17 Adar B 5779 / Sunday, March 24, 2019 | Torah Reading: Shemini
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The Price of an Insult    

The Price of an Insult

The Steipler then roared like a lion, "How can that be?! How can a yeshiva student do such a thing?! Of course, that's the reason! How can anyone be so cruel to a poor widow?"


There's a well-known story about an educational institution that employed a cook who was a widow. The institution allowed her to take home leftover food from the day's meals. One day, one of the students asked for a second hamburger. She answered, "I'm sorry, but they've all been eaten."


The young man remarked with insolence, "Oh yeah, you say that there's nothing leftover so that you can take them home!" The cook was insulted and very hurt. She swore in front of all the students in the dining room that she'll never again take even a crumb home. The student continued to mimic her and ridicule her, but she paid no attention.


Days, months and years passed. Fifteen years later, the young man met one of his former classmates who was walking with his beautiful children. The former classmate asked the young man – the one who insulted the cook years ago –"How many children do you have?"


The young man lowered his eyes and responded, "With Hashem's help, someday, I'll be blessed with children – as soon as He decides." Understandably, the classmate was very embarrassed and regretted having asked the young man such a painful question. They bid each other farewell and departed.


After walking a few steps in the opposite direction, the former classmate remembered the episode with the widowed cook. He thought to himself: "Perhaps, Heaven forbid, that's the reason why my friend has not yet become a father…" He made an about-face and hurried to catch up to the young man, telling the latter what was on his mind.


The young man refused to accept the idea. "What are you talking about," he said, "what does that have to do with anything?" The former classmate refused to give up and pressed further. They reached a compromise and decided that they would go ask the Steipler, osb”m, and seek his opinion. They wrote the question down on a piece of paper and passed it to the venerable sage. When he read the question, he shuddered. He then roared like a lion, "How can that be?! How can that be?! Of course, that's the reason! How can anyone be so cruel to a poor widow? How is that possible?!" The young man cried like a baby. He searched for the widow's address and hurried to ask her forgiveness.


He knocked on her door. "Do you recognize me?" he asked.


"Of course I recognize you," she answered.


"I came to ask your forgiveness," he said.


"I'll never forgive you," she said. "Because of you, my ten children have suffered all these years. I can't forgive you."


The young man begged, but to no avail. She said, "I'm not going to fool myself and say that I forgive you. I am not able to forgive you."


The young man was beside himself in anguish. He decided to seek the advice of several people who knew the widow as to how he might possibly placate her. They told him that she has a son who is weak in his studies. Right away, he returned to her and offered to tutor her son. In addition, he would devote several hours a day to tutoring her other children and to help them pass their difficult matriculation exams. For this, she agreed to forgive him. Soon afterwards, he became a father…


Who knows whether the widow, at the height of her sorrow and humiliation in public, uttered under her breath some curse against the young man? The Torah warns against harming a widow, and that Hashem will hear her cry of distress (see Exodus 22:21).


I have seen people suffer terribly, even after they repented. I'm not talking about a mere contemplation of remorse, but deep, heart-rendering penitence, including an hour a day of personal prayer and hours of uninterrupted, steadfast Torah learning. Yet, they still suffer terribly. At the time, I didn't know what to tell them. But now that I’ve engaged in in-depth research in the subject of the mitzvoth between man and fellow human, I've seen repeatedly how blemishes in this area are the root of many people's ills, perhaps all of them.


Why go far? We're now in the midst of the Counting of the Omer, when 24,000 of Rebbe Akiva's students died in a terrible plague. The Gemara tells us why these prodigious Torah scholars lost their lives: they didn't properly respect one another. In other words, their magnificent Torah learning lost its ability to protect them as soon as they were weak in the mitzvoth between man and fellow human. This is a lesson for posterity. Now's the time to strengthen ourselves in this area.


Let's not forget that the Second Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed because of sinat chinam, intramural hate. Each one of us who strengthens him/herself in the way we treat our fellow human is adding another building block to the Holy Temple, may it be rebuilt soon, amen!

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