Rabbi Yisrael Friedman of Ruzhin, the founder of the far-reaching Chasidic House of Ruzhin, was born in Prohobisht, Ukraine on the 3rd of Tishrei 5557 (1796). His father was Rabbi Shalom Shachne, the son of Rabbi Avraham the Angel, who was the only son of the Maggid of Mezritch, the Ba’al Shem Tov’s foremost disciple. He was named Yisrael after the Ba’al Shem Tov whose first name was Yisrael. When he was six years old, his father died, and he was raised by his older brother, Rabbi Avraham of Prohobisht, who was only 17 at the time. The tzaddikim of Rabbi Yisrael’s generation admired him, and many of them would journey to him, as chassidim do to their Rebbe. Rabbi Yisrael once said that “When something happens to a Jew on the other end of the world, I immediately feel it in my heart.”
Rebbe Yisrael is commonly known as the Holy Ruzhiner. Of all the pious leaders of his generation, it is known that he is the only one about whom the Alter Rebbe of Chabad said that he is worthy of becoming the Mashiach.
Rabbi Yisrael conducted his court like a royal palace, in order to reflect the greatness of the Jewish people, children of kings. His wealth and honor were so great that the Russian Czar became jealous of him and threw him into prison, from where he miraculously escaped. He then made his home in Sadigura, Austro-Hungary. He passed away on 3 Cheshvan, 5611 (1850).
Rebbe Iche (Yitzchak) of Worke, one of the disciples of Rebbe Simchah Bunim of Peshischa, would visit the Rebbe of Ruzhin from time to time. Rebbe Iche was a Chasidic Rebbe in his own right, with thousands of followers, and he had enough clout to speak with the Ruzhiner relatively freely. There were those who said that it was better if simple folk did not visit the Ruzhiner, for he was the Rebbe for other Rebbes, specifically. There was even one Rebbe who was a chassid of the Ruzhiner, who would not allow his disciples to visit the Ruzhiner. When the Ruzhiner asked him about that, he answered, “You are the Rebbe of tzaddikim. I am good enough for my chassidim.” The Ruzhiner did not accept this explanation. He wanted everyone to come to him.
Once, Rebbe Iche came to visit the Ruzhiner and they were talking. This took place following the 21 months that the Ruzhiner had been in a Russian prison. The Russian Czar was jealous of his royal conduct and court. Rebbe Iche asked the Ruzhiner, respectfully of course, if he knew why Heaven had decreed that he would be imprisoned.
“I will tell you a story,” the Ruzhiner answered. “When the Bach (the Bayit Chadash, Rabbi Yoel Sirkis, one of the greatest legal authorities) passed away, it was decreed that he would have to shortly pass through purgatory. Many tzaddikim, perhaps even all of them, pass through purgatory to gather souls, but for the Bach, there was a reason why he himself had to experience a taste of purgatory. Why was this so? Tradition says that once, when the Bach was in the street, he sneezed, apparently quite a hefty sneeze. Nearby, there was a wagon harnessed to a horse and donkey. The Torah prohibits harnessing a horse and donkey together—a prohibition known as kilayim. But when he sneezed so hard, the animals were startled and moved, pulling the wagon with them; he had inadvertently transgressed the prohibition of kilayim. Hence, when the Bach passed away, he had to pass through purgatory.”
“You should know,” the Ruzhiner continued, “by me, even something as small as that does not exist. So why did I have to sit in prison for almost two years? Once, when I was five years old, the teacher in the cheider made a chumash party for our class. The teacher seated me at the head of the table and asked me to say some words of Torah in front of all the children, which I did. All the children passed before me and complimented me and then I felt a small drop of conceit. Because of that conceit when I was five years old, I sat in prison for almost two years.”
This story says something about the way in which judgment is conducted in heaven, but more importantly about how valuable humility is. More than anything else, however, it teaches us about the Ruzhiner himself. The official reason cited by the Russians for his imprisonment was his royal conduct and the fact that he was called “King of Israel.” The Ruzhiner makes it clear that in spite of his regal conduct and status, throughout his entire life, he never felt greater or higher than anyone else, except for that one moment when he was five years old. This illustrates the great Chasidic principle, that to be a true king one needs to feel lowliness. One needs to recognize one’s own faults and failures, like King David, who said “And I will be lowly in my own eyes.” When one has reached the clarity that he is no better than anyone else, he is ready to lead.
The Rebbe of Bohush (one of the Chasidic branches that came out of Ruzhin) related that two brothers once came to the Alter Rebbe of Bohush. The brothers lived in Shargorod (Sharhorod, Ukraine), and they brought the Rebbe a parchment scroll that they had once received from the Ruzhiner, who was his grandfather. The brothers told the Rebbe that they lived in the same building. Once they became very frightened, for the will of Rabbi Yehudah HaChassid says that two brothers should not live in the same city. They went to the holy Ruzhiner to ask his advice. “I will give you an amulet,” the Ruzhiner said, “and then you will not need to fear anymore.” They exited the room for a short time and then entered again. The Ruzhiner gave them a parchment scroll and told them to hang it between their two apartments for seven years.
Seven years passed and they were supposed to return the scroll, but the Ruzhiner Rebbe was no longer in this world. The brothers came to the Alter Rebbe of Bohush and brought him the scroll. The Rebbe opened it, and saw that on it was written (Psalms 133:1), “How good and pleasant brothers dwelling together” (הִנֵּה מַה טּוֹב וּמַה נָּעִים שֶׁבֶת אַחִים גַּם יָחַד). The Rebbe said, “The general custom is to write holy Names in amulets. But the holy Ruzhiner wrote this verse in holiness and purity and it has the same power and spiritual charm as if God’s Name was written in it. Something that comes into the world in a state of holiness and purity has the same power and influence as God’s Name.”
The way of the Ba’al Shem Tov, after whom Rebbe Yisrael of Ruzhin was named, was characterized by a complex approach toward amulets. On the one hand, our teacher, the Ba’al Shem Tov, negated the employment of practical Kabbalah in our times and saw it as an aberration from the pure service of God. On the other hand, he himself used amulets and was known as a Ba’al Shem, a title given in those days to someone who employed practical Kabbalah.
The resolution to these two conflicting attitudes became known when one of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s amulets was opened. All that was written inside was his name: “Yisrael the son of Eliezer.” The tzaddik puts himself into the amulet and in the merit of his cleaving to God and in the merit of his faith, nature changes.
Likewise, when God gave the Torah to Israel, He concealed His Names inside it, and even Himself. The first word of the Ten Commandments is “I am” (אָנֹכִי), which the sages tell us (Shabbat 105a) is an acronym for “I wrote Myself and gave it” (אֲנָא נַפְשִׁי כְּתָבִית יְהַבִית), meaning that the Torah is itself God’s Name.
In the same manner, Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin inserts the power of God’s Names into the above verse from Psalms. In the same verse, he also alludes to his own name. The last letters of the words of this verse (הִנֵּה מַה טּוֹב וּמַה נָּעִים שֶׁבֶת אַחִים גַּם יָחַד) equal Yisrael. The value of its initial letters (הִנֵּה מַה טּוֹב וּמַה נָּעִים שֶׁבֶת אַחִים גַּם יָחַד) equal the value of “Mashiach son of David” (מָשִׁיחַ בֶּן דָּוִד), the Ruzhiner’s lifelong aspiration and the essence of his being.
There is another concealed connection between the verse that the holy Ruzhiner wrote and the complete redemption. The value of the two words “brothers dwelling” (שֶׁבֶת אַחִים) is the same as “teshuvah is great” (גְּדוֹלָה תְּשׁוּבָה), the first two words of the sages’ statement, “teshuvah is great for it brings the redemption closer.” The Mashiach is the king of Israel—a title that was given to the Ruzhiner in his day. His mission is to rally the entire Jewish people under a single flag. When brothers—i.e., the entire Jewish people—will dwell together, they will see how good and pleasant it is to walk in the path of Torah and mitzvot. That is the way in which the Mashiach will fulfill his destiny of bringing the Jewish people and the entire world to serve God.