Among our great sages and gaonim was Rav Eliyahu Chaim Maizel, chief rav of Lodz. Besides being a great scholar, he was a giant in humility and kindness. He was born in 1821 near the city of Vilna, and studied in the famous yeshiva of Volozhin together with Rav Yosef of Brisk and Rav Shmuel Mohliver.
The Kingly Gift
Rav Eliyahu Chaim’s father, Mordechai, was a great man as well. He was a prominent businessman, a scholar and a philanthropist. He was well liked by Emperor Maximilian and, as a token of appreciation for his good work on behalf of the government, the emperor presented him with a gold chain, which he personally placed around his neck.
Once, while walking on the streets of Prague, a poor person approached him, crying that he had to marry off his daughter, and was too poor to arrange the wedding.
Rav Mordechai looked through his pockets for some money to give the man, but he couldn’t find even a penny. He suddenly had an inspiration. Taking off the gold chain that the emperor had placed around his neck, he said:
“Here, take this gold chain; sell it, and with the money you will receive, you can arrange the wedding for your daughter.”
The poor man hesitated. “I am afraid to take this chain,” he said. “What if the emperor should hear that you gave away his valued gift? He would consider it an insult. I will stop by your place of business tomorrow and you can give me some money at that time.”
Rav Mordechai replied: “Is not all the money and wealth which I possess a gift from the Almighty? If I can give away His gifts to poor people, then assuredly I can give away a gift from a mere mortal. Take my advice and accept this chain now. Who knows if tomorrow I will be inclined to part with such an expensive item?”
The Humility Of A Great Man
When Rav Eliyahu Chaim was retained to be the chief rabbi of Lodz, a large parade and party was arranged to welcome him. All the people of the town closed their shops, dressed in their Shabbos clothes and awaited the arrival of the stagecoach, which would bring the rav from his former town of Lomza.
They waited an entire day, and when the stagecoach arrived, they saw that the rav was not on it. They were very much perturbed. Perhaps he met with an accident, or, worse, possibly he had changed his mind and agreed to remain with his former town.
The following day the leaders of the town dispatched a man to visit the other town and inquire why the rav had not arrived. As he waited to board the coach, he sat down next to a man with an imposing appearance, whose greatness and knowledge seemed to radiate from him.
“What town are you from?” asked this imposing person.
“I am from Lodz,” was the reply.
“What is new in Lodz?” asked this prominent-looking man.
“What could be new?” came the reply. “It has its rich and its poor people but mainly poor.”
“Does Lodz have charitable societies, hospitals and free lodging places for the poor?” asked the stranger.
“That is our trouble,” sighed the resident and emissary of the community. “We do not have these things. Therefore, we retained an outstanding rav who is a well-known scholar to come to our town and organize all these ventures. But he apparently decided not to come and to remain in his former town. Yesterday the entire community turned out to welcome him but he disappointed us. What surprises me is why he didn’t think of notifying us in advance that he wouldn’t come so we wouldn’t have gone to so much trouble.”
When the coach arrived, the stranger turned to him and said: “This much I can tell you, your new rav is now in your town. You need not look any further for him.”
The stranger then departed. The town’s emissary began to wonder about this remark, and suddenly it dawned upon him that he had been speaking the entire time with Rav Eliyahu Chaim. He hurried to the officials of the town and informed them of his experience.
They all hurried to the new house that had been prepared for the rav. When they got there, they found Rav Eliyahu Chaim engaged in the study of Torah with great diligence.
“Rebbe,” they asked in wonder, “why did you disappoint us yesterday? We arranged a gala affair to greet you and we prepared great honors for you.”
Rav Eliyahu Chaim answered them in a humble tone. “It is because of these honors which I had heard about in advance that I postponed my arrival in your town. After all, I didn’t deserve it. I haven’t yet started to work for you. Why should I be honored for something which I haven’t done?”