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Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Izhbitz: Defamation for the Sake of Heaven

The seventh of Tevet is the day of passing of Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izhbitz (Izbica, Poland), the author of the book Mei HaShilo’ach. Rabbi Mordechai Yosef was one of the illustrious disciples of Rabbi Simchah Bunim of Parshischa. After Rabbi Simchah Bunim’s passing, he followed the leadership of his colleague, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk until he understood with his holy vision that he should lead his own congregation. His son and successor was Rabbi Yaakov, author of the Beit Yaakov, who greatly expanded upon his father’s teachings. His grandson was Rabbi Gershon Chanoch Henech, known as Ba’al HaTechelet, referring to his book on the identification of the Biblical blue-violet color required for the tzitzit. The Mei HaShilo'ach’s famous disciples were Rabbi Yehudah Leib Eiger (known eponymously as the Torat Emet) and Rabbi Tzaddok HaCohen of Lublin.

I heard from a dear friend of blessed memory, who visited the holy Rebbe Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin, of blessed and righteous memory. Two young men entered to receive his greetings. The holy rebbe asked one of them if he knows how to learn Torah, Talmud, etc., and he answered, “Yes.” The rebbe’s assistant was very surprised at the rebbe’s question, for he did not normally ask these types of questions. He had never even asked his own chassidim – not one of them – if they knew how to learn. It was even more surprising that he would ask such a question of someone who had come to see him for the first time. What’s more, this young man had not come to study under the rebbe’s tutelage but was just passing through. The rebbe’s assistant also couldn’t explain the question by thinking that it was due to something that the man had written in the note that he gave to the Rabbi, for it was the assistant himself who had written the note for him—he knew exactly what it contained.

So, the assistant mustered up the courage to ask the holy rebbe what prompted this irregular question. “Listen and I will explain it to you,” the rebbe answered. This young man’s father was a chassid of my teacher, the holy Rebbe of Izhbitz. He made his living as an ox merchant, which was a big business in those days. Eventually, this chassid moved on and connected with a different rebbe.

It came to pass that the man’s oxen were plagued by some illness and began dying. He went to his rebbe, but the rebbe did not provide him with any advice. When he came home, he saw that he had already lost a great deal of money and that the oxen were still dying. He once again traveled to his rebbe, and once again received no advice on what to do. He was forced to return home with no solution. But when he came home, he saw that not only had he lost all of his money, but he had also lost the money of others who had invested with him. The man was brokenhearted, and he worried that he would have to claim bankruptcy and would not be able to pay back the money to those investors. He was particularly upset because some of the people who had invested with him had used their dowry money with him so that they could live off the dividends and be free to dedicate themselves to learning Torah. He went to his rebbe for a third time, crying over the tragedy that had befallen him, particularly that he had lost other people’s money, young people who would no longer be able to continue their Torah studies. “What can I do?” he asked. His rebbe answered. “Go to the holy Rebbe of Izhbitz as you did in the past and he will help you.”

It was difficult for this man to return to the Rebbe of Izhbitz whom he had left. He even thought that if all he had lost was his own money, he would prefer to lose all his great wealth and not have to return to the Rebbe of Izhbitz. This man was a true chassid and so because the customs of the holy Rebbe of Izhbitz did not find favor in his eyes, he would have sacrificed his wealth and comfort to avoid going to him. But he could not let his preferences prevent him from saving the funds belonging to others, particularly to those who were studying Torah; doing so be a great desecration of God’s Name. So, he overcame his misgivings and went to see the holy Rebbe of Izhbitz.

When he came before the Izbitzer and told him his troubles, the Izbitzer asked him if he was willing to once again become his disciple. The chassid answered very truthfully that the Izhbitzer’s path did not find favor in his eyes. “And what will you do when you the remedy for your troubles will come from me?” the Izhbitzer asked. “I will say that you cast some kind of spell to make it happen,” the man answered.

The Izbitzer was very impressed by the man’s candor and realized that his intention in coming to see him was solely for the sake of Heaven. He promised the chassid that from that point on, his animals would live and his wealth would be restored and would increase ten-fold in that year. He added that a son would be born to him who would be a Torah scholar. “So, you see,” said Rabbi Tzadok, “the young man who came to see me was the son of this chassid,” Rabbi Tzadok said.  “I asked him if he knows how to learn to see if the blessing of my holy teacher, the Rebbe of Izhbitz, may his merit protect us, had come true.”[1]

The sages say that in the era heralding the coming of Mashiach—the era described in the Talmud as Ikveta DeMashicha (עִקְבְתָא דִּמְשִׁיחָא)—brazen behavior, or chutzpah, will thrive. This is wondrously exemplified in our story. Just as chutzpah precedes the redemption, so too, in our story, the chutzpah and bold speech of the chassid precede the salvation he finally receives. When the chassid expressed his opinion, without trying to conceal it, the spark of Mashiach in his soul was revealed and drew down salvation for him.

It seems that it was not for naught that the second rebbe sent the chassid specifically to his previous Rebbe, the Izhbitzer.  In Izhbitz, which continued the legacy of Parshischa and Kotzk, the truth was always welcome and accepted with open arms, even (and especially) when it came with a thorny wrapping. We can say that despite all the chassid’s misgivings about the Izhbitzer’s conduct, he had actually remained an Izhbitzer chassid in his soul.

Just like Mordechai in the time of Esther (the Izhbitzer’s first name was Mordechai Yosef), he stands strong and assertive in the face of a person who is willing to believe he is a “sorcerer” like Haman, performing his miracles not through piety, but through impurity. And yet, at the same time, he unwittingly demonstrates an impressive loyalty to the Izhbitzer’s path. (Parenthetically, we will mention that this also demonstrates the Izhbitzer’s approach to sin: A person thinks that he is choosing something against the will of the Creator. But retroactively, it becomes clear that this specifically was what God had wanted him to choose).

The Izhbitzer’s second name, Yosef, alludes to this connection, as well. Originally, the name Yosef was a prayer uttered by his mother, Rachel who said: “May God add (which in Hebrew is the word, “Yosef”) me another son.”[2] The word “another” in this verse also indicates someone who is distant and foreign. Indeed, in our story, the chassid (who is like a son to his rebbe) becomes “another”; he is detached from his rebbe who is like his father, yet he continues to be connected to him in a deep, unconscious manner. It is specifically when a connection reaches a state of being removed from consciousness that its depth can be expressed. When a connection is no longer conscious (but still having an effect in the background) it has reached the level of the Unknowable Head, the highest part of the sefirah of crown and our super-consciousness. This mimics how specifically on Purim, when we reach the point of “not knowing” (ad-delo-yada), that which was cursed becomes blessed and insults are transformed into compliments.


[1]. Nifla’ot HaTzaddikim, p.332.

[2]. Genesis 30:24.

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