G‑d descended to see the city and the tower which the sons of man had built

Genesis 11:5

Obviously, G‑d did not need to “come down” in order to see their crime; but He wished to teach all future judges that one must not judge the defendant until one sees and appreciates . . .

Rashi’s commentary

Do not judge your fellow unless you are in his place.

Ethics of the Fathers 2:2

In 1857 a fire destroyed much of the town of Lubavitch, including the synagogue and study hall of the then Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel (The Third Lubavitcher Rebbe), and the homes of the rebbe and his sons. Rabbi Menachem Mendel initiated a rebuilding campaign, and a new and expanded “courtyard” was constructed to serve as the headquarters of Chabad-Lubavitch chassidism.

At the groundbreaking of the new complex, a festive farbrengen was held. Long tables were set up in the courtyard to accommodate the large crowd of chassidim. When Rabbi Menachem Mendel joined them, he asked: “Do you wish to hear a discourse of chassidic teaching, or a story?” The chassidim replied that they wished to hear a story.

Reb Yaakov,” began Rabbi Menachem Mendel, “was an impoverished tavernkeeper at a country crossroads, and a chassid of the ‘Holy Ruzhiner,’ Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin (1796–1850). He leased the tavern from another Jew, also named Reb Yaakov, who had a deal with the local nobleman: he would lease the nobleman’s entire estate, and in turn sublease the fields, the forests, the mill, the tavern and other assets to other Jews.

"Business at the tavern was poor, and Reb Yaakov the tavernkeeper failed to meet the rent that was due Reb Yaakov the leaseholder. Months went by, the debt accumulated, and still the tavernkeeper found himself unable to make even a token payment. Finally, the leaseholder lost his patience and threatened to evict his delinquent tenant.

"The distressed tavernkeeper traveled to his rebbe, the Holy Ruzhiner, and complained that his leaseholder, Reb Yaakov, was about to deprive him of his home and livelihood. The Ruzhiner summoned the leaseholder and asked him to forgive a destitute Jew his debt. Now, this Reb Yaakov was an upright and compassionate man; he did as the rebbe asked, and more. Not only did he forgive the tavernkeeper his outstanding debt, he even reduced the monthly payments on the tavern. His only request was that the tavernkeeper promise that henceforth he would pay the rent on time.

"But business at the tavern continued to plummet, and the poor man was simply unable to keep his promise. The benevolent Reb Yaakov allowed him one extension after another, until he again lost patience with his hapless tenant. When his repeated demands for payment yielded only excuses and more promises, he notified the tavernkeeper that if he could not come up with at least some of the money owed by the end of the month, he was to remove himself from the premises.

"The poor tavernkeeper, without a kopeck in his pocket, again traveled to his rebbe and poured out his heart. Once more the Ruzhiner appealed to Reb Yaakov, and again the latter fulfilled the rebbe’s request and forgave the loan. Sensitive to his tenant’s difficulties, he even further reduced the sum to be paid each month.

“Still, the tavernkeeper’s fortune only worsened. Again his debt accumulated, again the leaseholder pressed for payment, again he was served notice, again he rushed to Ruzhin. However this time the Ruzhiner’s appeals were to no avail. “The Rebbe is not the master over my money,” maintained Reb Yaakov the leaseholder. “I have already done far more than anyone can reasonably expect of me. I can no longer afford to absorb these ever-mounting debts. Either he pays up, or I lease the tavern to another.” A short while later the tavernkeeper was evicted from the building which housed his living quarters and his defunct establishment.

“Years later, Reb Yaakov the leaseholder passed away, and his soul came to stand judgement before the heavenly court. Many were his virtues, as he had been a man of compassion and integrity. He had conducted his business affairs with honesty and sensitivity, and had contributed generously to the needy. But one nasty stain blemished his upright life: he had cast a fellow Jew out into the street, depriving him and his family of young children of their home and livelihood.

“‘What more could I have done?!’ objected Reb Yaakov. ‘I forgave him the money time and again, and continuously reduced the rent. Besides, this court is not qualified to judge me on this matter.’

“‘Why do you say so?’ asked the supernal judge.

“‘Here in heaven, you have no idea what money is,’ argued the defendant. ‘You do not understand what it means to earn a livelihood, so you cannot condone the fact that I did what I did “merely” because the man owed me money. I wish to be judged by a court that appreciates the value of money, that has experienced the struggle to provide for one’s family.’

“The heavenly court conceded that Reb Yaakov had a point. So his case was referred to the souls of two great authorities on Jewish law, Rabbi Yosef Caro1and Rabbi Yoel Sirkes.2 The two reviewed his case and found him guilty.

“Still Reb Yaakov protested. ‘These great men have long forsaken the physical world and its petty cares. It is centuries since they have been obliged to worry about money. I demand that my case be reviewed by a human court, comprised of souls still enmeshed in bodies and bodily needs.’”

At this point, Rabbi Menachem Mendel addressed his chassidim: “Well, what do you say?” The assembled chassidim were at loss to reply.

Again Rabbi Menachem Mendel demanded: “I maintain that Reb Yaakov is in the right. What do you say? Eh?”

Finally, the crowd caught on that the “case” was now being decided. Together with Rabbi Menachem Mendel they proclaimed: “Gerecht! (He is in the right!) Gerecht! Gerecht!