Two men came before a great scholar of the Torah and asked him for instruction in the differences between right and wrong. One of them was a great wrongdoer in his own mind, for when he was a young man he had had a terrible quarrel with a close friend of his, and in the heat of anger he had struck him a mortal blow with a heavy stick and the man had fallen dead. And from that day on, his conscience had given him no rest.
The second man who came to see the great scholar had fallen into evil or wicked practices and in his own estimation he was pure and without any guilt.
The great scholar listened to the two men and asked them to talk about themselves: what they had done in the past, how they earned a living, and so on.
And then the first one broke down and burst into tears. He confessed, weeping and groaning, how he had killed his best friend. He had no hope that such a crime could ever be forgiven, neither on earth nor in heaven. The second one declared that he had never stopped to commit any great wrongs or crimes, so therefore he could not remember any one particular bad thing he had done. Whatever minor evils he had committed had all vanished from his mind.
Then said the student of the Talmud to the first man: “Go, my son, across the other side of the road and bring back to me one very large stone, the biggest one you can find, and bring it here to me. And you,” he said to the second one, who had led what he considered a blameless life, “you go out to the same field across the road and bring me a great many stones, very small stones, as many as you can carry in your hands.” And the men went, and both did as he directed.
When they had finished their assigned task, the Rabbi looked at the stones and said, “And now here is what I want each of you to do. Take all these stones and bring them back one by one to the exact spot where you got each single stone. And then both of you come back to me here.”
Again both started to do as the Rabbi had told them to. The one who had carried the big stone easily found the spot where he had picked it up, and he replaced it.
But the second one could by no means remember each of the many single places from which he had picked up each little stone and pebble. And he came back to the scholar without being able to fulfill his demand. Then said the Rabbi: “Man’s wrongdoings and errors are like these stones. You can easily find the place from which you took the one large stone, and were able to bring it back immediately. But you,” he said to the second man, “could not restore the little stones, because there were too many spots for you to remember them.”
And then he arose: “Blessed is the man whose conscience is heavy upon him (like a big stone) because it is easier to remove his guilt and let repentance enter in.”
And to the smug little man who could see no evil in himself he said, “But woe to him who pays no attention to the little errors he commits, and because he pays no attention to them, he will never try hard to be forgiven. The greater wrongdoer can often be the better man.
This story was first given to me in the mid 1980s by Rabbi Minard Klein, of Blessed Memory.We were serving as Chaplains at the Shapiro Developmental Center
in Kankakee, Illinois.
I miss our Tuesday morning times of Torah study, discussion and of course a little nosh!
The story is taken from an out-of-print book by Certner, Simon. (Ed.). (1961), 101 Jewish Stories for Schools, Clubs and Camp. New York: Jewish Education Committee Press.