Rav Chaim Soloveichik, the Torah luminary of the city of Brisk, was a legendary figure when it came to charity and good deeds.
Once, when he was still a student in Volozhin, he ate at the home of the Netziv (Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin). The Netziv, who loved the young scholar as his own son, brought a cow for Rav Chaim and his growing family. At least there would be sufficient nourishing milk for the scholar.
After a few weeks, as Rav Chaim was sitting at home deep in study, the village blacksmith came by. Excusing himself for troubling Rav Chaim in the midst of his studies, the blacksmith poured out a tale of woe. He was a miserably poor man and his long-suffering wife had fallen ill. She needed milk to help her get better and there was not a drop in the house.
Rav Chaim heard the sad tale with a heart filled with pain and quickly said, “Go to the barn and take my cow. Bring it home and have milk for your sick wife.”
The blacksmith was overwhelmed and ran to the barn where he found the cow and took it home with him immediately.
After a few hours Rav Chaim’s young wife came home and went to the barn to milk their prize – the cow. Horrified, she ran back home and cried out to her husband, “The cow is gone! Some thief has gotten into the barn and stolen our cow!”
Truth Is Told
Rav Chaim, fearing his wife’s wrath, kept silent but she would not let the matter rest. The entire neighborhood soon knew that the cow had been “stolen.” Someone reported having seen the blacksmith leading a cow away. Immediately, the family began to brand the blacksmith as the thief.
Rav Chaim felt terrible and confessed to his wife that he had given away the cow to the blacksmith so that his sick wife would have milk.
The wife was not pacified, however, and she sent word to the blacksmith that he was to return the cow immediately. The poor blacksmith, however, was adamant in insisting that the cow was his since Rav Chaim had given it to him as an unconditional gift.
After much haggling, the blacksmith finally agreed to return the cow for ten rubles but in order to make sure that Rav Chaim would not insist that the cow remain with the blacksmith or repeat the incident with someone else, the Netziv – who knew that Rav Chaim was poor himself – sent word to him as follows, “Know that the cow is my cow and I only lent it to you so you might have some use from the milk…”