Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1820-1892), the Rabbi of Brisk, also known by the title of his work, Beit Halevi, was revered throughout Europe as a foremost scholar and Talmudic sage. Even more renowned was his kindness of heart and humility, which the following story relates.
One day, he stopped by an inn in the middle of a freezing night and asked for lodging. He had no entourage with him. The innkeeper, thinking that the man was a poor beggar, treated him terribly. Yet, Rabbi Soloveitchik still did not disclose who he was. After pleading with the innkeeper, he was finally allowed to sleep on the floor near a stove. The innkeeper did not offer him any food and refused to give him more than a little bread and water for which Rabbi Soloveitchik was willing to pay.
The next morning, a few of the town notables came to the inn. “We understand that the Brisker Rav was passing through this town. Is it possible that he came by your inn last night?” At first, the innkeeper dismissed the question – until Rabbi Soloveitchik appeared and the group entered to greet him warmly. In a matter of minutes, the town dignitaries converged on the inn with their students and children all in line to meet the great sage.
Terribly embarrassed, the innkeeper, who realized that he had berated and humiliated a leading Torah figure, decided to beg forgiveness from the Rabbi. “Rebbe,” he cried, “I am terribly sorry. I had no idea that you were the Brisker Rav. Please forgive me.” Rabbi Soloveitchik replied. “I would love to, but you see that would be impossible.” “But why?” asked the owner in shock. “You see,” explained the Rabbi, “you are coming to ask forgiveness from the Brisker Rav. That is not who you insulted. You debased a simple Jew who came for lodging – and he is no longer here to forgive you.”
This week’s Torah portion Re’eh teaches about tzedakah: “You shall not harden your heart nor close your hand against your destitute kinsman…Rather, you shall surely give him, and your heart must not be grieved when you do so” (Deuteronomy 15:7-10). Like the innkeeper in the above story, the giver becomes detached from the recipient, at times even to the point of disdain for one less fortunate. The Torah reminds us not to insult the poor or accuse them of being undeserving, for if one gives with a hardened heart, it is as if one gives nothing at all.