"Why do we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot? Because the acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish people on Mount Sinai was like a conversion, and therefore we read about Ruth, who converted to Judaism." (Avudraham)
It was the early 1960’s. The world was abuzz with talk of the impending Eichmann trial. For Heinrich, a 17 year old living in a rural town in Germany, effects of the trial were soon to hit very close to home. The interruption to his peaceful, somewhat privileged upbringing, began with sudden, insistent knocking on his front door. Heinrich was startled by the look that passed between his parents, in response to that knock. An eerie silence descended on the room, which was broken just as quickly as the door burst open, and several policemen entered the house.
"You are hereby arrested on charges of war crimes" one of the men solemnly announced in the direction of Heinrich’s father.
Heinrich could not begin to fathom what these men wanted, or what any of this business had to do with his father. In the coming days and weeks, much to Heinrich’s horror, he learned just how much all of this had to do with his father. In fact, his father had committed terrible atrocities during the Holocaust, in his capacity as a Nazi soldier.
The more Heinrich attempted to confront this information about his father, the more he realized that he just had to get away from this terrible reality. At the earliest opportunity, Heinrich packed some bags and left Germany.
Somehow, his father’s atrocities against the Jewish people sparked a desire within Heinrich to learn more about these people. What could have motivated his father, and other men like him, to wantonly kill Jewish men, women and children? There was only one way to find out. As Heinrich’s plane landed in Israel, he clapped his hands together in anticipation. Now, perhaps, he would find the answers to his burning questions.
Heinrich enrolled in Hebrew University. When he wasn’t busy with his schoolwork, he took the opportunity to tour the length and breadth of the land. Heinrich began to familiarize himself with the Jewish people’s laws and customs. Slowly, slowly, understanding of their value began to penetrate his head and heart. After several years, he received his doctorate in microbiology. Not long after, he completed the conversion process, and changed his name to ‘Avraham.’
A number of years later, Avraham married Sara. Sara could relate to Avraham’s background, as she too was a convert from Germany. Their delight and gratitude knew no bounds when they laid eyes on their firstborn son, a precious Jewish child whom they had been privileged to bring to the world. When their second and then third sons were born, Avraham and Sara felt that they had been immeasurably blessed.
Avraham tried to push away thoughts of his father’s evil past. His only contact with his father consisted of reading about him in newspaper articles. Avraham learned that his father had been released from prison, and had resumed living his life of privilege.
One evening, Sara turned to her husband, with a thoughtful look on her face. "Avraham, you know, your father is well into his 90s." Sara paused. "Maybe it’s worth going to visit him. He is your father after all, and it seems right to visit him one last time."
At first, Avraham steadfastly refused to entertain the thought. Go back to that blood soaked land!? Visit a man who had committed vicious war crimes!? With his wife’s gentle coaxing, though, Avraham came to see the wisdom in her suggestion. He once again boarded a plane, as he had so many years earlier, only this time, he was accompanied by his wife and three little children.
Avraham entered his father’s room. His wife and children followed. An uncomfortable silence enveloped them. Here, before them, was a man who had, with his own hands, murdered countless Jewish children. Now that very man was face to face with three little Jewish boys. His own grandsons.
Slowly, the years of ice thawed enough for Avraham and his father to have a conversation. Despite the discomfort, Avraham felt compelled to ask a question of his father. "Dad, I just have to know. Not everyone lives to your age. And here you are, well into your 90s, able to see three wonderful grandchildren with your own eyes. Dad, what did you do to deserve this?"
Avraham’s father startled at the question. After a few minutes, though, he turned to his son and said "I have to tell you that I can’t think of any good thing that I’ve done. Nothing, except for one time, during the war. I found three Jewish children hiding in a church. I don’t know what came over me, but I felt bad for them, and I let them run away. I have no idea what happened to them after that. All I know is that I didn’t kill them."
Avraham thought over his father’s words. "Maybe, Dad, if you had let four children live, you would have been able to see four precious grandchildren."
Was Avraham correct in going to visit his father? Was he obligated to go due to kibud av v’eim (the requirement to honor one’s parents).
Answer of Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl, shlita:
A convert is compared to a newborn, and his biological parents are not considered his parents, from the standpoint of Jewish law. Even so, Maimonides rules (laws of mamrim, 5, 11), that it is forbidden for a convert to curse his father or to disgrace him. Rather, he should relate to his father with miktzat kavod (a bit of respect).
According to this, Avraham was not obligated to visit his father, because this constituted more than the "bit of respect" that he owed his father. Nonetheless, it was proper for Avraham to visit him, out of a sense of gratitude. Despite the fact that his father was a truly evil person, Avraham still owed him gratitude for bringing Avraham into the world, and providing for him. (And it was even permitted for Avraham to leave the land of Israel for this purpose.)
Regarding the father’s reward for his actions, it is entirely possible that the father was rewarded for not killing those three boys, by living to see his own three grandsons. Hashem does not withhold reward from any creature, as we see that the wicked king Balak was rewarded for the sacrifices that he brought to Hashem, in that Ruth was one of his descendants. (Horayot 10b) It goes without saying that this in no way absolves the father from the punishment which is coming to him for his terrible actions.
In summary: It was proper for Avraham to visit his father.
(This story was told by Rabbi Berel Wein, shlita, who heard the story firsthand from Avraham, the protagonist. The story is printed in his book Vintage Wein.)
Compiled by Daniel Kirsch
Translated by Avigail Kirsch