Derech Eretz before Torah: Stories about proper behavior

The Gift Of A Name

Mottel Greenfeld and Chaim Engel were the fortunate survivors of the concentration camps; their parents, siblings, and entire extended families were sent to the gas chambers, while they were spared. In the gehinnom on earth, they had made a pact of friendship, and resolved to stay together, drawing strength from their shared will to survive.

After liberation, the two young men wandered about, desperate to learn the fate of their family members. They eventually ended up in a DP camp, where they made plans to immigrate to North America and begin their lives anew.

Mottel, who had relatives in Canada, decided to apply for a visa there, so that at least he would be among family members. Chaim made the decision to join him. The two of them were eager for some stability in their lives after their childhoods were so rudely interrupted.

During the application process, the two young men needed to be examined by a doctor and declared healthy. The Canadians were not interested in accommodating sick people who would need expensive medical care.

Mottel was immediately issued a visa. But his close friend Chaim, who had recently contracted typhus, did not pass the medical examination and was denied.

Mottel was devastated to be going without his friend, but what other options did he have? His relatives had already sent him a letter in response to his telegram, expressing how excited they were for his arrival. Was he expected to change his plans and stay behind? It was difficult to receive a visa, whether to Canada, the US, or anywhere else in the world.

The day of Mottel’s departure, his friend accompanied him to the port to see him off. Mottel was heartbroken as he sensed Chaim’s despair. They had remained together through so much torment and heartbreak. Should they be separated now? Chaim was so weak and listless. How could he possibly manage on his own? And when would he obtain a visa?

Mottel embraced his friend, promising to write and send him a visa as soon as he could. Chaim began to sob.

“I’m afraid I’m going to stay here forever,” he sobbed. “Canada will never accept me, and neither will the United States. Soon the gates are going to close, and I’ll be trapped here, in Germany. Will I ever get married and build a family?”

Mottel was devastated at his friend’s pain. As the captain announced “Final boarding!” he made a split-second decision that would have lasting repercussions for the rest of his life.

“Your name isn’t Engel anymore,” he said, handing his friend his visa and ticket, which did not have his photograph. “From now on, your name is Greenfeld.”

“I can’t possibly take it,” Chaim protested. “It’s yours.”

“It’s yours now,” Mottel said, giving his friend a gentle push onto the gangplank. With a final reluctant wave, Chaim, now Greenfeld, was propelled onto the ship, taking his noble friend’s place.

After an exhausting journey, Chaim arrived in Montreal, where he slowly recovered from his illness, got married, and rebuilt his life as Chaim Greenfeld. He never used the name Engel again.

And what of his friend Mottel, who selflessly gave away his visa to help a friend in distress? A few months after Chaim arrived with his visa, Mottel received another opportunity to emigrate. A Mr. Weinberger, also a Holocaust survivor, received a visa, but was tragically niftar before he could use it. The visa was offered to Mottel, on the condition that he change his name.

And so it was that the former Mordechai Greenfeld, now Mordechai Weinberger, arrived in Montreal to join his close friend, who now bore his former last name.

The two men remained close throughout the years, as Mordechai Weinberger raised a fine family and built a successful business. As a Vishnitzer chossid, Reb Mordechai once asked his rebbe, the Imrei Chaim, if he should go back to his original family name, the name of his murdered parents. To which the rebbe replied, “Each time someone calls you by your new name, Mottel Weinberger, it reminds the Bais Din in Shomayim of your mesiras nefesh for another Yid. Why would you want to change that?”

 

Who Needs This Kaddish?

Zalman was a wealthy man who had enjoyed success in business, and done numerous acts of chesed, yet he had never merited children. When he grew old and sensed his end was near, he began searching for a trustworthy man who would agree to say kaddish for him three times a day for eleven months, in memory of his soul. Naturally, he was prepared to pay generously: $20,000 for the entire year.

After he placed an ad in the local paper, he received numerous phone calls from yungeleit who were desperate to earn some extra money. Saying kaddish three times a day was a major undertaking, but the money was nothing to sneeze at, either. After interviewing several candidates, Zalman settled on Chaim, a young kollel yungerman. He figured that Chaim, known for his energy and commitment, would get the job done.

Less than a year later, Zalman was niftar peacefully in his bed. Even before his levaya, Zalman’s lawyer, a frum Yid, contacted Chaim, letting him know his job was about to begin.

Chaim dutifully showed up at the levaya and said kaddish in a loud, clear voice. Since there was no one sitting shivah, he began saying kaddish in shul the next day. For eleven months, Chaim made sure to daven Shacharis, Mincha and Maariv before the amud, so as not to miss a single kaddish. This commitment consumed his life, yet it was all worthwhile, because he had his eye on the prize. On the day the eleven months were over, he would receive his windfall.

There were many times when he arrived in shul, only to find that someone had already gone to the amud before him. In such a case, Chaim refused to back down, arguing with the individual and letting him know that the privilege was his. At times, an argument would ensue, which would even lead to blows.

The gabboim were afraid of Chaim and his explosive temper. They tried their best to ensure that he could fulfill his responsibility, warning potential minyan leaders not to start up with him. For his part, Chaim had no compunctions of pushing people away from the amud, ignoring their protests. Not everyone accepted his aggressive manner, and some people fought back. But Chaim never backed down. It was vital that the dying man’s last wish, that someone say kaddish for his soul, be fulfilled.

By the time the eleven months of kaddish were over, Chaim had made numerous enemies, embarrassed many mispallelim, and the gabboim were no longer speaking to him. In fact, three gabboim in the shul had left their job, because they found dealing with Chaim intolerable.

Chaim was triumphant. He had fulfilled his obligation according to the letter of the law. After his final kaddish, he marched over to the home of the lawyer, who lived in the community and had been keeping an eye on him, to demand the money he was owed.

“Yes?” asked the lawyer.

“I have come to collect my check,” said Chaim.

“Your check?”

“The money that was promised to me for saying kaddish. You can ask the gabboim in the shul where I daven. They will assure you that I haven’t missed a single minyan in the last eleven months.”

“I have spoken to them already,” said the lawyer. “I regret to inform you that we don’t owe you a penny.”

“What do you mean?” Chaim turned colors and began to shout. “How dare you! I killed myself to fulfill my obligations! I went to shul three times a day and led the prayers, and it wasn’t easy. I demand that you give me my money or I’ll take you to court!”

“Hold it,” said the lawyer. “Relax. Let us review the will again.” He removed the will and began to read, “I pledge $20,000 to the man who will say kaddish for the elevation of my soul.”

“I did say kaddish!” Chaim protested. “You can even ask—”

“You did say kaddish. I am well aware of that. But it wasn’t for the elevation of my client’s soul. According to reports, you embarrassed the gabboim, causing them to quit, and threatened anyone who dared to take the amud away. This isn’t the type of kaddish my client needed or wanted. This didn’t bring any elevation to his neshomoh. On the contrary.”

Chaim began to argue, and the matter was brought before a local rov. After hearing both sides, he paskened that the lawyer was correct, and didn’t owe Chaim a penny. After all, the Aruch Hashulchan clearly states that any mitzvah fulfilled through causing discord and machlokes isn’t a mitzvah. In fact, a person’s tefillos cannot ascend to Shomayim that way.

“Instead of helping the niftar, you have only caused him harm with your behavior,” said the rov. “If you would have given in, allowed someone else to daven on occasion, even if you would have missed a kaddish here and there, your tefillos would have been accepted. A person never wins with machlokes, and a person never loses by going the extra mile for peace.”

 

 Spoiled Fish

 Mazel tov! It was a beautiful simcha between two distinguished mechutonim, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, the renowned Rosh Yeshiva of Kol Torah in Yerushlayim, and Rav Asher Zev Werner, Rosh Beis Din of Tiveryah. They were marrying off their children in Tiveryah, then a primitive city.

At the wedding, only one course was served, a type of fish found locally. Unfortunately, the fish was not refrigerated properly, and when it was served, the guests realized it was spoiled. The entire meal had to be thrown out, and the guests were served some challah and dips.

Despite the disappointment, the mood at the wedding was festive and joyous. The food was only an aside; the main parts of the wedding were the dances, the speeches, and the joy of the chosson and kallah, the mechutonim and the entire community. It didn’t appear as if the spoiled food affected either of the two Torah scholars in the slightest.

Sometime during the festivities, Rav Auerbach slipped out and went upstairs to seek out the caterer. Although it would have been understandable if he would have expressed frustration or dismay, the opposite was true. Rav Shlomo Zalman thanked the caterer for his efforts and assured him that he harbored no ill-will.

“I will, of course, pay for the meal,” said Rav Auerbach. “Although my mechutan and I had originally agreed to share the costs, I wanted to let you know that in case my mechutan will not want to pay for the spoiled food, I will cover his share.”

The caterer smiled. “That’s very interesting,” he said. “Because just a few moments ago, your mechutan was here, and he told me the very same thing.”

Both distinguished mechutonim were so concerned with the caterer’s feelings that they each came up with the idea of offering to pay for the entire wedding, so that another Yid, who served spoiled food at their simcha, shouldn’t lose out.

 

 It’s Not Right To Bite

 When the Belzer Rebbe, Rav Yissochor Dov, was of advanced age, his voice became weak and it no longer carried through the grand bais medrash. Thus, when the rebbe said divrei Torah during the Shabbos tisch, the chassidim would crowd around the rebbe’s chair, straining to hear.

One of the chassidim – Yankel – became frustrated that he was never able to manage to penetrate the circle around the rebbe and had to linger near the back of the bais medrash, where he could not hear a word.

One day, he came up with a brilliant idea. He would hide under the rebbe’s table, crouching near the end of the tablecloth, hidden from view. When the rebbe would say divrei Torah, Yankel would have the best seat in the house. No pushing, no shoving, just a perfect opportunity to hear every word.

The plan would have worked were it not for the eagle-eyed gabbai who noticed something moving under the table minutes before the rebbe arrived. He picked up the tablecloth and saw Yankel, crouched into a ball.

“Get out, now!” he shouted, pulling at Yankel’s collar.

But the determined chossid, who had worked so hard to achieve his plan, did not budge.

“Hurry up! Out!” the gabbai yelled, pulling with all his might. Frustrated and humiliated, Yankel lost his temper and bit the gabbai’s hand.

“Ouch!” the gabbai shouted, hitting him back. A scuffle ensued, just as the rebbe was escorted to his seat. Seeing the commotion, the rebbe asked what had happened, and was informed of the horrific chutzpah.

 The rebbe asked to speak to Yankel, who stood in the front of the bais medrash, pale and trembling, suffused with regret.

Rebbe!” he cried. “All I wanted to do was to hear the rebbe’s Torah. Why did I have to be humiliated in public when I was right!”

The rebbe smiled and said, “It is true that you are correct, but I learned a powerful lesson from my holy Zeidehs. The essence of a Yid can be seen not when he is wrong, but when he is right.”