Divrei Torah on the weekly portions
Knowing When to Own Up
“When any of your brothers is poor … do not harden your heart or close your hand against your needy brother. Open your hand generously, and extend to him any credit he needs to take care of his wants … Make every effort to give him, and do not feel aggrieved when you give him, since Hashem your God will then bless you in all your deeds and in all your endeavours” (Devarim 15:7-10).
Rav Chaim Soloveitchik once received a knock at the door the day before Pesach. At the door was a poor widow who had 13 children. Unfortunately a fire had caused all her prepared Pesach food to be destroyed and she was crying bitterly. Rav Chaim took all the prepared Pesach food his wife had made from the larder and personally loaded it onto a wagon for the poor widow. He kept quiet about this and the following morning his wife was shocked to find the larder empty. Naturally they would be having many guests over the coming Festival but now it appeared all the food had been stolen! Word got out around the community that the Rabbi's food had all been stolen and members of the community rallied round to supply the Rabbi with plenty of food. Rav Chaim could not keep his secret from his wife and on Pesach morning he told her that he had actually taken the food and given it to a poor family. Rav Chaim's wife inquired why her husband had given away all of their food which they needed for themselves and their many guests? Rav Chaim responded: "I knew that our community would provide for their Rabbi, but who was going to provide for the poor widow and her family?"
On another occasion, Rav Chaim’s father, Rav Yosef Dov Soleveitchik (the Brisker Rav), stopped by an inn in the middle of a freezing night and asked for lodging. He had no entourage with him, and the innkeeper treated him with abuse. He did not disclose who he was and, after pleading with the innkeeper, he was allowed to sleep on the floor near a stove. The innkeeper, thinking that the man was a poor beggar, did not offer him any food and refused to give him more than a little bread and water for which Rav Soleveitchik was willing to pay.
The next morning, some of the town notables came to the inn: "We understand that the Brisker Rav was passing through this town. Is it possible that he stayed at your inn last night?" At first, the innkeeper dismissed the question - until the Rav appeared and the group entered to greet him warmly. In a few 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 Rav. "Rebbe," he cried, "I am so sorry. I had no idea that you were the Brisker Rav! Please forgive me." The Rav replied. "I would love to, but you see that would be impossible." "But why?" asked the owner in shock. "You see”, explained the sage, "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."
Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky suggests that the Torah’s expression “when you give him” means “When you give”, realize that it is to a “him”, i.e. a person, same as you. The Torah emphasizes that we must treat all people as respectfully as we like to be treated.