For the week ending 20 November 2010 / 12 Kislev 5771

Rabbi Incognito

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: David

Dear Rabbi,

I had a very embarrassing situation recently. There was a well-known rabbi visiting our community who I ended up treating not particularly politely because I didn’t know who he was. To be honest, the friction was really not his fault at all, but mine. So when I realized it was him when he was introduced to speak at shul on Shabbat, I was so embarrassed. What should I have done, and what can I do now that he’s already left?

Dear David,

As I’m sure you’re aware, it’s a mitzvah to treat every person politely and respectfully. So you should have treated this visitor to your community in a more appropriate fashion not only as a guest and rabbi but simply as a fellow person. The fact that you regretted having acted that way when you found out he’s a rabbi is good insofar as it shows that you have a respect for Torah scholars, but it also might indicate that you need to increase your awareness of the Torah’s teachings about treating other people in general.

Once you were stirred to regret your behavior, you probably should have found some opportunity to apologize to the rabbi. You could have made mention of the fact that no one should be treated that way, all the more so a visiting rabbi. Now that he’s left town, you should still apologize either by phone, letter or email. You might also want to make the incident and your apology known to those of the community who invited him, such as the rabbi of the shul and those who hosted him.

This whole incident reminds me of a story about two great Chasidic Masters, the brothers Rabbi Zusha and Rabbi Elimelech, who are known to have undertaken self-imposed exile incognito, traveling around by foot.

Upon arriving in a particular town, they were directed to a certain wealthy man’s home to ask for lodgings. The respectable gentleman took one look at these seemingly poverty-stricken vagabonds and promptly had them removed from his property. Ultimately, they were taken in by a very poor and simple Jew hovelled on the outskirts of town.

Some years later, after the rabbis had “returned to themselves”, they happened upon the same town. However, this time, they traveled by horse-drawn carriage and their arrival in town was greeted with a great, honorable welcome as befitting such illustrious guests, headed by the wealthy patron of the town who insisted they lodge in his mansion.

Later, to everyone’s astonishment, Rabbi Zusha and Rabbi Elimelech took up lodgings at their poor host’s hovel on the outskirts of town while they sent the horses on to be put up at the mansion. When the rich man heard what happened, he immediately ordered his carriage to the hovel, and indignantly demanded an explanation.

The rabbis responded quite simply: “On our previous visit here, not only did you not come out to receive us, you literally kicked us out into the street. Now you insist we lodge with you. We thought to ourselves, ‘What could possibly be the difference between that visit and this?’ We came to the conclusion that it must be because of the horses. So this poor man who showed interest only in us and not the horses, he will house us and not the horses. You, however, who showed no interest in us but only in the horses, will need only house the horses but not be burdened with caring for us.”

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