Trouble was brewing in St. Petersburg. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, known as the Tzemach Tzedek, immediately set to work to have the anti-Semitic decree abolished. As part of his efforts, he felt Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin should be kept abreast of the latest developments, so he sent one of his most accomplished followers, Reb Yitzchak Eizik of Homil, to personally convey the information.

Reb Eizik received the warmest of welcomes from Rabbi Yisrael and was even invited to dine with the venerable rabbi. It was clear that the respect he received stemmed largely from Rabbi Yisrael’s esteem for the rebbe who had sent him.

After Reb Eizik had given over his rebbe’s message and begun preparing for his journey home, an unexpected delay held him in Ruzhin for several days. He made use of his newfound time by observing Rabbi Yisrael’s conduct, which he found most fascinating.

An audience in Ruzhin was a ceremonious affair: Rabbi Yisrael, flanked on both sides by trusted chassidim, would listen carefully to each visitor. Reb Eizik was granted the honor of being present as well.

He watched as two visitors were admitted together. One was a respected Torah scholar from Bukovina who sought Rabbi Yisrael’s approbation for a collection of his original Torah teachings.

The other visitor also held a book. It wasn’t a monumental work of Torah, but a collection of short stories—mostly of miracles brought about through prayer—painstakingly collected over many years. He, too, hoped Rabbi Yisrael would endorse his book prior to publication.

...and as he listened, Rabbi Yisrael visibly basked in the stories’ warmth.Rabbi Yisrael instructed one of the men at his side to read a few pages from the book of stories, and as he listened, Rabbi Yisrael visibly basked in the stories’ warmth. He then asked to hear a short sample of the Torah teachings, which were enough to display the author’s rare genius.

After sinking into thought for several quiet moments, Rabbi Yisrael looked up and began praising the concept of Jewish stories. He spoke with great excitement of the positive impressions they leave on their listeners and the effect they have in the spiritual worlds. He then addressed the Torah teachings and the merit of the scholar who had produced such fine work.

When Rabbi Yisrael finished speaking, he asked for a quill and an inkwell. He wrote a glowing recommendation for the collection of stories and handed it to the writer. Dipping his quill into ink again, he wrote a second endorsement, this one for the book of Torah, assuring any future learner of its worthiness.

The episode left Reb Eizik confused. It seemed that Rabbi Yisrael valued storytelling more than Torah study!

Two days later, on Rosh Chodesh (the first of the Jewish month), Reb Eizik was invited to dine with Rabbi Yisrael once more. During the course of the meal, Rabbi Yisrael expounded on some Torah insights. Reb Eizik was asked to do the same.

Just before the meal’s close, as though thinking aloud, Rabbi Yisrael suddenly said, “The rabbi from Homil, the emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, is questioning me and my ways. In reality, however, his question is nothing new, and neither is its answer.

“The Torah begins by telling us stories—how G‑d created the world and performed miracles for His people. Only later does it turn to the matter of Jewish law, when we are introduced to the first mitzvah—that of establishing a fixed calendar.

Rashi addressed this question in the opening lines of his magnum opus: The Torah should have begun with the verse, ‘This month shall be unto you…’ What is the reason it begins with, ‘In the beginning…?’

“And Rashi answers, Because ‘He declared to his people the strength of His works.’ Strength implies the soul—a power—hidden in the Creation of the World.

“My grandfather, the Maggid of Mezeritch, knew how to see the soul giving life to every aspect of creation. He learned this particular secret from the Baal Shem Tov.”

“Do you understand what I’m saying? I’m following the same order G‑d set within His holy Torah...”Rabbi Yisrael fixed his penetrating gaze on his guest. “Do you understand what I’m saying? I’m following the same order G‑d set within His holy Torah. First come the stories of G‑d’s greatness, then come the mitzvot.”

Softening his tone, Rabbi Yisrael continued, “Both authors are model chassidim. Both works contain fine value. As obvious as it seems, the book of Torah thoughts demonstrates the author’s genius and impressive ability to grasp subtle Torah concepts—truly wondrous. The stories, however, convey the message that G‑d is continuously involved in the world’s development. Through them, G‑d’s glory shines through the dense thicket of corporeality.”