When the Chofetz Chaim – Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hakohen Kagan - began to be recognized as a leading sage of our people, the majority of the Jews in Eastern Europe were still committed to the path of the Torah. Given this commitment, the Chofetz Chaim sought to address social problems in Jewish society through an educational process which made people more aware of the social and interpersonal aspects of the Torah path. Regarding the role of the Chofetz Chaim, the noted historian, Berel Wein, writes:
“Quietly and patiently, he spread the message of peace, social harmony, and justice….In the decades before World War I, his influence and presence rallied the forces of fairness and equity within the traditional Jewish community, and his personal example of simple faith and rectitude inspired a fundamental improvement in the social fabric of Eastern European Jewish life.” (Triumph of Survival)
For example, he educated the public about the mitzvos regarding ethical speech and how unethical speech increases strife and hatred within society.
He served as a “kohen” – minister – to the Community of Israel, and like his ancestor, Aaron, the kohen, he sought to increase love and shalom within the community. The book, “Sparks of Mussar,” reports that in order to achieve this goal, he worked on his own character traits and deeds so that he could become a living example of love and shalom. As Rabbi Aryeh Leib Hakohen Kagan, the son of the Chofetz Chaim, writes:
“It is well known among our generation that my father was not only one who preached well, but also one who beautifully fulfilled – with alacrity and a sense of mission – all that he sought from his listeners.” (Chofetz Chaim – A Lesson A Day)
People felt his love and saw him as a model of shalom. It is therefore not surprising that he became a unifying figure who helped to settle many disputes among individuals and communities. For example, the book, “Sparks of Mussar,” reports:
“From every corner of Russia, requests began pouring in to mediate disputes that were sundering communities. Both sides agreed in advance to rely on his judgment. The requests were so numerous that he could not answer them all, but he succeeded in many cases in restoring harmony.”
The Chofetz Chaim wrote a book titled, Ahavas Chesed – Loving Lovingkindness, and this book discusses various mitzvos which remind us that others are justly entitled to our love and concern. Among the practical mitzvos discussed in this book are interest-free loans, hospitality, helping people with their problems, treating workers fairly, and various forms of tzedakah – the sharing of one’s resources with those in need. This popular book inspired new grass roots projects on behalf of these mitzvos.
Regarding the Chofetz Chaim’s concern for workers, Berel Wein writes: “He emphasized the rights of the laborer to fair and timely wages, and publicly denounced the excesses of the owners of factories, land, and capital” (Triumph of Survival).
The Chofetz Chaim sought to fight the growing selfish materialism of the modern age through stressing mitzvos such as Torah study, prayer, and Shabbos, which make us aware of the higher spiritual purpose of life. As Berel Wein writes:
“He fought for the retention of the sanctity of the Sabbath as the foundation of Jewish life. He placed the yeshivos (academies of Torah study) at the center of the Jewish world and described them as the only hope for the Jewish future. Indeed, he founded and directed one of the world’s major yeshivos in his own town of Radin.” (Ibid)
The Chofetz Chaim was concerned about the serious problems facing the Jewish people and the world; however, he felt that the ultimate solution to these problems is a spiritual one. He was therefore worried about the rise of secular Jewish movements which opposed the idea that we are the people of the Torah – the Divine Teaching. It was his hope and aspiration to have the Torah once again become the dominant force in Jewish life, so that the wisdom of the Torah could be applied to all the issues and problems of the day. This was why he became an active supporter of a new international Jewish organization, Agudath Israel, which viewed the Torah as the raison d’etre of the Jewish people, and which was willing to be guided by the leading Torah sages of the era. He himself became a member of the council of great Torah sages which guided this organization.
In 1923, the Chofetz Chaim attended the first international convention of Agudath Israel which took place in Vienna, where he was a featured speaker. He was a unifying figure who helped to make peace between the different factions attending the convention (Sparks of Mussar). To get an idea of how the Chofetz Chaim was loved and respected even by those who did not share his beliefs, I will cite an excerpt from an article about the Chofetz Chaim's visit to this convention which appeared in the “Forward” - a Yiddish, secular, and socialist newspaper published in New York that was popular among Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. The article is by Mr. Mokuff and it is dated September 23rd, 1923. The author’s description of the Chofetz Chaim serves as a reminder that most of the secular Jewish radicals of that era were still familiar with the spiritual terminology of Jewish tradition:
“When you see this short ninety-year-old sage for the first time, it makes a singular impression on you. You feel a quiver of awe and love in your heart - a tremendous reverence and respect, beyond any limit. When you take a closer look, you see the face of an angel, a ministering servant of God. The Shechinah, the Divine Presence, rests on that face, and you have to shut your eyes against the radiance streaming from those two small gray intelligent eyes. When he stands on the dais, speaking, two rabbis support him under the arms. The entire assembly stands as it listens to him. His voice is weak, but clear. He summons the Jewish people to unity, to harmonious peace, to goodness, to religious observance, to love and good deeds. His short bent-over figure quivers as he talks. The small white beard glistens from afar, like fresh-fallen snow. Through his eyes, the entire world shines with wisdom and goodness...So, I imagine, Hillel the Elder must have looked - the Sage in the Talmud.” (from the biography of the Chofetz Chaim by Rabbi Moses Yoshor)
Many of the Gentiles who lived in Radin and the surrounding countryside revered the Chofetz Chaim, and the following story from “Sparks of Mussar” can serve as an example. A fire broke out in Radin which consumed almost all the houses. The townspeople, who were unable to salvage anything from the flames, were left in a desperate plight, and the Chofetz Chaim devoted his energies to helping the victims:
“He obtained a loan to give them immediate relief; then he spent ten weeks making the rounds of the big cities nearby, such as Vilna, Kovno, and Minsk, and managed to raise large sums. In addition, he wrote hundreds of letters to Jewish communities the world over…He also petitioned the government for aid under a relief law…Within a short time, the town was rebuilt…Through these efforts, Rabbi Yisrael Meir sanctified the Name of God. Word of the Jewish sage’s love of his fellow-man spread through the area. Jews and non-Jews sang his praises. Peasants offered to let him sow in their fields without charge, priests held him up as an example of love of man, and even the district governor, who brought the money to Radin, expressed his admiration of Rabbi Yisroel Meir for his rescue efforts.”
Through his words and deeds, the Chofetz Chaim reminded us that we are to sanctify the Divine Name in the world through fulfilling the life-giving and unifying Divine teachings.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
The following books are cited in the above letter:
“Sparks of Mussar” is a “treasury” of teachings and stories from the lives of certain great teachers of Mussar (ethics and character refinement), who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The author is Rabbi Chaim Ephraim Zaitchik, and the publisher is Feldheim: www.feldheim.com .
The biography of the Chofetz Chaim by Rabbi Moses Yoshor is published by ArtScroll. The softcover edition is no longer in stock, but the hardcover edition is available: http://artscroll.com/linker/hazon/ASIN/CHSP
“Chofetz Chaim”: A Lesson a Day. It is published by ArtScroll: http://artscroll.com/linker/hazon/ASIN/LADH
“Triumph of Survival – The Story of the Jews in the Modern Era 1650-1990” by Berel Wein (Shaar Press). For information, visit: http://artscroll.com/linker/hazon/ASIN/TRIU