An Open Letter from the Chofetz Chaim –
Rabbi Yisrael Mayer Hacohen
Written Before the First World War
Although I do not generally place myself in a (public) leadership position but having witnessed the raging flames which engulf our holy heritage, while many sit on the side with their hands clasped and cry “What will happen to our people?”, I have seen it necessary to tell them that shouts and cries alone will not extinguish the fires which burn. At times such as these the weak must take courage and everyone must strengthen himself to do his share in putting out the raging flames. We cannot, at such a critical time, concern ourselves with those who divide us and declare it unbecoming to assume a position beneath our dignity. Only a fool concerns himself with his prestige in such a situation, where the flames already lick at the very pillars which support us.
Let me explain. At first the evil inclination enticed us to change our Jewish customs, such as our mode of dress. Afterwards he progressed to get us to transgress the laws of the Torah such as the proscription of shaving with a razor. Now he has been strengthened even further and has begun to attempt to convince us to transgress the laws of the Sabbath, which carry with them the grave penalty of stoning; and the laws of forbidden sexual relations, for which one must rather sacrifice his life than be forced into committing. Even those who themselves do not desecrate the Sabbath are enticed by the evil inclination to remove their children from schools which study Torah and enroll them in totally secular schools. Not only does the Sabbath become
meaningless to them, but without a doubt, as adults, all of the Torah, as well, will mean nothing to them. We have already seen how small a percentage of them will remain true to their religion as adults.
Those who still remain true to the Torah see this raging inferno which the evil inclination has kindled and broken in spirit, they cry out “Woe, woe, what will become of us and our children? While we live our children are too embarrassed to turn fully away from us, and they need our financial support. But one day our children will be left alone, and then they will do as their hearts desire, trampling even the most stringent of our laws.” What will it help, however, to cry and shout? Will this extinguish the fire? Each individual whose heart aches with pain at the desecration of G-d’s name and is
concerned with the future of the Jewish people must do all that is within his power to save the honor of G-d. This
is our reason for existence, as the Torah writes “All who call my name and for my honor I have Created him…”
For a time like this the Torah says “it is a time to do for G-d.” Note the words “to do.” Every man, both great and
small, must do what he can for the honor of G-d to save what he can from the Supreme King’s treasure – that is – his religion and his people. First and foremost is for each person to spread the light of Torah to whatever extent he can, for it is through the neglect of learning Torah that these great problems have arisen and the Torah is trampled on. We can see this in the passage of the Sifri on the verse “and you shall turn away and worship strange gods.” The Sifri comments, “once a person turns from the Torah (completely) he goes and clings to idolatry.” Unfortunately, as a result of our many sins, we witness this today. Conversely, however, if we shall succeed in turning our people slightly back to Torah,
their heads will necessarily be pulled to their Father in Heaven. The words of the prophet have already explained why we were exiled. “And G-d said – because they have forsaken my Torah.” Our sages of blessed memory have explained that G-d is saying, “If only they (the Jewish people) forsook me but my Torah they kept, because the light within it would bring them back to the good path.” We can see this today with our own eyes. Even those of our youth who have strayed completely
from our faith, through the efforts of dedicated men who have arranged for them to study Torah, they have changed completely and once again the light of Torah shines within them.
This therefore must be our first priority. Every Jew must concern himself with all of his ability to establish in his
city study groups to learn Talmud, Mishna, Ain Yaakov, etc. . . .and to organize special youth groups for our youth. He must seek out experts to help him if he cannot do it himself.
The entire foundation of our faith rests on this.
Thank G-d we have seen that if one dedicates himself to this, G-d helps him, and the merit of this work cannot be exaggerated. In reference to this kind of work, it is said, “A wise man acquires souls.” If, however, we are neglectful of this work, we may be held accountable for those souls who were lost because they had neither help nor support. How can we not take pity on the souls of our brethren who are our own flesh and blood, the descendants of Abraham, and try to save them from this great danger.
Besides the tried and true approach of spreading the study of Torah, we are all obliged to remonstrate and try
to enjoin our brethren from committing sin. It is the mitzvah of “rebuke” to gently explain to all the gravity of
their sin and the jeopardy it places him and his family in – for the penalty of excision includes within it an edict of
becoming childless. Also, one must publicize the stringency of sin and to bitterly decry the desecration of G-d’s name which ensues when the principles of Torah are nullified and from the loss of souls who have accumulated within themselves the sin of excision if they do not repent. The Torah has instructed us to return the lost animal of our neighbor. If the Torah is concerned about returning his animal which strays from its path, how much more so then are we obligated by
the Torah to have mercy on a Jewish soul which has strayed from the proper path and return him to the true way. And in truth, even the total sinners of our time are, for the most part, not sinning to rebel against G-d, Heaven for- bid, but are rather misguided individuals who have been misled by others.
They are indeed like lost sheep who do not know how to return to their master’s house. It is a great mitzvah to have mercy upon them and to teach them the proper way. As the verse in the Torah says, “And you shall make known to them the path that they may go in it.”
To what may this be compared? To one who sees his friend drowning in a river, or in other danger. It is a mitzvah to save him, and it is forbidden to stand idly by. Obviously, the same holds true if one sees his friend seriously ill and as a result of his disorientation, attempts to take his own life. Certainly we are obligated to do all in our power to prevent him. So too, when we see men who, as a result of their (spiritual) disorientation and their consuming involvement in the vanities of this world, have forgotten the Torah and the great responsibility of keeping the mitzvos, we are obliged to
prevent them from transgressing laws which will cut their souls from eternal life, for although the Holy One, Blessed be He shows great patience, eventually the debt must be paid.
Those men of Torah whom G-d has graced with wisdom and understanding, and who have the ability to help repair the breach in our people, must not remain silent. The sheep are straying and before long will be completely lost – and they will be held accountable. This is particularly true of the leaders of the flock in all places who are referred to as the “eyes” of the people. If they turn away from teaching the way of G-d, then their people are as a blind man walking on a path. Invariably he will come to danger by falling in a hole. So too, our people will inescapably come to a great danger through
their sins without the proper guidance.
I know that everyone thinks, “What can l do about those who repudiate their religion; they are heretics and sinners and they certainly won’t listen to me.” This, however, is not a satisfactory response. We do not intend to resuscitate those who have already died in spirit and retain not a drop of trust in Torah. We must strengthen those weak-hearted who remain amongst us so that they too do not succumb to the seductions of the others.
You must also know that when we accepted the Torah we did not do so only for ourselves. We accepted it to strengthen its observance amongst the rest of our people as well. We all become guarantors for one another. If one does not prevent another from sinning when he could have – then he will be punished as well. This is what is meant by the concept of araivus- of becoming guarantors for one another. We reaffirm this acceptance every day when we accept the yoke of the mitzvahs in the second paragraph of Shema Yisroel, and then in the blessing of Emes Veyatziv we indicate that this
acceptance goes for ourselves, our children and for all of lsrael. It is therefore apparent that if one could prevent his friend from a particular sin and does not do so he too becomes responsible for that sin. And so have our sages of blessed memory said: “Whomsoever has the power to prevent the sins of his household and does not do so is held accountable for the sins of his household, (to prevent the sins) of his city and does not do so – is held accountable for the sins of his city, (to prevent the sins) of the entire world and does not do so – he is held accountable for the sins of the entire world.” Behold we see that our faith grows weaker every day and if we will not see to strengthen it, who knows what may occur, heaven forbid. Even if only one prohibition of the Torah is dispensed with, over time it is very bad; all the more
so if it is a prohibition which is punishable through excision or execution. Woe to us, Heaven forbid, if G-d visits the punishment on us all. It can even be that one who studiously avoided any sin all of his life will, in the World-to-Come, be held liable for prohibitions such as eating unkosher food and forbidden sexual relations and Sabbath desecration. For example, if these sins were flaunted in his city by various people, when he comes before the Heavenly Tribunal, he will ask how can he be considered guilty of sins which he never committed? They will answer him, “you should at least have tried to reprove those who committed them and explain greatly to each person the gravity of his sin. Perhaps they would have refrained.” The Rabbis teach us that if one performed an act deserving of greater punishment (excision) unwittingly but had intent for a negative prohibition (without excision) he is only considered an unwitting offender. The reason is that had he known that as a result of his act his soul would be cut off from the living spirit of his people he would probably have refrained. Furthermore, the Rabbis teach that in the final judgment when sinners are challenged for their sins, the fear is so great that even the body and soul, which had previously loved one another, attempt to exonerate themselves and blame the other. The soul claims, “From the day I separated from the body I have not sinned at all,” and the body says the opposite. What does the Holy One do? He joins them together and punishes them. I am certain that at the time the sinners themselves will point an accusing finger at the community and those who retained the fear of G-d and they will say, “If they would have taught us the severity of the sin we would never have done it.” I remember one incident from my youth in a city where a respected man was arrested and the police while leading him away allowed him to rest a moment in the street. He then called to the Rabbi of the city and said to him, “I know that my sins have caused me all this, but I have a complaint against you. You know me, and you should have rebuked me for my conduct. If this can happen in this world, certainly in the World-to-Come where the fear is far greater, the sinners will rail against us so as to lighten their own judgment. I believe this is what we say in the prayer Avinu Malkeinu – “Our Father, Our King, with Your great mercy, wipe away all of our notes of spiritual liability.” This seems superfluous. Have we not already in that same prayer
asked for our sins to be wiped away? Rather, first we asked for the sins we committed ourselves to be wiped away. Afterwards we ask for the sins which others committed but which we are liable for as a result of our being guarantors.
In truth, a person must be most fearful of judgment. At times even while yet in this world man can be held accountable for the sins of others. Our sages in Tractate Sabbath (folio 55) commented that the Holy One commanded the angel to impress the letter Tav on the saints – as an allusion to the word Tichya (revival of the dead). Afterwards though it is written He commanded him to begin punishment on those who are closer to Him, for the attribute of Judgment arose before Him and
asked, “What is the difference between these and these?” The Holy One answered, “These are complete saints – these are complete sinners.” Whereupon the attribute of Judgment retorted, “They should have protested!” G-d answered, “It is revealed before me – their protests would not have been accepted.” But the attribute of Judgment answered, “If it is revealed before You, was it revealed before them?” And so the attribute of Judgment immediately went out to declare them all guilty.
The Medrash relates that the attribute of Judgment asked, “Which of them was killed by me? Which of them had his head split by me?” From this we can see the extent of the obligation even to suffer embarrassment in order to prevent a Jew from sinning. One who desires honor and a position of respect through Torah should be especially prepared to lower himself for its sake. We cannot excuse ourselves by saying it is better not to say something which will be ignored, since it is highly unusual that a Rav should speak in a topic of Torah and not be heeded by at least some of his audience.
At this time, it is of great necessity that those who fear Gd gather in each and every city at regular intervals and
together with their spiritual leaders determine what they can do to hold back the breach in our faith. If they gather together to care for the physical needs of the city, certainly we must do so for our issue which concerns our very lives, the lives of our children and the honor of the Supreme Ruler of the Universe. First and foremost, every large city must develop a community group to concern themselves with the observance of Sabbath so that stores will close before nightfall on Friday evenings and with other Sabbath observances as well as developing plans to maintain Jewish standards of family purity.
I know full well that it is not within our power to totally remove these obstacles from the path of our people.
Nevertheless, we are not excused from saving whatever we may save. When hundreds are drowning in a river we cannot excuse ourselves from the rescue just because we cannot save them all. Without a doubt, if we shall do our part, we can save many holy souls from desecrating the Sabbath, which is equal to serving idols. Likewise, we can save many from transgressing the laws of family purity, which Jewish law requires that one give up his life rather than transgress.
To rescue even one soul all of this effort would be worthwhile, and the desecration of G-d’s name can also be minimized when it is seen that at least there is protest made when the laws are transgressed.
The essential fact is that the laws of the Sabbath and sexual morality are of the most stringent within the entire Torah, and we must take constant heed to prevent their transgression from becoming habit which then causes them to be looked on as permissible.
Therefore, to those who love G-d, I say the only correct course and counsel to follow is what I wrote at the very
beginning of this article. Kindle the light of Torah in the souls of the people of G-d, both children and adults. The
blackness of the dark can only be eliminated through the spreading of light, and the deeper and thicker the darkness the greater the light that is needed.
One of the foundations of our faith is the education of our youth. Just as we must pay attention to the adults and teens and kindle the lights of Torah within them, it is even more important to concern ourselves with young Jewish children. We must see that they are taught and educated in the way of Torah and Mitzvos through the appointment of able instructors. They must teach them Chumash with Rashi, and even more important, we must strengthen ourselves through the establishment of classes in Talmud, which is the most important tie which binds the Jewish people to their heritage.
Our experience has shown us that it is only through the strength of the oral Law – the Talmud – that our people have been able to stand steadfast in their studies and their faith to this day. It would be most appropriate if the elders of the city would periodically test the students of the city in order to strengthen their resolve in their studies. He who has the merit to found a Yeshiva in his city serves as a beam of light to his city and to all neighboring communities.
The overriding principle is that there is much to be done in “the vineyard of the L-d.” Happy is he who sets his head to this and in whom there is thus fulfilled the words of the prophet, “And those that serve the people shall shine as stars forever more.”
Written with a spirit broken by his shattered people, the youngest of the priests, and a servant to those who serve
G-d and by one who anguishes over the pain of his people and earnestly awaits the final salvation.
(Rabbi) Yisrael Mayer HaCohen, Author of the works
“Chofetz Chaim” and “Mishnah Berurah”
An Open Letter from the Chofetz Chaim –