold winter day. On the street, he noticed a poor elderly woman holding a basket of dried pears. She called out, “Dried pears, three kopecks a pound! Fellow Jews, please buy!”
The Chofetz Chaim watched as she stood in the street and pedestrians passed her by. No one stopped. After some time, he approached the woman and said, “You are freezing for no purpose. It would be better for you to go home. At least you won’t freeze.”
The woman thanked the Chofetz Chaim for his advice and then replied. “I have been standing here for forty years and calling people to come and buy, and it also always seems to me that they never buy anything. But when I return home at night, the basket is lighter and there is money in my pocket.”
It may have seemed like no one was listening to the woman’s calls, especially on that freezing cold day, but her message was heard. The Chofetz Chaim was telling the assembly that there would be a response to their appeals. He urged the rabbis to raise their voices. He assured them that their efforts would not be futile.
“With Hashem’s help, your words will inspire and kindle hearts. Some day, when you make an accounting, you too (as the saleswoman) will no doubt find that you made a profit.”
The Chofetz Chaim’s words had an impact upon the conference participants, who returned to their communities and heeded his call. Their actions impacted their generation and future ones as well.
In our own times, it might seem futile to repeat the messages of Passover at the Seder to those who seem disinterested year after year, or to those who simply wait for the meal. Yet the Torah mandates that the events be retold in all their glorious and magnificent detail every Passover. Doing so, we know, is not in vain.
Passover offers a special opportunity to affect the future. As we spread the enduring message of the Exodus and its immense importance to each and every Jew, we should never despair if it seems that some are not listening. The message has a way of reaching its audience.