by Rabbi Paysach Krohn
Quite often we judge an individual with the smug self-assurance that we know the "whole story." However, there are many instances and incidents that are not as obvious or simple as they appear. Often a hurried judgement leads to embarrassing retractions and deeply hurt feelings. Consider the following episode.
The Rashash (Rabbi Shmuel Shtrashun of Vilna, 1819-1885) was known for his great Torah erudition and great wealth. He spent many hours immersed in Torah study (his commentary on virtually the entire Talmud is printed in most editions of the Talmud) and took off time from his role as merchant banker to administer a free-loan fund.
One day, a tailor named Reb Zalman came to borrow money. He explained his desperate needs to the Rashash, who granted him a loan of 300 rubles to be repaid in one year. The transaction was recorded in the Rashash's ledger.
One year later, to the day, Reb Zalman appeared with the money at the home of the Rashash. Deeply involved in a talmudic discourse, the Rashash did not wish to be disturbed. Reb Zalman, who knew that the loan was due that day, came into the room where the Rashash was learning, excused his interruption and returned the 300 rubles.
Wishing to minimize the interruption, the Rashash took the money, and tucked it into the back cover flap of the volume he was using, with the intention of removing it later on. He continued with his studies and was deeply engrossed for the rest of the afternoon. When he finished, he returned each of his books to its proper shelf, including the volume which now held the money tucked away in the cover flap.
A few weeks later at his office, the Rashash reviewed his ledger and saw that the loan to Reb Zalman had not been crossed out and was apparently overdue. He summoned Reb Zalman to inquire about the money.
Naturally, Reb Zalman claimed that not only had he returned the loan but that he had returned it on the very day it had been due. Yet, there were no witnesses to the event, nothing had been recorded and the Rashash had no recollection of the matter. A discussion ensued and it was decided that both parties would go to a rabbinic court where the matter would be decided.
The news spread around the town like wildfire that the plain, simple tailor, Reb Zalman, was involved in a din Torah with the revered Rashash. People were outraged that anyone had the audacity to contradict the scholarly and saintly Rashash, and the tarnishing of Reb Zalman's character and reputation had begun.
The rabbinical court ruled that since there had once been a debt and it was now the word of one man against the other, Reb Zalman would have to swear that he had indeed repaid the loan and then he would be absolved of further debt. The Rashash, however, did not want to take a chance of having a fellow Jew possibly swear falsely, and so he relented and dropped the case.
Anger and bitterness were cast upon the hapless tailor. People stopped doing business with him, and the tailor and his family became the objects of mockery and degradation. Soon, unable to cope with the constant abuse, Reb Zalman gave up his business and moved to a hamlet out of town, a broken and sorrowful man.
A year later, the Rashash once again was involved with the same subject as he had been studying on that fateful day. Once more, he pulled out the rare volume he had used then. As he leafed through the pages he noticed a large number of bills in the back flap. At first he was puzzled, but then it struck him! Reb Zalman! This was the money that Reb Zalman had claimed he had paid.
Immediately he sought Reb Zalman to make amends. He went to Reb Zalman 's place of business and couldn't find him. He went to his old house and was told that he had moved.
The Rashash didn't rest until he found Reb Zalman living in a dilapidated shanty in a desolate area far from the city. "Please forgive me," pleaded the Rashash, "I just found the money in the book and I realized that it was you who was right, not I."
"What good is forgiveness!" said Reb Zalman bitterly. "My business is gone, my money is lost, I have nothing, I am the laughing stock of the community."
"Not only will I return your money," said the Rashash, "but I will go to every synagogue, and announce that it was my mistake and that people should restore their proper respect towards you."
"No," said Reb Zalman sadly. "People will only say that the Rashash is a tzaddik, and it is his compassion that compels him to act in this manner. They will never believe that I was really right."
The Rashash was perplexed, for he understood human nature and knew that Reb Zalman was right. People wouldn't believe him after such a long period of doubt and rebuke. The Rashash thought a moment about how to rectify the situation and then said, "I have a daughter... now if I take your son as a son-in-law, which means that you would become part of my family, then no one would doubt that you are indeed a respectable man."
Reb Zalman agreed to this proposal. The prospective bride and groom agreed as well, and a marriage was arranged between Reb Zalman's son and the Rashash's daughter, and Reb Zalman regained his former status in the community.