R’ Avraham Abish Lissa, zt”l, one of the outstanding scholars of his generation, was the chief rabbi of Frankfurt-au-Main until his passing on 11 Tishrei 5529 (1768). Aside from the many hours he spent occupied with rabbinical duties and scholarship, he was greatly involved with deeds of kindness, especially helping to provide food and clothing for the poor. It was his custom to make the rounds of the wealthy citizens of the city, as well as successful merchants who came to Frankfurt to conduct business, to solicit charity that he later distributed to the poor, to widows, and to orphans. One day, as he made his rounds, he stopped in one of the local inns and approached a visiting merchant who was in Frankfurt on business.
“Excuse me, sir,” began the rabbi. “Can you please make a contribution to help the poor with food and clothing?”
The merchant didn’t so much as raise his eyes to gaze at the supplicant standing before him. R’ Abish, for his part, was too unassuming to announce his name, and stood before the merchant patiently waiting. He made his request one more time. The merchant was in no mood to be troubled by solicitors and ordered, “Get out of here and stop bothering busy people.”
Without another word, R’ Abish turned and left the inn, never insisting and never imagining to use his identity to coerce the unwilling donor. A few minutes later, the merchant rose to leave and reached for his cane, but to his surprise it was not there. His stick, with its silver embossed handle, was his prized possession, and he was quite upset to find it missing.
It didn’t take him long to link the pauper who had been collecting to his missing stick. The man must have stolen it out of revenge. He dashed out of the inn in hot pursuit of the thief. A few hundred yards away he caught up to the thieving collector.
“Hey,” he yelled, “how dare you? Give me back my walking stick, you no-good thief!”
R’ Abish looked at the man and answered truthfully, “I’m sorry, but I have not seen your cane. I would certainly never take anything from you.” But the merchant’s anger, rather than being assuaged, only grew in ferocity. He continued to harangue the man he mistook for a thief, and when R’ Abish continued to calmly deny everything, he began to beat the elderly rav. Still, the chief rabbi of Frankfurt did not respond with anger; despite the pain, R’ Abish remained steadfast in his humble demeanor. “Please believe me. I did not steal your cane!” Finally, the man realized he was getting nowhere and left R’ Abish in disgust. The rav, bruised and beaten, picked himself up, dusted himself off, and continued on his mission.
The following Shabbos, as was customary in Frankfurt, the chief rabbi delivered a Torah lecture in the afternoon before a large crowd of Jews. The merchant decided to join the shiur, finding a seat in the back of the large hall, for he had heard that the famous scholar, R’ Avraham Abish, would be speaking and he was interested in hearing the great man in person.
Indeed, the rav’s two-hour complex dissertation was quite impressive. Yet the man could not shake the feeling that this awesome scholar’s voice sounded familiar. At the rabbi’s concluding words he stood and raised his eyes to the podium to catch a clear glimpse of the great man. To his great shock and dismay, he recognized him at once: here was the impudent beggar he had beaten a few days before! The episode flashed before him in a horrible new light.
Horrified, he cringed in his seat, panic-stricken at the unspeakable way he had treated the man. What shall I do? Can the rav ever forgive me for what I did? he thought. Unable to bear the shame, he attempted to sneak out of the shul. But then he realized that his sin was too great to ignore. I doubt the great rabbi will ever forgive me for treating him the way I did, he thought, sadly. Nevertheless, the merchant realized he had no choice but to make an attempt.
When R’ Abish had finished speaking, he walked through the crowd, greeting everyone graciously. The quaking merchant stood off to the side, speechless with embarrassment. Just then, R’ Abish approached.
The great rav looked up and recognized the man instantly. Although he was in the midst of an admiring audience of hundreds, most of whom were still overcome by his erudition, he gave no thought to his own dignity. Before the merchant could stutter an apology, R’ Abish cried out to his former persecutor, “Please, believe me. I didn’t take your cane. I promise you on my word of honor!”
Adapted from Ascent of Safed, R’ Yerachmiel Tilles