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Kedoshim"…you shall not stand aside while your fellow's blood is shed…" (Vayikra 19:16).
The Torah commands us to save a fellow Jew in distress. If, for example, he is drowning, we must attempt to save his life. Similarly, if he is in a bad financial state, we should do all that we can to help him persevere.
A beloved Rebby of mine, Reb Tuvia Goldstein zt"l, used to say, "The Torah doesn't tell us what to do to save the person. Obviously, it depends on the situation. But the Torah tells us, 'For goodness sake, don't just stand there and watch him drown! If you can't save him yourself, then yell, scream, run for help…do something!'"
The following famous story was one of the favorites of Reb Shalom Shvadron zt"l.
Rabbi Chaim of Zanz once arrived in a certain town and was walking down the street when he stopped in front of a house and said, "The scent of Gan Eden is emanating from this house. I must enter and find out what it is."
The house belonged to a Reb Pesach, who was in charge of charity in the town. Rabbi Chaim knocked on the door, and when Reb Pesach opened the door, Rabbi Chaim entered and started walking around the house sniffing everywhere, until he came to one cabinet and said, "From this cabinet the scent of Gan Eden is entering my nostrils."
Rabbi Chaim of Zanz asked that the cabinet be opened. Reb Pesach was astonished at Rabbi Chaim's behavior, but he was aware of the greatness of his guest, and thus complied with his request. He opened the cabinet and began emptying its contents. In it were old clothes, rags, etc. Suddenly Reb Pesach pulled out the clothes of a Catholic priest. At this point Rabbi Chaim of Zanz exclaimed, "This is it! This is it! From these clothes the scent of Gan Eden is emanating. Now tell me the whole story of how you come to have these clothes."
Reb Pesach was confused, because he was afraid that Rabbi Chaim would admonish him for keeping the clothes of a priest in his house. But seeing that he had no choice, he began to tell his story.
Reb Pesach was the head of the local charity. Every week he had a set route for collecting charity to be distributed to the poor. Once, when he finished his usual route he returned home and found someone waiting for him. As he entered his house, the man began shouting at him, "Reb Pesach, I am in dire straits. I have tremendous debts, and my creditors are demanding their money. If I do not find the money to pay them, I am lost!" "I understand your situation," answered Reb Pesach, "but what can I do? Why did you come so late? I have just finished my rounds and have already seen all the people who normally contribute. To whom can I turn now? Do you expect me to find new people to donate money? I don't know to whom to turn!" The unfortunate Jew began crying uncontrollably and said, "Oy vey! I am so unfortunate!"
Reb Pesach saw how the poor man was crying bitterly and said to himself, "Poor fellow. I will go a second time. Perhaps I shall succeed, and if not, at least I will have done my best."
On his second round, people complained that he had just been there to collect. Reb Pesach answered them, "You are right, but what can I do? In my house sits a man crying over his problems. What should he do? Do you wish him to come himself and cry in front of you?" People gave a second time. Some sighed, but they gave. He returned to his house, and gave the poor man the money he had collected. The man hugged Reb Pesach and kissed him, and there was no end to his happiness as he went on his way.
Not more than fifteen minutes went by, and Reb Pesach heard another knock on the door. Another poor man was standing there and saying, "Save me, please. My situation is so desperate; it is a matter of life and death!"
Immediately Reb Pesach told him, "My dear friend, this is impossible. What do you want me to do? Go a third time? They will throw me out of their houses."
But all of Reb Pesach's explanations fell on deaf ears. The man sat and cried and sighed, and Reb Pesach's heart was broken seeing the man's situation. "If you don't save me," the man said, "I am lost. There will be no hope for me ever again."
"But what can I do?" answered Reb Pesach. "Don't you understand that there is no way in the world I can go collecting from the same people three times in one evening? They will throw me out of their houses."
They continued arguing, until suddenly Reb Pesach had an idea. Near his house was a tavern, where young people came to drink and gamble. Perhaps he would try his luck there. They might laugh at him, but he could try to rebuke them and tell them that they are wasting their money, while a poor man is in such a desperate situation.
With tremendous courage, Reb Pesach entered the tavern. He was immediately confronted with ridicule. "What are you doing here? You want more charity? More money?"
"Last time, I asked the owner for money," said Reb Pesach, "and this time I am asking you for money." Everyone laughed at Reb Pesach, who was pale from the confrontation.
Then a young man who came from a wealthy family and who loved to make jokes spoke up and said, "Listen, Reb Pesach, I am willing to make a deal with you. You want money, that is clear. There was once a priest in our town, and he left his clothes behind. I will bring you those clothes. With you wearing the priest's clothing, we will walk around town, beating on cans to make noise. If you are willing to go through this ordeal, I will give you all the money you need."
"But I need three whole rubles," said Reb Pesach.
"Okay," answered the young man, "I will give you three whole rubles."
Reb Pesach thought, "What should I do? What a crazy idea! Imagine Reb Pesach, the gabbai of charity, parading around town wearing a priest's garments, with all the pranksters and empty-headed people in town parading after him clapping hands and beating on cans. What will they say about me? They will say that I have gone crazy.
"But then, where else will I be able to get three rubles? Who will give me so much money? I see how I am greeted here when I am trying to make another collection. I will be greeted the same way everywhere I go. That would be a pity for the poor man sitting in my house and waiting for help. What is the big deal? I will suffer some disgrace. Is it not worth it to save a Jew?"
"I agree," announced Reb Pesach.
The young man brought the priest's clothing and Reb Pesach put them on. The boys were bursting with laughter and preparing cans and sticks to make noise. Out they went, singing in the streets and making a tremendous commotion. Everyone looked out their windows and saw the strange sight and laughed. They could not guess what had happened. It was not Purim. Why would Reb Pesach dress like that? He must have lost his mind. The pranksters continued this parade with Reb Pesach throughout the entire town.
When they finished, the young man plunked the three rubles down on the table and said, "I promised, and here is your money. Not only that, but you can keep the priest's clothes too."
Reb Pesach accepted the clothes, thinking that through these clothes he had been able to save the life of a Jew. He decided to keep them as a reminder.
When Rabbi Chaim of Zanz heard this story, he cried and said, "That's it, that's it. You did the right thing. Take these clothes and use them as burial clothes after the many years that you shall live. You don't need any other burial clothes. No bad angel will be able to harm you. Tell your children to bury you in these clothes."
And that is what his children did. Many years later, the Polish government wanted to make a road through the Jewish cemetery, and they had to move the graves to a new site. When they opened the grave of Reb Pesach, they found his body complete, except for one foot, since one shoe had been missing from the priest's clothes, and in that place, only his bones remained. The rest of his body had remained completely whole!
Shema Yisrael Torah Network