(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Horowitz of Ropczyce (1760-1827) was known for his sharp wit, a talent that often unlocked bolted doors to people’s hearts. Besides being an inspirational figure, as a communal leader it was his lot to care for the downtrodden and needy. One time a particularly sad case came before him: A hard-working person had fallen deep into debt and his creditor had seized him and his entire family and thrown them into a dungeon. Only repaying the debt would secure the release of this poor family. Alas the debt was indeed large, far larger than could be collected in a small village such as Ropczyce. R. Naftali decided that the only solution was to travel to Tarnopol and collect the necessary funds.
He told his attendants to prepare for the journey by drawing up a list of the wealthy of Tarnopol. The attendants were somewhat surprised: Tarnopol was not a city known for generosity, nor were the inhabitants particularly loyal to R. Naftali. Often those responsible for collecting for the needy would not include Tarnopol on their itinerary: The few coins they would collect there hardly justified the effort. Moreover they were often subject to abuse rather than a warm reception. The attendants therefore tried to convince R. Naftali that a different destination might be more fruitful. He, however, had made up his mind; Tarnopol it was to be.
The attendants prepared the list and for good measure added a few words of background about each potential donor. Next to three donors they wrote one word in bold letters: Next to one name they wrote maskil
(a person aligned with the Enlightenment), next to another they wrote kamtzan
(a stingy person) and next to a third they wrote lamdan
(a learned person). While those who prepared the list perhaps intended that a visit to these three would be pointless, R. Naftali – perhaps spurred by the challenge – decided to visit them first.
The maskil was first on the list, and when R. Naftali and his retinue arrived at his grand home they were immediately attacked by fearsome guard dogs. The maskil himself had just stepped out to his balcony to get a breath of fresh air and saw his dogs attacking the rabbinic-looking party. From his perch, he watched with a smile as R. Naftali and his attendants tried to fend off the dogs with their canes.
Eventually the maskil called off his dogs and decided it was time for him to have some fun with his uninvited guests. He opened the door and turned to R. Naftali: “It is obvious to me that you are wise person, how then could you forget the admonition of Moses: Why do you hit your friend (Exodus 2:13)? R. Naftali replied immediately: “My dear sir, I was forced to defend myself from your dogs who viciously attacked me, but the question is on you: How did you stand there watching the entire battle, did you perhaps forget Moses’s famous question: Shall your brothers go to war and you will sit here (Numbers 32:6)? The maskil was charmed by R. Naftali’s quick response, listened to the reason for his visit and gave a sizable donation to the cause.
Next on the list was the kamtzan. The lady of the house opened the door: “I am sorry, but my husband left yesterday on a business trip.” R. Naftali suspected the excuse and when he heard the neighing of the horses from the stable, he his eyes narrowed and he thought to himself: If the horses are still at home, how did the owner travel? The woman perceived the doubt on R. Naftali’s face: “If you don’t believe me, you can come inside and see with your own eyes that my husband is not here.” To her surprise, R. Naftali accepted the offer: “If we are invited in, let us enter.” As he walked in, he immediately saw the master of the house hiding in the straw next to the hearth. Reluctantly, the kamtzan came out, with straw all over him.
R. Naftali smiled: “Now I understand the meaning of the words of our sages that receiving visitors is greater than receiving the Divine Presence (B. Shabbat
127a; B. Shavuot
35b).” To the puzzled look on kamtzan’s face, he explained: “When Moses saw the Divine Presence, it says that he hid his face (Exodus 3:6); while you – as soon as you saw that visitors were on your doorstep, you hid not just your face but your entire body.” The kamtzan was embarrassed and hastily sought to correct the bad impression he had made by agreeing to donate handsomely to the cause.
The third stop was the house of the lamdan. Here R. Naftali was
received nicely, but when he explained the reason for his visit, the
lamdan balked: “If the Almighty has decreed that this family sit in
jail, we must accept the divine judgment and not try to force God’s
hand.” R. Naftali was pained by this response and with chilling words
he responded: “Indeed it is a grave sin to go against the word of God;
perhaps it would be better if you did not have any money so that you
will never be tempted to ‘sin’ by giving charity.” With that R. Naftali
left the house.
Not many days passed and indeed the lamdan lost his wealth, while R.
Naftali succeeded in raising the funds needed to rescue the poor family
from its predicament.The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.