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Rebbe Yisrael of Ruzhin: True Love, Bread, and Borsht

Rabbi Yisrael Friedman of Ruzhin, founder of the widespread Ruzhin chasidic dynasty, was born in Porebishtsh (Pohrebyshche), Ukraine on 3 Tishrei 5557 (1796) to Rebbe Shalom Shachne, the son of Rebbe Avraham HaMalach, who was the son of the Maggid of Mezritch. When Rebbe Yisrael was six years old, his father passed away, and he was raised and educated by his brother, Rebbe Avraham of Porebishtsh.

The tzaddikim of Rebbe Yisrael’s generation admired him and many of them made him their rebbe. As reflected by many stories about him, the holy Ruzhiner was an “all-inclusive soul”—all the souls of Israel were a part of him. He once said that when something happens to a Jew at the other end of the world, he immediately feels it in his heart. As such, Rebbe Yisrael conducted himself as a king, reflecting the greatness of Israel as sons of kings. The wealth and honor that he merited were so great that they aroused the jealousy of the Russian czar, Nicholas I, who had Rebbe Yisrael imprisoned. He was able to miraculously escape Russia, settling in nearby Sadigura (Sadhora), Austria, where he re-established his major chasidic court. Rebbe Yisrael passed away on 3 Cheshvan 5611 (1850).

Once, a group of Ruzhiner chasidim—either on their way to the Rebbe or returning from their visit with him—stopped at an inn run by an elderly Jew. They noticed that the innkeeper was praying very late, well after the established time for the morning prayer. “Why don’t you pray in the morning?” the chasidim asked the innkeeper. “I heard that there is a tzaddik called Rebbe Yisrael of Ruzhin, who also prays very late, so I do the same,” the innkeeper replied. “We are his followers,” the chasidim responded, “and he explained his tradition with a parable”:

Once there was a couple. Every day, the wife would prepare breakfast for her husband—bread and borsht—at a specific time. One day, the husband entered the kitchen for breakfast and saw that there was nothing on the table. He patiently waited for his wife to serve him. An hour passed and then another, and no food was on the horizon. Afternoon came and then, at a very late hour, his wife entered and brought him breakfast—the usual bread and borsht.

“The entire time that I was waiting for breakfast, I was giving you the benefit of the doubt,” the husband said to his wife. “I thought that perhaps you were late because you were preparing a special breakfast for me. I imagined all the delicacies that you were cooking. And then, you bring me bread and borsht, like every morning?”

“In the same manner,” the chasidim continued, “the Rebbe prays late because he is busy preparing a special feast for the husband,  our beloved Father in Heaven. But if a person only knows how to make bread and borsht, why should God wait for him?”

The innkeeper thought for a moment and said to the chasidim: “The story that you told was about a husband and wife whose marriage was not loving. So it could be that if the wife does not serve breakfast on time, the husband will be upset. But if the couple is loving, even if she brings him bread and borsht at the very latest hour, he will not be upset at all. He loves her and she loves him.”

The chasidim were very taken with the innkeeper’s answer. Even though they may have been on their way home from their visit with the tzaddik, they quickly returned to Ruzhin and told the rebbe about the innkeeper’s reply.

“You should know,” Rebbe Yisrael told them, “there could be a soul that descends to this world to live seventy years, just to say one Torah thought.”

These words from the Ruzhiner are similar to the Ba’al Shem Tov’s statement[1]: “A soul descends to this world and lives seventy or eighty years, for the purpose of performing a single good deed for another Jew, in the physical realm and particularly in the spiritual realm.” But to a degree, the Ruzhiner’s statement is even stronger, because he says that the purpose of life might be not an act but just one single innovation in Torah.

The chasidim set out yet again from the Ruzhiner and when they arrived at the inn, they were told that the innkeeper had passed away.

The innkeeper’s reply was inspired, and actually describes a redemptive state, in which there is peace between us and our Father-beloved. In this state of peace, all the small incidents that may cause strife are inconsequential relative to the great love between the couple. What was the source of the innkeeper’s inspiration?

We can say that he received an illumination from the soul root of Rebbe Yisrael of Ruzhin himself. Initially, the innkeeper identified with the Rebbe regarding praying time. When he hears an argument that contradicts his behavior, he manages to answer in a way that inspires the chasidim and evokes enthusiastic agreement from the rebbe.

On the revealed level, the Ruzhiner’s parable describes the current situation—a state of exile where there is some strife between the couple. But the innkeeper’s statement revealed the Ruzhiner’s concealed dimension, the dimension of Mashiach, who seeks to bring redemption to the world.

With the parable that the chasidim retold in Rebbe Yisrael’s name, Rebbe Yisrael filled a role in revealing the inner dimension of the aged innkeeper. Without this parable, the innkeeper would not have revealed the redemptive-Ruzhinesque spark in his soul and would not have been able to fulfill his role in this world. True, the price of the revelation was steep. It is dangerous to articulate the sentence for which one has descended to this world. But there is no end to the merit and insight that come from this inspiring Torah thought.




[1]. HaYom Yom for 5 Iyar.

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