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The Rabbi's Smile

retold by Doug Lipman

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak sent for a wealthy man who lived in his town of Berdichev. When he arrived, the rabbi implored him, "There is a poor man who needs assistance. I have asked all the others to give to a fund for him. But a substantial sum is still needed. I have no one else to ask but you."

"Rabbi, it pains me to refuse you. I obey every commandment, every mitzvah. You know that. But I will not give to any of these special causes. In fact, I wish you wouldn't even ask me in the future. That way, I won't be forced to dishonor you by turning you down."

Months later, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak was visited by the brother of that wealthy man. The brother, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak learned, was poor, had many children, and now needed money for the marriage of one of his daughters. Naturally, he had asked his wealthy brother for assistance. His brother had turned him down. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak looked at the man a long while. Then he said, "Do not worry. I believe I know what to do."

The next day, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak appeared at the wealthy brother's door. When the surprised man escorted the rabbi inside, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak walked to a chair and sat down. He said nothing. Respectfully, the wealthy man stood in front of him, waiting for the rabbi to speak.

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak smiled, but did not speak. After a long time, the wealthy man sat down. Even so, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak remained silent.

An hour later Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, still smiling, got up and left.

The next day, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak appeared again at the wealthy man's door. Again, the wealthy man sat in silence for an entire hour, waiting for the smiling rabbi to speak.

The third day, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak appeared once more. He sat silently for another hour, then got up to leave. As he rose, the wealthy man said, "I can't bear this, rabbi. Why do you come here and say nothing? And why do you smile the whole time?"

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak settled back in his chair. "Our sages say it is a mitzvah, a commandment, to give a rebuke when it will be heeded. And they also say we are commanded not to chastise when it will not have a positive effect.

"All these years, my friend, I have fulfilled the first of those commandments many times. But the second one? The people in this town have been eager to hear what I want and to do what I ask. As a result, I have never had the opportunity to fulfill the commandment not to offer a rebuke. So I smile in pleasure at fulfilling a commandment for the first time!"

The wealthy man turned red with embarrassment. At last he said, "What is it you wish me to do?" When Rabbi Levi Yitzhak told him, he gave a large sum of money for his brother.

As Rabbi Levi Yitzhak left, he smiled.

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This story is presented as one of two stories about Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, and his attitude toward criticism of others:

  1. The Rabbi's Smile
  2. The Rabbi's Blessing

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