One Friday morning as I got on the bus in Jerusalem to spend the Shabbat with my family, someone called to me, “Hey, Benji! Did you see the Yediot newspaper today? There are wonderful stories about your grandfather.”
My grandfather, Reb Aryeh Levin, was known as the “Tzaddik of Jerusalem.” He was one of modern Israel's most saintly and beloved icons, known for his great acts of kindness as he tended to prisoners, lepers, the meek and the downtrodden. He passed away in Jerusalem in 1969—a legend in his time.
When I changed buses in Tel Aviv, I bought a copy of the weekend newspaper and read the article about my grandfather. There were stories of how he would always escort people on the streets of Jerusalem. Many famous people spoke about their visits with him in his simple, little room in downtown Jerusalem, on the street that today bears his name. They all mentioned how he would escort them to the main road when they took leave of him, quoting to them from Maimonides on the importance of this mitzvah.
“Well,” my father said, “Reb Aryeh was a great scholar in his own right, and he knew of this mitzvah, but there is a story attached to it.”
Reb Aryeh was known throughout Israel as “The Father of the Prisoners,” because he tended to young men and women who were incarcerated or were fighting to free Palestine from British rule and declare an independent Jewish state. Many of these young boys who were sentenced to the gallows asked for him to be with them at their last moments.
“One Friday morning,” my father said, “Reb Aryeh visited a prison outside of Jerusalem. There in a cell sat a man imprisoned for a daring raid against the British. This man had heard that Reb Aryeh was visiting the prison and asked to speak to the rabbi. Even the British had great respect for Reb Aryeh and granted the prisoner’s request.
“The man said to Reb Aryeh, ‘My wife and I both lost our families in the Holocaust. We met in Cyprus on our way to Israel. We married and had a child, and now we live in Jerusalem. My friends in the under-ground are afraid to visit my wife because they fear they may be caught by the British. Rabbi, please visit my wife and tell her you saw me. Tell her I’m OK.’
“Reb Aryeh took the address and promised to relay the message, if at all possible.
“He went back to Jerusalem and set out to find the prisoner’s wife. It was getting close to Shabbat, and he couldn't find the address. People were in their homes preparing for Shabbat. As he walked by a small street, Reb Aryeh saw a woman in a window preparing the Shabbat meal. He asked her if she knew the place he was seeking.
“She said, ‘Please wait a moment.’
“She took off her apron, walked outside, and said, ‘Please follow me.’
“She led him through the street to a small house and said, ‘This is the place!’
“‘Why did you have to come all this way?’ asked Reb Aryeh. ‘You must be in a hurry before Shabbat. You could have simply given me directions.’
“Oh, I thought about doing that,’ she said, ‘but then I remembered that this is my special mitzvah.’
“‘What do you mean?’ asked Reb Aryeh.
“‘My father was a very pious man,’ she said. ‘Before he passed away, he called me and my siblings to his bedside and said, “What do people take with them when they leave this world? Their honor, money, position, status? No! The only thing they take with them are the good deeds they performed during their lifetime.’”
“‘My father said to each of us, “Of all the mitzvahs you perform, choose one mitzvah and make it your special one. Whenever the opportunity comes along to perform this mitzvah, however difficult it may be, do it in its entirety.” My father then helped me choose my mitzvah of escorting a person on their way.
“‘When you approached me today I said, “This is my special mitzvah I’m going to perform it in its entirety.”’
“Reb Aryeh thanked the young woman. He visited the prisoner’s wife and brought her regards from her husband in jail. When Reb Aryeh came home just before candle lighting he wrote in his little notebook: ‘Today I learned from a young woman the importance of fulfilling this commandment, and from today on, I’m going to be careful to always perform this mitzvah.’”
When I heard this story, I said, “Wow! What a beautiful mitzvah.” There and then I decided to make this mitzvah mine as well.Saturday night I went back to Jerusalem. Two days later, on Monday night, I was walking in the street in the early evening when I noticed an elderly man across the road, walking back and forth as if he had lost something.
I crossed the street and said, “Excuse me. I couldn't help noticing you walking back and forth. Did you lose something?”
“Well, actually,” he said, “I got a little confused here in the dark. I’m looking for Portzim Street.”
I said to myself, “God, I promised two days ago to make this mitzvah of escorting another person mine. God, are you testing me already?”
“Come,” I said to the old man. “Let me perform the mitzvah of escorting you.”
I brought him to the street—to the house he sought—and said: “Here it is! Shalom!”
“Just a minute,” he said. “Why did you stop and ask me if I’m looking for something? Why did you escort me? Young people don’t do these things today.”
“Well, I probably wouldn't have done this,” I said, “but my grandfather used to do this.”
“Who was your grandfather?”
“Oh, you wouldn't know,” I said.
“What was his name?”
“Levin,” I said.
“The famous tzaddik, Reb Aryeh Levin?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
The old man took hold of the lapels on my jacket and started to cry. I saw the tears roll down his cheeks, and I was at a total loss of what to do.
Finally, he looked up at me and said: “Do you know who I am?”
“No,” I replied, “I never had the pleasure.”
“My name is Menachem Ro-iy,” he said.“I am a reporter for Yediot. Last week I wrote a number of stories about how your grandfather would escort people on the streets of Jerusalem. And here a few days later, I lose my way and who escorts me? None other than Reb Aryeh’s own grandson.”
I looked at the old man and said, “And do you know why? Because Reb Aryeh’s grandson read your stories and learned how important and beautiful it is to escort another person on his or her way.”
Provenance Note: This is a true story that happened to me regarding this mitzvah in the summer of 1970, in Jerusalem.