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The Alter Rebbe once asked a group of chassidic visitors about a certain person who often attended their shul. They replied that he was a notorious sinner and that opponents of the chassidic movement harshly criticized them for letting him daven in their shul. So, in order to preserve the honor of the Rebbe and Chassidus, the chassidim decided to ban him from their shul.

The Rebbe responded, “You have no idea how much pleasure Hashem has when a Jew commits even one fewer transgression. I don’t mind the threat to my own honor or to the honor of Chassidus as long as he’ll sin less by attending your shul!”

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This attitude has typified the Lubavitch movement ever since. In 1940, the sixth Rebbe, the Rayatz – whose yahrzeit we marked on the 10th of Shevat – miraculously escaped from the Nazis and arrived in New York. At the time, American Jews were generally far from Torah observance. Most young people had never received any meaningful Jewish education, but older immigrants generally had been brought up with high standards of Torah observance; their rejection of their Jewish upbringing thus seemed blameworthy.

Nevertheless, the Rebbe Rayatz treated everyone with the utmost respect, even doing material favors for many non-observant Jews. In his letters he even used a Hebrew abbreviation that stood for “G-d-fearing person” to describe such people.

Some criticized him for using this title for these individuals, pointing out that a few of them were so far from Jewish belief and observance that they belonged in the halachic category of people whose lives you are not supposed to save! Asked about his behavior, the Rebbe Rayatz responded:

The Shulchan Aruch has four sections, each containing several hundred chapters. Rules about the category of those whose lives we are not commanded to preserve are at the end of the last section, Choshen Mishpat. But we’re supposed to study Shulchan Aruch from the beginning. Shulchan Aruch starts with the many laws that apply daily, then continues with laws that apply only weekly or at certain times of the year, and then proceeds with laws that aren’t so regular or directly relevant to us. Finally comes Choshen Mishpat, much of which concerns jurisprudence of rabbinic judges. Only at the very end of that section appear the laws of who belongs to the unfortunate category of people whose lives you don’t save. So, first become expert in, and carefully observe, all the preceding laws; after that, perhaps you can perhaps become qualified to rule on such life-sensitive decisions!

The seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, when repeating this anecdote, emphasized the crucial importance of treating others kindly, as the Rebbe Rayatz, his father-in-law, always did. Some may insist that treating others unkindly is based on Torah law, but 1) their harsh reading of the law in this case might well be mistaken, 2) some unacceptable personal motive, even subconscious, may have led them to their conclusion, and 3) their conclusion could even derive from a severe character flaw such that he actually enjoys putting others down.

On another occasion, the Rebbe Rayatz justified using the title “G-d-fearing person” even for those who seemingly aren’t because, as explained in Tanya (ch. 18-19), every Jew, deep within his soul, loves and fears G-d. The Rambam writes similarly, “[A Jew] wants to be a member of the Jewish people; he wants to do all the mitzvos and keep away from transgressions, and it is [only] his yetzer that is compelling him [to act differently].”

In other words, even within a person who appears outwardly to have no redeeming quality lies a soul, part of G-d Himself, that wants to do the right thing. By treating him or her kindly, we can help reveal his or her true inner essence.

Thus, we should train ourselves to always look at fellow Jews in terms of their true inner essence and treat them accordingly. If we try, we will surely find some redeeming quality in our fellow that will justify our efforts. And even if we don’t, we will still have fulfilled the mitzvah of loving our fellow Jews, as the Alter Rebbe writes in Tanya (chapter 32).

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Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman is director of the central Lubavitch Youth Organization and a weekly columnist for The Jewish Press.