They called the young man a horse thief — the worst epithet in the 19th-century shtetl of Czernovitz. He had other “virtues”: he desecrated the Sabbath regularly and was a womanizer, a drunk, and a gambler.
The townspeople had attempted to have him expelled, but he had a powerful ally — his father, the rabbi of Czernovitz. Reb Chaim was a hasidic master who came to be known by the title of his Torah commentary, Be’er Mayim Chaim.
One year, on the eve of Yom Kippur, the townspeople approached its three most influential citizens — Yankel, chief of the city council; Berel, sexton of the synagogue; and Moshe, the cantor — demanding that they go to the rabbi and insist he banish his son. They went to the rabbi’s home and told the rebbetzin they must speak with her husband. She responded, “The rabbi is praying. He will see you when he is through,” and requested that they be seated in the anteroom of the rabbi’s study.
The wall between the two rooms was thin, and Yankel, Berel, and Moshe could not help but overhear the rabbi’s conversation with God. “Oy, dear Father,” he cried. “Yom Kippur is almost here. I beseech You to have mercy upon the leaders of our community. You have good reason to punish them severely and expel them from this world: Yankel, who often submits to the temptation to take bribes; Berel, who regularly dips into the tzedaka pushka; and Moshe, any of whose many misdeeds would disqualify him from serving as cantor.”
Ashamed, the three men were about to leave, but then heard the rabbi continue: “Dear God, I too have a son who has failed me. But I have not disowned him because I am a merciful father. If I can show mercy to my child, then surely You must pardon Yankel, Berel, and Moshe, who are Your children.”
You know the rest of the story. The horse thief remained in the shtetl with no further protest from Yankel, Berel, Moshe, or anyone else.
I have often felt that Reb Chaim learned the proper behavior of a good father from Jacob in this week’s Torah portion, which offers the patriarch’s final blessings to his sons.
Jacob had sufficient cause to withhold his blessing from quite a few of them. Besides Benjamin, they had all participated in the sale of Joseph, deceiving their father and causing him many years of grief and worry. Jacob does indeed rebuke them, but the poignant episode ends with this assertion: “All these were the tribes of Israel, 12 in number, this is what their father said to them as he blessed them, giving each one his own particular blessing.”
He blessed all 12. He disowned no one. He offered fair words of criticism, but uttered no words of rejection.
Jacob taught a lesson to all parents — including Reb Chaim of Czernovitz — for all time: Never close the door, no matter what faults you find in your child.