The Chofetz Chaim Wasn’t Just a Benevolent Zaidy

Every year, as 24 Elul, the yahrtzeit of the Chofetz Chaim approaches, the thought of how much we owe him comes to mind. Between his Mishnah Berurah, Sefer Chofetz Chaim, Sefer Ahavas Chessed and other seforim that he wrote, perhaps there is no modern-day mechaber who has had the impact on our lives as did the Chofetz Chaim.

Even more remarkable is how his influence continues growing as time goes on. Increasingly, more people are learning his seforim, especially Sefer Chofetz Chaim and Mishnah Berurah, and there is a worldwide awareness of the need to constantly strengthen ourselves in matters related to speech.

 

Positive Yet Incomplete First Impressions

Interestingly, many of the stories that one hears about the Chofetz Chaim from one’s earliest youth is about his middos, his sensitivity to not hurting the feelings of widows and orphans, and his care not to speak lashon hora about the most vulnerable members of society.

While the stories are all true, they also may inadvertently give people a skewed view of who the Chofetz Chaim was. This misconception can lead to an imbalanced perspective of the Chofetz Chaim and what we can learn from him.

We get the impression that the Chofetz Chaim was this super sensitive tzaddik who was all empathy, sweetness and caring, without realizing that the Chofetz Chaim was perhaps the most demanding baal mussar of his generation, who gave rebuke, at times stinging rebuke, to the three generations he encountered during his long life.

If one learns the Chofetz Chaim’s seforim, reads his letters, and studies the stories that some of his close family members told about him, one is awed by the fact that the Chofetz Chaim not only didn’t shy away from giving rebuke, but also didn’t sugarcoat anything and spoke with candidness about the spiritual maladies that his generation faced. It is clear that he never made peace with the situation, but rather tried every which way to improve the observance of his fellow Jews.

 

Cried in Pain Over the Plight of Others

The stories that were told to us about the Chofetz Chaim when we were young were, more often than not, tales that strengthen the one-dimensional perspective of the Chofetz Chaim.

For example, one of the most famous stories about the Chofetz Chaim is the one told by the Ponovezher Rov, describing the first time he encountered the Chofetz Chaim: “I arrived in Radin on a horse and buggy in the morning and immediately made my way to the diminutive house of the Chofetz Chaim. Walking in, I found no one there, so I sat on a bench and waited. While waiting, I wondered how the Chofetz Chaim appeared. I wondered if I would merit seeing him that day. As I sat there lost in thought, the rebbetzin entered and asked me what I wanted. I told her that I wanted to see the Chofetz Chaim. She told me to wait a few minutes and he would come. Suddenly, I heard a shrill cry, followed by moaning and groaning coming from the direction of the attic. The voice was pleading and begging for mercy. The voice expressed such pain and suffering. It totally shook me up and I ran to the rebbetzin to ask her what terrible thing was going on. The rebbetzin, with a smile on her face, calmed me down, saying, ‘Please don’t be shocked. My husband is davening for a woman, the wife of Reb Menachem Altshik, who lives in the next village and is experiencing a difficult childbirth.’

“I listened to the pain-ridden sobs of the Chofetz Chaim. He pleaded with Hashem in a way that I had never before experienced. It melted my heart. At that moment, I said to myself, ‘I will not move from here. How can one leave such a person, who is able to cry like this over the pain of another?”

 

Presenting Prohibitions and Punishments First

The above story is true and beautiful, and it should be related, but at the same time, especially in this generation, when so many are leery about giving rebuke because they feel that people just don’t have the resilience to deal with even some well-meaning criticism, it is important to internalize the Chofetz Chaim’s mode of operating, because, without a doubt, he was the mochiach hador, the rebuker-in-chief of his generation.

Just look at his first work, Sefer Chofetz Chaim, published in 1873. The Chofetz Chaim begins the sefer with an entire section titled “Laavin,” which enumerates every one of the lo saaseis, the prohibitions, that one transgresses when speaking lashon hora. Not only does he enumerate all of the seventeen negative prohibitions, but he also takes the time to tell us what the punishments – some of them very severe – are.

Only in the second chapter does he say how many mitzvos one fulfills by refraining from speaking lashon hora.

In truth, anyone who has learned the Chofetz Chaim’s seforim knows that the Chofetz Chaim nearly always first talks about the negative aspect of the transgression and the punishments. Only afterwards does he talk about the tremendous reward for doing the right thing.

I don’t know if the Chofetz Chaim would have done things differently or changed the order if he lived in our generation, but he certainly wouldn’t have stopped trying to help the generation become better observers of mitzvos and closer to Hashem.

The same Chofetz Chaim who davened so tearfully for that woman in childbirth also didn’t hesitate to call someone who spoke what we would call “garden variety” lashon hora a “rasha.” He doesn’t do that figuratively either, but as a matter of p’sak halacha (see Hilchos Lashon Hora, 6-7 and 7-3).

 

Clear Strength of Character

This imbalanced emphasis, making the Chofetz Chaim look like some benevolent, gentle, old zaidy who could never say a sharp word against anyone or anything, always troubled me. That is why the famous video of the Chofetz Chaim being accompanied to the first Knessiah Gedolah in Vienna in 1923 was so riveting and revealing. Aside from the kedusha that we saw in the Chofetz Chaim, we also saw that the Chofetz Chaim, even in his very advanced age, was no pushover. He walked purposefully and knew what he wanted. When his attendant appeared to be helping him in a way that he did not want, he emphatically resisted. His strength of character and purposefulness came through in that short clip.

 

The Power (and Pitfalls) of Proper Rebuke

Why am I mentioning this now?

Because, once again, we are in the midst of the yemei hadin and the yemei harachamim veharatzon. We are already in the middle of Elul. Soon it will be Rosh Hashanah and the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah.

As parents and educators, we know how difficult tochocha can be in this generation. Young people are not as resilient as they once were. They are very sensitive and often have a difficult time dealing with rebuke, even well-meaning rebuke. Many of us have therefore decided in some ways to throw in the towel when it comes to rebuke. We say, “It is too dangerous. It may turn him/her off. It may backfire. It may send them OTD.”

Yes, it is true. Today’s generation does have fewer coping skills and in general is more in need of positive reinforcement. Nevertheless, we would be doing a terrible disservice to our children and students if we gave up on tochocha.

People may not realize this, but in many ways, the Yiddishkeit situation that the Chofetz Chaim faced in his times was worse than what we are facing. Just looking at his seforim and the nature of the mussar that he gave makes us realize that youth were going off the derech in droves. Very few wanted to marry bnei Torah and most people did not want to send their children to yeshivas. Even while they were still bochurim, their parents wanted them to engage in business or in learning a trade.

Despite the difficulties facing that generation, the Chofetz Chaim never backed down and never stopped clearly stating the unequivocal truth and what was demanded from every Jew.

He didn’t sugarcoat and he didn’t give false compliments. Rather, he showed that he cared and cared deeply. He consistently said what had to be said.

As we approach these special and most auspicious days of the year, let us realize that rebuke, when done correctly, with consistency, sensitivity and a sincere desire to see people change for the better, is not taboo.

It is an integral part of Yiddishkeit, a vital component of the ultimate chesed to our charges, directing them on the proper path and showing them the way to do teshuvah and become closer to Hashem.