The great scholar Rabbi Yisrael Salanter didn’t look like a radical; he carried himself with humility and dressed like an ordinary 19th century shtetl Jew. But with his vast halachic knowledge, extraordinary sense of empathy, knack for divergent thinking and readiness to spring into action, he both inspired and challenged his Lithuanian followers. During the 1848 cholera epidemic that swept Vilna, for example, Salanter declared that on Yom Kippur, as an emergency measure to prevent further loss of life, it was imperative that Jews not fast in observance of the holiday. Lest anyone be shy about following his suggestion, Salanter set a personal example. He stood behind the pulpit after the Kol Nidre prayer and, before the widened eyes of the shocked congregation, recited Kiddush, then ate and drank. That was Rav Salanter’s way.
Salanter would go on to become the father of the Mussar movement, the Jewish practice of ethical living through self-improvement, and travelled across Lithuania, Prussia and Germany to spread his message. So it was that one winter’s day, Salanter arrived in a new town. He was greeted by the elders, who invited him to stay in their shtetl’s grandest home. But while walking through town, Salanter noticed the poorhouse. Its roof was in shambles: sagging dangerously in some places and with gaping holes in others that let in the wind and snow.
Seeing Salanter’s troubled expression, the town elders explained that they eventually planned to raise money for repairs. Salanter cracked open the poorhouse door. The beggars, the sick and the poor travelers who crowded the floor were hugging themselves against the cold, freezing and wheezing.
“I will sleep here,” Salanter declared.
The elders protested, but Salanter remained resolute. He had allowed himself to see what the elders had not: that the people taking refuge inside were, like him, human beings made b’tzelem elohim — in G-d’s image — with needs as urgent as his own. “If such conditions are good enough for them, they will be good enough for me,” Salanter told the elders.
And there on the frozen poorhouse ground slept the great Rav Salanter, night after night, until the elders announced they had raised the funds for a new roof.
When you are compassionate, you allow the sight of suffering to break your heart and compel you to take action.