Rabbi Yitzchak Horowitz (known lovingly as Reb Itche Masmid, Reb Itche, the Diligent Student) was born in 5645 (1885) to his father, Shlomo Menachem Mendel and his mother, Elka, in Harson, Ukraine. As a lad, he was already known for his extraordinary diligence in Torah study. His teacher related that he would continue to learn at night even after he, the teacher, would go to sleep. By 5657 (1897) Reb Itche was already ordained as a Rabbi. He went to the new Lubavitch Yeshiva, Tomchei Temimim, where he studied only the revealed parts of the Torah. Even when there would be chasidic farbrengens in the yeshiva, Reb Itche would continue with his studies in a different section of the study hall. But after hearing the teachings in the farbrengen, his interest was piqued and he began to participate and to study Chasidut with diligence. In 5688 (1928) Reb Itche followed the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rayatz, from Lubavitch in Russia to Riga.
Reb Itche was murdered by the Nazis when they invaded Riga, on 10 Kislev 5702 (1942). The Nazis forced a large group of Jews into the local synagogue and set it ablaze. They forced other Jews to remain outside the synagogue and watch the horrific scene. Eyewitnesses later related that Reb Itche opened the Torah ark in the synagogue, removed the Torah scroll, and said, “We have the great privilege to fulfill the commandment of self-sacrifice to sanctify God’s Name, and we must do it with joy.” He placed one hand on the shoulder of Rabbi Eliyahu Chaim Althaus and the second on the shoulder of Rabbi Yechezkel Feigin (the devoted and loyal secretary of the Rebbe Rayatz) and together they danced, while singing the Hakafos melody of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson.
Rabbi Yehuda Chitrik related the following: Once we were at a farbrengen at the home of Reb Yosef Chen. Some of the participants said to Reb Itche that Reb Yosef needed a blessing, as he had no children. Reb Itche said that he could not help: For once when he was at a farbrengen in Warsaw to raise money for the Rebbe’s enterprises, a childless chasid turned to him and said, “I will give a substantial sum to your cause if you bless me with children.” “We had had a few drinks then,” Reb Itche explained, “and he got his blessing and was indeed blessed with children. After that, I could no longer go to Warsaw (for people considered Reb Itche a miracle worker). Do you want me not to be able to come here, either?”
Similarly, once Reb Laiser Nanas was next to the Rebbe Rayatz’s room, and he heard Reb Itche Masmid crying before the Rebbe. He related that as part of his mission as a fund-raising emissary for the Rebbe, people come to him to tell him their troubles and he sends their pidyon nefesh (sum of money with a request for a blessing) to the Rebbe. Many times, however, there was not enough time to send the pidyon nefesh immediately, and then he would send it in his thought – as many chasidim did – and most of the time, the salvation would come in the merit of the Rebbe’s blessing. That was all fine and good, but Reb Itche cried that sometimes, the people would credit him with the salvation, instead of the Rebbe.
In response, the Rebbe told Reb Itche a similar story that had taken place with Rebbe Hillel of Paritch. Rebbe Hillel would also travel from town to town to teach chasidut and raise funds for the enterprises of the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek. In urgent situations, he would also have to communicate with the Rebbe in thought. He also cried to the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek that in many cases, the chasidim credited him with the miracles that occurred.
The Rebbe Rayatz then said to Reb Itche, “To help another Jew, one needs self-sacrifice.”
Rebbe Nachman of Breslev and Rebbe Yisrael of Ruzhin used a similar parable to explain their feelings about the honor that they were given: Once there was a minister who ruled over a distant village. The inhabitants of the village were unworldly and did not know the difference between the minister and the king. They treated the minister as if he was a royal. Things went on like this for a long time, until once, the king himself came to the village. The minister was on his very best behavior and showed the king the various points of interest in his fiefdom. A villager approached them. He had no idea who the king was and fell at the feet of the minister as if he were the king – while completely ignoring the real king right in front of him…We can only imagine how much embarrassment the “honor” that the minister received from the villager caused him. This is how the tzaddikim feel when people give them honor, while ignoring God, Who is always with them.
Reb Itche Masmid expressed a similar feeling in this story: As a chasid who was truly connected to the Rebbe, he always lived with the Rebbe’s presence in his thoughts and requested his blessing for every detail. The people who attributed the miracles that happened for them to Reb Itche caused him true suffering – so much so, that he would no longer visit a place where he was considered a miracle worker. The Rebbe Rayatz, who was the leader of all the chasidim, likely felt the same way. Nonetheless, he continued to bless the people who turned to him and to work miracles and salvations for them. He also encouraged Reb Itche to “send” him requests for blessings in his thoughts, even if the price was unbearable to him. This was his way, and the way of the tzaddikim mentioned above. To help another person, one needs self-sacrifice!