Rabbi Hillel of Paritch (1795-1864), who served as rabbi of the towns of Paritch and Babroisk in White Russia, was one of the many great scholars of his day to join the Chabad chassidic movement. For many years, he was a devoted disciple and follower of the second and third rebbes of Chabad, Rabbi DovBer (1772-1826) and Rabbi Menachem Mendel (1780-1866).
As a young man, Rabbi Hillel heard of the founder of Chabad chassidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) and sought to meet with him. But the opportunity seemed to forever elude the young prodigy: no sooner did he arrive in a town that Rabbi Schneur Zalman was visiting, that he was informed that the Rebbe had just left. Finally, he managed to locate Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s lodgings before the Rebbe was due to arrive. In order to ensure that he would not, once again, somehow miss his opportunity, Rabbi Hillel crept into Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s appointed room and hid under the bed, determined, at last, to make the acquaintance of the great Rebbe.
In anticipation of his encounter with Rabbi Schneur Zalman, Rabbi Hillel had “armed” himself with some of his achievements in Talmudic study. At that time, the young scholar was studying the tractate Erchin, or “Appraisals,” the section of the Talmud which deals with the laws of how to appraise the value of one’s pledges to charity. Rabbi Hillel had an insightful question on the subject which he had diligently rehearsed in order to discuss it with the Rebbe.
From his hiding place, Rabbi Hillel heard the Rebbe enter the room. But before he could make a move, he heard Rabbi Schneur Zalman exclaim: “If a young man has a question regarding ‘Appraisals,’ he had best first evaluate himself.”
The prodigy under the bed fainted on the spot. When he came to, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was gone…
How are we to apply this story to our lives?
The tractate of “Appraisals” discusses the laws presented in chapter 27 of Leviticus: “…If a man make a singular vow, to give to G-d the estimated values of persons, then the estimation shall be as follows: For a male from twenty to sixty years old, the estimation shall be thirty shekels of silver…” In other words, if a person pledges to give to charity, but instead of citing a sum he says “I promise to give the value of this individual,” we are to follow a fixed rate table set by the Torah, in which each age and gender group is assigned a certain “value.”
But why employ a flat rate which lumps together so many diverse individuals? Should not an accomplished scholar be considered more valuable than a simple laborer? The Torah (Deuteronomy 29:9) states that we all stand equally before G-d, “from your heads, the leaders of your tribes, your elders… to your wood choppers and water carriers.” But can a person truly view his fellow as his equal when he is so obviously superior to him in talent and achievement?
This is the gist of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s remark: If you have a question regarding “Appraisals,” if you find it difficult to relate to the Torah’s evaluation of human worth, you had best take a long hard look at yourself. An honest appraisal of your own character and behavior will show you how much there is for you to emulate and learn from those who are supposedly ‘inferior’ to yourself.
From an address by the Rebbe, Shabbos Nitzavim 5710, September 9 1950.
Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.