The dean of a famous yeshivah in Jerusalem gives us an object lesson – from a true experience during the Six Day War – as to how we can prove ourselves worthy of being forgiven.
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz (1902–1979) was a member of the faculty of the Yeshivah of Mir, originally located in Poland, for more than 40 years. He served as dean when the school escaped the inferno of the Holocaust and found refuge in Shanghai from 1941-1947. Later, when the yeshivah was re-established in Jerusalem, he stood at its head from 1965 until his death in 1979. He taught, guided, and inspired thousands of disciples throughout his lifetime, by word and by personal example and deed, with legendary diligence and intensity in Torah study.
The Mirrer Yeshivah, which he headed, is located very close to the former border that cut Jerusalem into Israeli and Jordanian sections until the Six Day War. The Jordanian barrage of Jerusalem during the war was intense. The staff and students of the yeshivah took refuge in the air raid shelter.
“The barrage was as thick as hail,” Rabbi Shmulevitz recalled. “We crowded into the shelter and listened and prayed, as our building took one direct hit after another. The walls shook like autumn leaves in the wind. Everyone shouted: ‘Shema Yisroel – Hear, O Israel – the L-rd is our G-d!’ Master of the World! We are in Your Hands; do something to save us!”
“Do you think these prayers are what saved us?” asked Rabbi Shmulevitz as he described the moments of tension. “No, it wasn’t these prayers.
“It was something else, which I’ll never forget.
“Not far away from where I was sitting, was a woman whose husband had abandoned her. For twenty years, she had waited for some word from him. All that time, she was not able to remarry; by law, she was a married woman.
“You can surely imagine how bitter her life was. She was worse off than a widow. Her husband had not died; he had rejected her and left her to her fate without bothering to arrange for a divorce. All those years, she had supported herself by washing other people’s dirty clothing.
“It was this woman who saved our lives!” declared Rabbi Shmulevitz.
“Amidst the crashing and the thundering of the bombing, she screamed out: ‘Master of the World! I forgive him! I forgive him!’
“She had so much to resent,” comments Rabbi Shmuelevitz – “and even so, she found it in her heart to forgive.
“When I heard this woman’s cries declaring that she forgave her husband, I knew that we would be saved. She cried out: ‘If I can forgive my husband, then You, G-d, can forgive us…’
“That was what saved our lives.”
This unnamed woman saved others with her forgiveness. We, too, can save ourselves and our families by forgiving those around us. If we start a clean sheet in our relationships with others, Heaven will do the same for us.
That is exactly what we are praying for, as the New Year begins. Our forgiveness for others can make it a sweet and happy one.