Jewish Personalities

The Vilna Gaon: Righteous Sins

In 1808, a decade after the Vilna Gaon passed away, several hundred of his pupils were traveling by boat from Lithuania to the Land of Israel, hoping to achieve the Vilna’s Gaon’s unfulfilled dream of living in Eretz Yisrael. The group was known as the Perushim, because they had separated themselves from all worldly pleasures. In the middle of the journey, there was a terrible storm. The boat was overcome by heavy waves and was rocking precariously back and forth. The captain tried desperately to take control of the boat, but the situation seemed hopeless. He gathered the frightened passengers and informed them that the end was near, and they should all be prepared to die.

When the talmidei haGra heard this, they began to recite Viduy, preparing to meet their Maker. One of the talmidim stood up and announced, “When I was 13, my father passed away. My family was left poverty-stricken. My mother would send one slice of bread to school with each child, and that’s what we had to sustain us for the day. I knew that after my mother gave us the bread, she had nothing left for herself. I couldn’t bear to watch her starve, so I decided to do something about it.

I came home from cheder one day and told her that the cheder had started providing lunch for the students, so she didn’t have to give me bread anymore. Of course, that was a lie. I didn’t eat anything, but when I came home each day, I told my mother that I had eaten lunch. Knowing that my mother had eaten my slice of bread sustained me. Now I am begging for Hashem’s forgiveness for the many lies that I told to my mother.”

Upon hearing this Viduy, Reb Yisroel Shklov, the group’s leader who had been a close talmid of the Gra, stood up and cried out: “Ribbono Shel Olam, we say in the Selichos, ‘pnei na el hatilaos v’al lchataos’— please look at our tribulations and not at our sins. Ribbono Shel Olam, I say, ‘pnei na el chataos’—please look at our sins! This man’s worst wrongdoing to confess was that he lied so that his mother would eat. These are the ‘sins’ of klal Yisrael!” Soon thereafter the storm miraculously subsided, and they arrived safely in Eretz Yisrael. The group eventually settled in Tzfas, where they built up the Ashkenazic kehillah.


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