Rays of Light from the Personality of Rebbe Yisrael of Ruzhin (Yahrzeit: 3rd Cheshvan, 5611)

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The Righteous Individual is the Foundation of the World

Every Jew has a pure soul, “An actual part of God above,”[1] and everyone lends their unique contribution to the mosaic of the Jewish People. Nonetheless, we do dedicate special attention to the role models of tzadikim (righteous individuals; sing.: “tzadik”) who live among us. In fact, coming close to tzadikim and following their manners is an essential part of clinging to God, as is set down in Jewish law:[2]

It is a positive commandment to cling to the sages and their pupils in order to learn from their actions, as it says, “And to Him shall you cling”[3]— is it possible for a human being to cling to the Divine Presence? Rather, this is what the sages have said to interpret this commandment: cling to the sages and their pupils.

But, even when it comes to a righteous personality with whom we have no obvious connection, every tzadik is like a channel through which spiritual abundance flows for the entire generation, as the sages state,[4] “The earth stands on one pillar and its name is ‘Tzadik,’ as it says, ‘The tzadik is the foundation of the earth.’[5]” Quite clearly, the tzadik’s illuminating soul reveals the hidden potential in each and every one of us.

From its outset, the Chassidic movement has nurtured belief in the central position of the tzadik-Rebbe-leader [also sometimes referred to as Admor (אַדְמוֹ”ר), which is an acronym of “our master, our teacher, our rabbi” (אֲדוֹנֵנוּ מוֹרֵנוּ וְרַבֵּינוּ)], and the rich and spectacular gallery of Chassidic tzadikim illuminates the Jewish world to this very day. Connecting to the tzadik is good at all times, but it is the habit to dedicate special attention to his memorial day, which is referred to as his “day of celebration”—just as we all recognize Lag Ba’omer as Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s great day—since on this day the light from this tzadik ascends even higher, to shine greater Divine influx to the entire world.

Who is He?

It’s impossible to fold a vibrant personality into written words, and even an entire book would not suffice to do so. The main thing about an individual is not their biographical details, or their vital statistics, but who they really are, and will always remain an enigma to some extent. Moreover, in genuine tzadikim, the character who appears to us on our plane represents only a small part of the entire personality, it is merely the “tip of the iceberg.” Nonetheless, we can make an attempt to grip the edge of their robes and learn from what we do know about them. This is how we will approach the tzadik at hand this month, Rebbe Yisrael of Ruzhin, who is popularly called the “Ruzhiner,” but some of the greatest tzadikim of his time were strict about referring to him only as “der Heiliger Rizhiner” (“the Holy Ruzhiner”). So, first let’s get to know Rebbe Yisrael’s ancestry. Here we come in contact with an especially illustrious lineage that begins with Rebbe Dov Ber, the great Magid of Mezeritch, the Ba’al Shem Tov’s successor. Rebbe Dov Ber’s only son was Rebbe Avraham, who was called, the “Angel” for he was as pure and holy as an angel, and some of Rebbe Dov Ber’s greatest students were closely associated with him, such as Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi, author of the Tanya. Rebbe Avraham the Angel passed away at a young age, leaving behind him a unique son by the name of Rebbe Shalom Shechno. However, Rebbe Shalom also did not live for long and he left behind two sons, the younger of whom was Yisrael, the Ruzhiner Rebbe. Although good ancestry is not necessarily an automatic “kosher certificate” (even Esau was a descendant of Isaac and Abraham…), but in this case, it was clear from a young age that the boy, Yisrael, was something special, “Even a child can disguise himself with his deeds, if his deed is pure or upright.”

“Hear O’ Israel… and You Shall Love”

Naturally, in Rebbe Yisrael’s home they would host some of the great tzadikim who were acquainted with the family’s forefathers and they took an interest in the young children. When Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi visited once, the ten-year old Yisrael approached him with the following question, “How can we say ‘Hear o’ Israel, Havayah is our God, Havayah is one’ and then in the next breath say, ‘And you shall love Havayah your God’? When we say ‘Hear o’ Israel’ we reach the height of total self-sacrifice, and once we have done so, how is it possible to command us to love God? Who is left to be commanded?!” The reader will agree that not every child can ask questions such as this.

Rebbe Shneur Zalman considered the child’s question carefully and responded as necessary.[6] According to one tradition he once said, “From then on until this day, all of the Chassidic teachings that I teach come as an answer to this question.” According to a different tradition, he said that this question is suited to the greatest Chassidim and for them it would take him hours to answer, but this child grasped the answer in one sentence…

So, what is the answer? In short, the child was right. In a few sentences, in truth someone who correctly experiences saying, “Shema Yisrael” (“Hear o’ Israel”) is at that moment not in need of a commandment to love God. In Chassidic terminology, by saying “Shema Yisrael” we proclaim the “Upper Unification” in which the entire world (both the physical universe and all the spiritual world that can be described) is absolutely annulled to God, since God is one, not one as a part of a series (one-two, etc.), but one indivisible singularity, “He is alone and there is none beside Him.” Even the individual reading “Shema Yisrael” sacrifices himself and is annulled to God, and there is no-one left to command to love God. However, after saying Shema, before reading the next verse, we add another “verse” (which is not from the Bible): “Blessed is the Name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever.”[7]

This statement is a different type of unification called, the “Lower Unification,” by which the created universe (including us) is experienced as an existing reality into which we draw Divinity, thus spreading God’s kingdom in everything. Only now, after we have stepped down from the zenith of “Shema Yisrael” can we sense our existence as separate from God, and only now can we be commanded to love Him. Apparently, this is the entire gamut of Chassidic teachings on one foot, and the rest is just its commentary…

Beyond the Sky

Once, when he was three or four years old, Rebbe Shalom, Rebbe Yisrael’s father, took his son for a walk in the field at sunset. The sight of the setting sun moved the young child and he turned to his father and said, “Look, we can see the end of the sky, there where the sun is disappearing!” His father replied, “You should know, dear son, that beyond the sky that you see is another heaven, and after it another heaven and another and another, ad infinitum. And you should know, dear son, that there is a great Creator, who is even more infinite, who created all of those heavens…” Rebbe Yisrael himself related this story years later, as a profound childhood experience that was etched in his memory, and he added, “When I heard my holy father’s words, I was so moved and shaken, that I felt it physically to the bottom of my stomach, and that feeling has never left me until this very day.”

Is this another “story about tzadikim” or is this a story that belongs to each and every one of us? Somewhere, in our lost innocent childhood, each one of us experienced such a “revelation.” In a similar way, the sages describe Abraham’s recognition of the Creator and its Master, by contemplating nature. “Raise your eyes above and see who created these.”[8] Nature transmits a feeling that there is something (or Someone) behind it, and this is particularly true of the sky, which gives us a sense of the infinite, “If I rise into the sky, there are You.”[9] In Hebrew, even the word, “heaven” (שָׁמַים) can be interpreted as the plural of “there” (שָׁם), further and further out there, and beyond, in an inconceivable way, after each heaven, “there [beyond] are You.” All we need is the “talent” to integrate this idea without losing it. Happy is the one who merits such a righteous father who can direct him to be aware of such an experience of faith, and happy is the one who keeps this experience throughout their lives as at the first moment; he is a tzadik.

This is not just a profound experience of faith but also one of love and fear, because this amazing sense of infinite Divine light that is beyond the entire universe instantly yields profound awe of absolute transcendence, the latent secret that is hidden behind all these, and burning, yearning love to make contact with that very same unity who is actually with us here and now. The wisdom is to maintain the novelty and freshness of each of these for days and years and never to allow them to be extinguished or to grow old, “For you your youth is like dew.”

Rebbe Yisrael of Ruzhin was once asked, “What is ‘Divine inspiration’ (רוּח הַקֹדֶשׁ)?” and he replied quite simply, “Every Jew has a spirit of life, a Divine soul, and if one would only take care not to taint one’s spirit, one would merit Divine inspiration.” This is the dew of youth that is maintained by the tzadik, yet we can all become worthy of it.

Royal Leadership

Rebbe Yisrael became a leader at a young age and hundreds of thousands of Chassidim flocked to his court. The most prominent—and definitely the most atypical—characteristic of his leadership was “royalty.” His home was built like a palace, he rode in a magnificent carriage, upheld a horse stable, used gold and silver vessels and wore regal clothing, just like one of the greatest non-Jewish lords… This was also true of his behavior which was like that of a nobleman, with strict cleanliness, majestic splendor, and royal mannerisms and etiquette. Even his prayers, which some tzadikim conducted stormily and with great fervor, were conducted in total silence. Indeed, this noble mannerism, in principle, is one that characterizes Rebbe Yisrael’s descendents, the Rebbes of Ruzhin, to this very day.

As we might expect, such out of the ordinary behavior aroused surprise and even opposition within the Jewish world, but the greatest tzadikim upheld Rebbe Yisrael’s merit and this silenced the objection to a great extent. However, such magnificent mannerisms cannot be kept a secret. The gossip about the Jewish rabbi who acts like royalty and who rules thousands reached the ears of the Russian czar and he was told that this was a rebellion against him. Rebbe Yisrael was sent to jail, where he was held for almost two whole years under severely restrictive conditions (reminiscent of the righteous Joseph, “and it came to pass at the end of two years…”[10]). Eventually, his faithful chassidim succeeded in redeeming him from jail (with the aid of a lot of jingling coins), and after great hardship, smuggled him over the border to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where he eventually settled in the town of Sadigora.

Lowly in My Eyes

How can we explain such conduct? We can understand the noble serenity, but what is the reason for such superficial extravagance, riches, magnificence and glory? Doesn’t all this testify to arrogance, God forbid, or might it not result in arrogance?

Indeed, this way of conduct is not a simple model to emulate. The essential condition that can justify such regal extravagance is an innate attribute of lowliness and humility, such as that of King David, who said of himself, “And I have been lowly in my eyes.”[11] Someone who senses themselves as totally “lowly in my eyes,” their heart is broken inside them and they take no credit for themselves, knowing that they are unworthy of anything—they, and only they, can conduct themselves outwardly with a superficial cloak of stateliness for a positive cause. This is how it was with Rebbe Yisrael of Ruzhin, a fact that is illustrated by the following anecdote:

Once, Rebbe Yisrael rode in a cart with one of his fellow tzadikim, Rebbe Moshe Tzvi of Sovran, and they arrived somewhere where they were welcomed regally, so much so that people ran before the cart. Rebbe Moshe Tzvi felt uncomfortable with such a display of honor and bowed his head so that people would not see him, but Rebbe Yisrael said to him, “I imagine the cart that we are travelling in is like a coffin, the horses are carrying the body and all the people around have come to the funeral…” someone who truly feels this way, cannot be affected negatively by all the honor in the world.

Another story is that Rebbe Yisrael once claimed that his imprisonment was a punishment for the fact that when he was five years old, at the initiation party held to celebrate his beginning to learn the Torah, he had related a Torah insight before all the other children and when they told him, “Well done!” he had felt a dash of self pride. And for that smidgen of pride, at that age, he deserved sitting for two years in the Russian jail… from here we learn how sensitive he was to the subject, so much so that he considered the slightest diversion as a flaw, and “The Almighty is strict with tzadikim to a hair’s breadth.”[12]

Rebbe Yehudah Hanassi, editor of the Mishnah, is referred to as “Rabeinu Hakadosh” (“our holy Rabbi”). He was extremely rich and conducted himself with great honor and extravagance, “Torah and greatness in one place,”[13] yet, before he passed away he said of himself before God that he had not taken pleasure from this world even with his little finger.[14] From all of the riches and honor he had not taken any personal pleasure and it had all been for the sake of heaven. This is also what we learn about Rebbe Yisrael of Ruzhin, der heiliger Rizhiner, who said of himself that he had not taken even a hair’s breadth of personal pleasure from his riches (which is why they both were worthy of the title “Holy,” i.e., removed from worldly pleasures).[15]

King of Israel

Yet, we still ask, why did he conduct himself so regally? Isn’t the Jewish ideal to live a simple and modest life, as the Mishnah teaches us, “Who is rich? One who is happy with his lot.” [16]Furthermore, what purpose can there be for gold vessels and a horse driven carriage?

We will once again make use of a story to illustrate a point. Rebbe Meir of Gur, author of the Chidushei Harim, was one of the great men of the generation who came to bask in Rebbe Yisrael’s light. Rebbe Yisrael welcomed him with honor and showed him his “kingdom,” including the horses in the stable, asking him what he thought about it. Rebbe Meir did not conceal his opinion and replied sharply, “This too is folly.”[17]  However, Rebbe Yisrael did not remain silent and retorted, “The letters of the word ‘Folly’ (הֶבֶל) are the initial letters of the phrase, ‘He created everything in His honor’ (הַכָּל בָּרָא לִכְבוֹדוֹ).”[18] This means that Rebbe Yisrael’s regal conduct was intended to reveal God’s honor within the follies of this world, through an innate sense of lowliness, without sinking into their depths.

Simply put, Rebbe Yisrael did not suffice with his chassidim praying, learning and observing mitzvot, he wanted to establish Jewish leadership—and one that aspired to royalty. In this way Rebbe Yisrael took the entire Chassidic movement one step forward towards its true goal of bringing redemption by ultimately reinstating a Jewish monarchy in the Land of Israel.

The Czar Nikolai’s act of throwing Rebbe Yisrael into jail was truly evil, but the conspiracy that claimed that the Rebbe wanted to be king is not entirely unfounded. Although the Rebbe was not interested in rebelling against the Russian government, nonetheless, he was preparing the Jewish People for living such a truly Jewish lifestyle that had been lacking for so many generations, and their eventual goal of living independently of foreign rule in the Land of Israel. Indeed, the tzadikim of the Ruzhiner dynasty are renowned for their enthusiastic support of settling the land, in theory and in practice. Rebbe Yisrael did not conceal his explicit intentions, and Chassidic tradition holds that he made a recommendation to some of the tzadikim of his time to coronate him as Mashiach… this is a pretension that might be suspected as “crazy” and dangerous, however such a tzadik—who on the one hand is extremely “lowly in his own eyes,” while on the other hand is aware of the task that has been assigned to him from heaven—is the only one who can say such a thing. Even if the time was not yet ripe, nonetheless it was an advance towards Mashiach.

We will conclude with a profound anecdote that illustrates the relationship between the tzadik, who has a “general soul,” and the entire public. Once, Rabbi Moshe Tzvi of Sovran asked Rebbe Yisrael, “What do you do about all the people who come to you for the Days of Awe?” Rebbe Yisrael replied, “Each of the thousands of Chassidim who comes to me for the Days of Awe, when I see him, is etched upon my heart. Later, on Rosh Hashanah, and especially when the shofar is sounded, I open my heart to the Almighty and all their ‘notes’ are passed directly on to the Almighty.” Every tzadik is an aspect of “The Beauty of Israel,”[19] and incorporates all their souls. Even when he is not thinking personally about each individual, they all crystallize into one whole and are transmitted to God for Him to inscribe us to a good and peaceful life.

In conclusion, we have only touched on the edge of this wondrous tzadik. We hope that we have learnt something from him.

[1] Tanya ch. 2.

[2] Maimonides, Hilchot Dei’ot 6:2.

[3] Deuteronomy 10:20.

[4] Chagigah 12:2.

[5] Proverbs 10:25.

[6] See Derech Mitzvotecha 139a.

[7] See Pesachim 56a.

[8] Isaiah 40:26.

[9] Psalms 139:8.

[10] Genesis 41:1.

[11] II Samuel 6:22.

[12] See Yevamot 121b.

[13] Gittin 59a.

[14] Ketubot 104a.

[15] See Shabbat 118b, why Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi was called “Holy.”

[16] Avot 4:1.

[17] The theme repeated in Ecclesiastes.

[18] A phrase taken from seven marriage blessings.

[19] Lamentations 2:1.

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