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Rabbi Yisroel Friedman

Rabbi Yisroel Friedman

(1797-1851)

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The saintly Rabbi Yisroel, the famed Ruzhiner Tzaddik, (Rabbi Yisroel Friedman was born in the year 1797 in Pszedborsz, near Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine provine. His father Rabbi Sholorn Shachne was a son of Rabbi Avrohom, known as the "Malach" ("Angel"), the son of the Mezritcher Maggid, Rabbi Dov Ber. In 1838 he was denounced as a "rebel" against the Czar, and was imprisoned in Kiev and, later, in Kamenetz-Podolsk, for almost two years. When he was temporarily released on Shushan-Purim, 1840, he managed to escape. He eventually settled in the Town of Sadigora, Austria, continuing his leadership of his followers until he died in 1851.) was the head and spiritual leader of a large Chassidic following in the Ukraine. He lived in the town of Ruzhin.

In those days, some 150 years ago, the Chassidic movement in general, and the Chassidic Rebbes in particular, had many opponents, among whom there were some who did not hesitate to bring all kinds of damaging accusations against them to the Russian Government. Czar Nicholas I was then in power.

Nicholas issued various oppressive measures against the Jews, including the cruel decree that very young Jewish boys should be forcibly taken from their parents and recruited into the Russian army for 25 years. It was his intention that in this way the Jewish children would be alienated from their Jewish faith and be converted. However, most of the boys heroically resisted all efforts to force them to abandon the Jewish faith. These were the famous so-called "Cantonists."

Like all despotic rulers, he could not tolerate the slightest criticism against his regime, and certainly would immediately suppress any attempt at rebellion.

Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that, when an accusation reached him of any Chassidic Rebbe who wag talking against the Czar, he took it very seriously indeed.

And so one day when a report reached him that the Ruzhiner Rebbe conducted himself like a self-appointed "king," and that he did not recognize the authority of the Czar, and, in fact, held him in contempt, the Czar ordered an immediate investigation into these charges.

It was then decided to send a secret agent to Ruzhin to see if the charges were true.

One of the high ranking advisers in the Royal Court was a certain renegade Jew, who readily agreed to act as a spy.

He took on the role of a rich Jewish merchant, and came to Ruzhin, supposedly, to spend a Shabbos at the court of the famous Tzaddik, and to ask him for a blessing to be successful in his extensive business dealings.

When he arrived at the Beth Medrash, he played the part of a rich merchant and treated everyone to drinks and refreshments, playing the friendly and generous host. When everyone had a number of drinks and toasts of "L'Chayim," he began to talk about his business ventures which were being hampered by the troublesome government regulations, aimed mainly at Jewish businessmen, and he declared vehemently, that the Czar was surely behind these cruel decrees!

He looked around expectantly, waiting to hear some of his listeners agree with him. But there was silence - not a sound, not a word!

The undercover agent repeated his performance the following day, and also the next day. However, no sooner had he started to talk about the Czar and his government, than the gathered Chassidim fell silent. All his efforts to get them to say something were in vain; the Chassidim simply refused the bait and remained silent.

Meanwhile, the Gabbai had arranged for this rich merchant to have a private -audience with the saintly Rebbe. When he entered the Rebbe's study, the Ruzhiner asked his visitor what was the purpose of his visit, and what was his problem.

The "rich merchant" then began to tell his sad story: He had big business ventures and was being unfairly taxed by the Czar's government, just because he was a Jew. Also he was constantly restricted as to where he may go and where he may not, and so forth. In fact, it was becoming almost impossible to continue his business with any hope of success. Now, therefore, if the saintly Rebbe would only pray for the Czar's downfall, so that there should be a new king who would deal more kindly with the Jews, it would solve all problems.

Giving the visitor a penetrating look, the Ruzhiner Rebbe replied, "Listen, and I will tell you a story. " And the Rebbe proceeded to tell the following story:

In a small, distant village, there once lived a Jewish innkeeper who had an only son. When the boy was old enough, the father arranged for a Melamed (tutor) to come and teach his son to read from the Siddur, and to learn Chumash and other things that a Jewish boy should know.

The innkeeper's family was the only Jewish family in the village, so that the boy had no Jewish friends to play with. As the innkeeper had a handyman who had a son the same age as his, the two boys naturally became playmates. Thus it was that when the tutor came to give his lessons, the non-Jewish boy, let's call him Stephan, used to wander in, sit down and listen to the lessons. Stephan showed real interest in the lessons and, in fact, absorbed them even quicker than the innkeeper's son.

When the boys grew up, it was time to think of a Shidduch for the Jewish boy. Along came a Shadchan to interview him and see what kind of a young man he was, and what kind of a Torah scholar he was. As usual, Stephan was there with his Jewish friend and remained present during the interview. When the Shadchan asked the Jewish boy various questions, Stephan was quicker with the answers, putting his Jewish friend in a poor light. The Shadchan decided that the young lady he had in mind could do better by looking elsewhere for a husband.

When the innkeeper saw what was happening, he decided he had better do something to separate his son from his non-Jewish friend. He saw no other way than to discharge his handyman so that he would leave together with his bright son.

The handyman protested that it was not fair, and there was no reason for him to be sent away just because his son was such a liability. He said that his son was old enough to go off on his own. To this the innkeeper agreed.

And so the handyman lost no time in sending his son away in search of his fortune.

The smart boy that he was, Stephan first pretended to be a Jewish boy, and orphan, knowing that kind Jews would befriend him. Whenever he came to a town, he would go into the Beth Medrash, pick up a Sefer and start studying it, and sure enough, Jews invited the "poor orphan" to a meal and a lodging for the night.

After some time, Stephan became impatient at the role he was playing, and decided he could do better than that. He went to a large city and enrolled in the university, where he studied languages and science. After completing his courses, he again began to travel from town to town in search of his fortune.

One day, he reached a large city, where he found much commotion. It happened that for the past few days there were loud public proclamations, inviting all strangers to present themselves at the Palace, where a new king was to be chosen.

Stephan found out that it was the custom of this city to choose a new king every three years, who had to be a stranger. The idea was that such a king would have no favorites among the inhabitants, and would rule with equal justice for all. Thus there was a contest for the most suitable candidate once every three years, and now was the time to select a new king.

Hearing this, Stephan hurried off to the palace and presented himself as a candidate. He passed all the tests successfully, beating all other candidates, and so, he was crowned as the new king.

It did not take long before the new ruler began to issue severe decrees against the Jews, and finally came-the hardest blow - a royal decree that all Jews must leave the kingdom within the next twelve months!

The Chief Rabbi then proclaimed a fast and ordered that all Jews should pray to G‑d to soften the king's cruel heart. For three days the Jews fasted and prayed. On the fourth day, the Chief Rabbi sent for the seven leading members of the Jewish community and told them that it had been revealed to him in a dream that in a certain village, in a distant land, there was a young innkeeper who would be the one who could influence the king to annul his decree. To everyone's astonishment, it so happened that each member had the very same dream!

Two messengers were then dispatched to bring the young innkeeper back with them.

When the messengers finally reached the village and found the young innkeeper, several months had already gone by. The young innkeeper was bewildered by the request of the messengers. He protested that he had never heard of the king, or his land, and could not possibly imagine how he - a poor humble innkeeper - could influence this powerful and cruel ruler. However, as the messengers seemed so desperate, the innkeeper readily agreed to go back with them.

The messengers returned with the innkeeper, just a short time before the twelve months' limit had ended, whereupon the Jewish leaders prevailed upon the king to grant an interview to a Jewish delegation.

At the appointed time, the Jewish delegation, including the young innkeeper, appeared before the king. When the king laid eyes on the young innkeeper, his face lit up and he came forward to greet him with a warm friendly embrace.

"Don't you recognize me, Yossel? I am your old friend Stephan! Because of you I was driven from your house, when I spoiled your chances of finding a bride! Remember?" And the king broke into a loud chuckle. "But," he added, "I am certainly grateful to you, Yossel, for, see what it all led me to! So what can I do for you now in return?"

Yossel asked the king to rescind his decree and permit the Jews to remain in his kingdom.

"Believe me, my friend," said the king, "I have nothing against Jews. On the contrary, I shall always remember gratefully how your father and you treated me and how all the Jews I met fed me and cared for me in my time of need. I know that Jews are good, honest people, and serve their country well. But what can I do when I suddenly get an urge to persecute them, I don't know why. . . "

Yossel was not able to explain it to the king, but the Rabbi who led the delegation, knew the answer. "Your majesty, our Torah teaches us that the heart of kings and princes is in the hand of G‑d. When Jews faithfully keep the Torah and Mitzvos, they are treated kindly-, when they neglect the Torah and Mitzvos, G‑d hardens the heart of their king. Jews always realize that whether they fare well or badly, it is entirely up to them, and they never pray for a new king, because there is no certainty that the new king will be any better. . . . "

Having concluded his story, the Ruzhiner looked straight into the eyes of his visitor and said to him: "Go and tell those who have sent you here that all accusations against Jews of being unfaithful to the king are false. Jews are always loyal citizens and pray for the welfare of the rulers and of the country in which they live."

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