How does one overcome his natural inclination and succeed in truly forgiving with all his heart a person who caused him the worst tragedy of his life? Rabbi Israel Leichter who lost his grandson because a driver of a vehicle had forgotten him inside, tells how he truly forgave the driver. He has a message for us about forgiveness on Yom Kippur.
Rabbi Israel Leichter’s name is well known among residents of Bnei Brak. Many know him as the head of a soup kitchen and a fervent chasid who is involved in many charities and acts of kindness. Many also know him as a great Torah scholar. But in recent years, his fame has spread through different communities following the account of how he handled the death of his grandson who was forgotten in a car four years ago.
The tragedy occurred on Thursday, the twelfth of Elul 2012, when Chanoch Baumel, Rabbi Leichter’s grandson, left his home for the last time. He waved goodbye to his mother without the two of them ever dreaming that this would be the last time they would see each other.
“Looking back, I can see that heaven directed events,” Rabbi Leichter tells us. “On the last night of his life, Chanoch couldn’t fall asleep. As the Gemara says — even if a person can’t see, his destiny sees. Probably his soul felt something was going to happen. In the morning, from the moment that Chanoch entered the car he just fell asleep, and the driver got out of the vehicle and locked him inside. Only in the afternoon, when he returned to drive another teacher to the school, the teacher opened the back door to get in and found Chanoch there. When the driver realized what had happened, he fainted on the spot.”
Rabbi Leichter says that it is impossible to describe the grief that he felt as a grandfather. “Chanoch was a very special child. Whenever he would come to visit, he would bring light and happiness to our house. He brought us so much joy and satisfaction, we loved him so much.” But he also notes that never for a moment did the disaster cause him to feel anger toward the driver whose negligence caused the death of his grandson, and he decided to forgive him. And not only to forgive him, but also to keep in close touch and establish together the Chaim v’Chinuch Laderech Association whose goal is to prevent additional cases of forgotten children in cars, whether through legislation or by developing devices for this goal.
Love for all Jews that crosses all communities
It is hard to believe, but already during the seven days of mourning, Rabbi Leichter conveyed to the family of the driver that he would be very happy if the driver would come to console the mourners. The driver came (or more accurately, was 'dragged' into the room) and was surprised to find a sign requesting visitors to pray for the driver Nachman Shimon Ben Zehava, so that nothing bad would befall him and no one would harm him. At the bottom of the sign was the signature “Baumel-Leichter families.”
“I could not bear to see the driver's sorrow,” Rabbi Leichter tells us, “It just caused me anguish. I did not want him to suffer. Every Jew in a way is part of my body. Another’s pain is like my pain.”
Watch the poignant story: “Please do not punish the driver who killed my grandson.”
But really – didn’t you feel anger or resentment towards him?
“I really didn’t, absolutely not. For years I am praying to the Almighty every day and saying in my prayers that I believe that no one in the world can do anything to me, to cause me damage or harm, and everything is from G-d. It’s completely clear to me that no one in the world can harm me if it was not written down Above. Down here, the interpretation and response are up to me. If I won’t forgive, the problem will remain mine.”
Rabbi Leichter adds: “I am convinced that everything is a matter of faith, and in our particular case it was clear even to my daughter and son-in-law from the first moment that they would receive their tribulations with love. I remember how my daughter came to mourn in our home, and I heard her say to her friends: “Chanoch’s death was written down already on Rosh Hashanah and signed on Yom Kippur. It would have happened anyway. But I thank Hashem for giving me this gift for almost another year, until 12 Elul.”
Let me hear “I have forgiven you”
When Rabbi Leichter talks about the tragedy that happened, he points out repeatedly that it is a decree from heaven, and we do not understand why heaven decrees something. He said the same thing to the driver who forgot his grandson in the car. “Even during the seven days of mourning, I told him that. I explained to him that we are believers the sons of believers, we know that God is the One who runs the world and He is the One who decides what happens here. I even illustrated this idea with a parable: If I get a letter that says I owe thousands of dollars, will I beat up the postman who brought me this letter? Of course not! And even more — if the one who sent me this letter is my father who wants only the best for me, how can I complain?”
Rabbi Leichter also points out that our entire existence in this world depends on forgiveness and atonement. “G-d created the world on Rosh Hashanah, and after Adam sinned, He forgave him and Adam composed the song 'A song for the Shabbat day.’ When the Jews received the Torah, they were at the highest possible level, but then the sin of the golden calf took place. G-d was angry with the Jews, but after Moses spent forty days in heaven, G-d told him: 'I have forgiven you as you asked.’ We also gained from this episode the 13 attributes of mercy that we recite very often during these days. Forgiveness and atonement are at the root of the creation of the universe.”
Rabbi Leichter adds: “During these days we are up before judgment, and we all want to be deserving of mercy and have G-d show us compassion. We don’t deserve it naturally, but we beg Hashem to go beyond the law and forgive us. To deserve this, we must also learn to go beyond ourselves. So, yes, there are cases where by all accounts it seems to us that the other person hurt us or caused us damage, but if we can increase unconditional love even in these situations, G-d will have mercy on us too.
“G-d has a treasure house of free gifts, and if we increase unconditional love also to those who look differently or think differently or speak differently from us; if we would feel love for all Jewish people, this would certainly bring merit to the world. The Gemara cites: ‘Everyone who subdues his natural inclination, all his sins will be subdued.’ Who does not want his sins and transgression knocked off the slate?”
A revolution of forgiveness
Rabbi Leichter can not resist telling the following story he had heard from the grandson of Rabbi David Grossman: “The rabbi’s grandson moved to China and opened a Chabad House there. One day he asked a Jew who worked there if he wanted to put on tefillin. The Jew evaded him and kept pushing him off again and again, until finally he burst out at him: “You religious are the most abject and debased people that I know! I hate you, and stop coming to me.” After such an attack, the rabbi felt he had no choice but to stop contacting him, until one day the Jew came to his office with one request: “Can you help me put on tefillin?” The rabbi could not believe it, but he rushed to help him fulfill this commandment and then asked him to recite the Shema.
The Jew then told him: “Today when I got to my office, I had a free hour and I've surfed a bit on Google. By chance, I turned on Channel 10 in conjunction with the Hidabrut channel which brought the interview with Rabbi Leichter, and I was stunned. Suddenly my whole attitude towards the religious changed, and I told myself that if this is how the ultra-Orthodox and religious are, I also want to be like them.”
“This Jew did a revolution of 360 degrees,” Rabbi Leichter said emotionally, “and since that day he began keeping kosher, family purity, and putting on tefillin. There is hardly a day when I do not get a response because of that film. I think there have been millions who watched it. I am touched when I think how many merits my grandson has because of it.”
And can I ask how you feel about the profound revolution you have made?
“To tell the truth, I'm a simple man, but I had the good fortune to grow up under extraordinary parents who gave me a strong foundation of faith, and I was privileged to accompany the Lelover rebbe for many years. He was known for his immense love for Jews. Nothing comes from myself, but I am of course very happy that people are inspired. Who knows? Maybe because of this I'll succeed in repenting.”