They thought he was hard-hearted, and they hated him for it. They talked about him and his stinginess and prayed that G-d, blessed be His Name, would remember his meanness. The children feared him and threw stones at him when he walked in the street. Yossele, like everyone else, eventually got old and sick. The word spread that he was finally nearing the end. Before he died the community burial society went to him and asked for a ritual gift of a thousand rubles for the poor. He turned his head to the wall, refusing even to speak with them. So they left him and he died alone.
After his death they searched his big house, but could find no money at all, and so they buried him outside the community in an unmarked pauper’s grave, a fitting end, they thought, for a man who had not recognized the poor while he lived.
But then disturbing changes began to surface. Just before the Sabbath, the community leaders started approaching the rabbi for money to be given to poor women and children and old people. He gave them what he could, when he could. But he asked them, “What did you do before? Why are you asking me now? You never did previously.” The rabbi began making inquiries. To his horror he found that every week before the Sabbath, Yossele had been secretly giving to the poor so that they did not have to beg from the leaders or the rabbi. And he had given so that no one, not even those who received his generosity, would know.
The rabbi was distressed. Yossele had been the holiest of them all and now they didn’t even know where he was buried. They had treated him so vilely – doing to him what they had accused him of, blaming him for what really was their own shallow judgment and smallness of mind and heart. The rabbi gathered the whole community and decreed that they would fast and do penance for what they had done to Yossele while he was alive and for how they had dishonored him in death. They must ask Yossele to forgive them and their mean-spiritedness, and they must ask for some sign that they were forgiven. They all set to it with fervor.
After fasting for some time, the rabbi fell into a trance. And behold, in a vision he saw Yossele in the Garden of Eden surrounded by the righteous. Yossele told him, “Tell the people to stop fasting and doing penance and to go home and live with each other. I have forgiven them. I forgave them every day for what they did and what they thought of me. You see, long ago I asked G-d, blessed be His Name, for a favor. I wanted the honor and the privilege of giving to others the way G-d gives, without anyone’s knowledge and without requiring anyone’s thanks. I wanted them to be so thankful that they in turn would give out of their bounty to others in need.” The rabbi was stunned. When he told the people what he had seen and heard they were speechless. What did they know? There was so much to learn. So much to change!
(this rendition of the story comes from Matthew: The Book of Mercy by Megan McKenna. We also recommend listening to the heart rending version by Reb Shlomo Carlebach)