In Memory of the Shoah Victims and Survivors “Forgiveness from the Chofetz Chaim”

Contributed by Rabbi Daniel Lev for Shoah Remembrance Day

Rabbi and Professor Abraham Joshua Herschel came to the United States in 1939 and contributed greatly to Jewish spiritual culture. Sometime in the 1950s, he was asked if he could forgive the Germans for the Holocaust. He said, “No.” When he was asked why, he told this story:

Once the Chofetz Chaim, the great rabbinic sage of early 20th Century Eastern Europe, was traveling on a train. On one side of the train car there was a hot card game taking place. One of the Jews in the game was a big, brutish-looking man. He looked over at this little guy sitting several seats away, the Chofetz Chaim, and shouted at him to come join the game. The big guy didn’t know who he was, but he thought that this nicely dressed man could add to the gambling pot. The Chofetz Chaim kindly declined to play and returned to reading his book.

The big fellow puffed himself up in a rage of indignation and yelled, “What?! Do you think you’re too good for us?! That a snooty person like you can’t join a friendly game of cards!” The rabbi replied, “No young man, that’s not why. I simply don’t play cards – that is why I cannot join you.”

The huge man rose from his seat, stomped over to the rabbi and screamed, “So! A momzer like you is too fancy and proper to play cards, eh!? That’s even more insulting!!” And with that, he hauled off and slapped the Chofetz Chaim, leaving a stinging red handprint on his face.

At that moment, the train had pulled into the Chofetz Chaim’s town stop, and out the window you could see a large crowd holding up signs saying, “Welcome back Holy Chofetz Chaim.” There was a band playing and many people ready to greet him. As the passengers disembarked, they could see the love and care that the townspeople showed the rabbi.

The big brute also saw this and realized that he just slapped a great rabbi! After the crowd had thinned some, he approached the Chofetz Chaim with deference and softly said with great sincerity, “Oh holy Chofetz Chaim – I am so sorry to have insulted and struck you. Can you please forgive me?”

The Rabbi said, “No.” Now this was very unusual! Our tradition teaches that when someone who has hurt you comes with a sincere offer of apology, you must forgive them. After the crowds thinned a little more, the burly man approached the rabbi again and even more sincerely said, “I am so sorry. I did not mean to hurt the great Chofetz Chaim. Can you find it in your heart to forgive my action?” Again, the sage said, “No.”

In our tradition, when someone refuses to forgive you, you must approach them three times. If they have not forgiven you after the second try, then you must bring two witnesses to observe your last attempt. If you are refused a third time, then our tradition absolves you of your hurtful action.

When the man approached the Chofetz Chaim with witnesses and asked, “Rebbe, please forgive me for hurting you. Had I known you were the Chofetz Chaim, I would never have cursed or struck you.” When the Chofetz Chaim refused for a third time, the man asked him a critical question: “Rabbi, why won’t you forgive me?”

The Rebbe said, “You have approached these three times asking the Chofetz Chaim to forgive you. But you did not hit the Chofetz Chaim – you struck and insulted and ordinary Jew sitting on the train. That is who you need to ask forgiveness – not the ‘Chofetz Chaim.’”

When Rabbi Herschel finished this story, he said, “You see, I myself did not live through the horrors of the Holocaust, so it is not up to me to forgive the Germans. The power of forgiveness in the hands of those who lived through those horrible times. They are the “ordinary Jews” who were struck in the face by the outrages of the Nazis. Only they can offer forgiveness.”