As Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1810) listened to the distraught man's plea for help, tears welled up in his eyes. For him, a tale of woe wasn't just a "case" he felt the pain as if it was his own, holding himself personally responsible for helping whoever turned to him.
When it came to helping one who had fallen on hard times and needed a little assistance to get back on his feet, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak usually didn't have to look further than the community tzedakah (charity) fund. The Jews of Berditchev were kindhearted and eager to perform mitzvos (religious duties); one word from the Rebbe was enough for them to magnanimously contribute to the cause. As for those few people who weren't so anxious to give, the Rebbe didn't push them.
However, there were times when troubles fell upon a poor soul excessively and he required more than the usual amount of aid. When this happened, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak knew that he had to call upon everyone to help. And so, as he devised a plan to help, he drew up a list of all of Berditchev's Jewish families.
Rebbe Levi Yitzchak knew about how much each of his "regular" families could contribute. After estimating the monies he could expect to receive, he saw that he was still missing almost half the needed amount. His eyes scanned the list again and settled upon the name of a wealthy man.
This man could be counted upon to contribute to "big" and "important" projects, such as repairing the shul's roof or contributing toward the writing of a Torah scroll. However, when it came to helping individuals especially those who needed a little money to marry off a daughter or restart a floundering business this man wasn't interested.
"I know this is not the sort of thing to which you usually contribute," Rebbe Levi Yitzchak began politely, as he sat opposite the wealthy man, "but this is a special case. Because I have no one else to turn to, I am asking for your help."
"Rebbe, what you say is correct," politely replied the man. "I don't contribute to these 'special cases.' It pains me to turn you down, but I'm not going to make an exception."
Still smiling, the wealthy man showed Rav Levi Yitzchak to the door. As they parted, he added, "Rebbe, please don't approach me again about these sorts of matters. It's a waste of both of our time."
Rebbe Levi Yitzchak helped the distraught parishioner without the wealthy man's assistance. However, just a few months later, the story was repeated. Another desperate soul poured out his sad tale. This time, he also needed an exceptionally large sum more than the regulars would be able to provide. However, there was one difference. This poor man happened to be the brother of the wealthy man who didn't contribute to "special cases."
"Have you asked your brother for help?" asked the Rebbe.
"Of course," replied the man. He didn't say anything more. From the man's silence, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak understood that the wealthy man must have refused to help him.
"Don't worry," said Rebbe Levi Yitzchak. "With the Divine's help, we will find you the money you need."
After the poor fellow left, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak went to the wealthy man's home. He was given a cordial reception and shown into the man's study, where he was invited to take a seat.
"What can I do for you, Rebbe?" asked the wealthy man.
Rebbe Levi Yitzchak didn't reply. The wealthy man waited. The minutes passed. The wealthy man began to wonder at the saint's silence. He noted that Rebbe Levi Yitzchak didn't appear to be agitated or angry, for there was a calm smile on his face.
"Why doesn't he speak?" wondered the wealthy man. "We are both busy men. If he has something to say to me, why doesn't he say it?"
When the clock struck the hour, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak got up and still smiling wordlessly left the room.
The following day, the Rebbe was once again at his door. The man politely greeted a smiling Rebbe Levi Yitzchak and showed him into his study. Again he waited for the Rebbe to tell him the purpose of his visit. Again, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak remained silent. When an hour had passed, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak got up from his chair and silently left.
The next day, the same scenario was repeated. This time, however, the wealthy man refused to let the saint leave.
"Rebbe," he pleaded, "please tell me why you come here every day. If you are angry at me, why do you smile? If you are not angry at me, why are you silent?"
"Chazal [the Sages] tell us that it is a mitzvah to rebuke a person who will heed your words," Rebbe Levi Yitzchak calmly replied. "They also tell us that it is a mitzvah not to give rebuke if the person will not listen.
"As the rabbi of this town, which is filled with sincere Jews, I have had numerous opportunities to fulfill the first mitzvah. However, because the majority of the Jews in Berditchev are so eager to do as I say, I have never had the opportunity to not offer rebuke because I am sure it will not be heard. You, my friend, are the first person to provide me with this opportunity so why should I not smile when I finally have the chance to perform this mitzvah?"
The wealthy man squirmed in his seat, especially when he realized that the Rebbe had come to him about his own brother. He took a wallet out of his pocket and placed it on the desk.
"Rebbe, take whatever sum you need," he insisted. "And Rebbe, I'm very sorry, but I can't continue to help you perform this mitzvah anymore. Please put me on your list as a regular contributor to the community fund."