Many a tale records wondrous deeds by the hassidic masters, stories of their miracles and supernatural capabilities. Not all hassidic tales, however, laud miracles. Indeed, Rabbi Yisrael Friedman of Ruzhin (1796-1850), one of the great hassidic masters and a renowned storyteller, did not place much stock in miracle workers or tales of magical capabilities.
“I don’t understand this generation,” the Holy Ruzhiner is reported to have said. “They praise the great rabbis of the generation for the myriad of miracles they perform. How can that be? One of the great miracle workers in our tradition, Elijah the Prophet, is described as performing only seven or eight miracles. Elisha, another prophet who performed miracles, is credited with twice as many miracles throughout his entire life. Today’s holy people are reported as performing up to 15 miracles a day!” It was not just that the Holy Ruzhiner doubted the veracity of the numerous miracle tales that were circulating. In Rabbi Yisrael’s eyes, miracles were not the essence of serving God; they were merely child’s play.
According to one storyteller, the Holy Ruzhiner was once asked why miracles were not so apparent in his court, as opposed to the tales of wondrous deeds that were told about other hassidic masters.
The Holy Ruzhiner responded, “Each tzaddik [righteous person] is given the opportunity to journey through supernal worlds. One of those levels is the world where miracles can be wrought. Some righteous people gain access to that realm and mistakenly think that they have reached the pinnacle.
They remain there and perform miracles for all to see.
“Other righteous people are wiser; they understand that the realm of miracles is only a way station that is undoubtedly useful, but is still far from the goal. They wisely continue the journey to loftier levels, and only in the neediest situations do they stoop to the world of miracles to help another.”
He continued with an autobiographical note: “I reached the world of miracles when I was six or seven. Already at that age, I understood the importance of moving on to loftier worlds.”
Recalling his youthful sojourn in the world of miracles, he recounted an anecdote: “A certain hassid of my father had an only child who was mute. Whenever the hassid would visit my father, he was wont to request a blessing for his silent son. My father would always respond with a blessing that the Almighty should help the boy.
“When the boy reached the age of 13 and still had not begun to talk, the hassid’s wife turned to her husband: ‘Our son must start to wear tefillin and pray and recite blessings – let us all go together to ask for a blessing for a speedy recovery.’ “The family traveled to my father, asked for a blessing as planned. My father responded as he always did. Brimming with trust in my father, the hassid opened a bottle of liquor and poured a l’haim for all his friends in order to celebrate the impending salvation promised by my father’s blessing.
“When the hassid’s wife saw that the boy was still mute, the three of them returned to my father, who told them, ‘Go and speak to my Yisrael’enyu.’ “I was six years old at the time, and when the hassid came over to me, I was playing ‘horsie’ with the beadle’s son. The hassid said to me, ‘Yisrael’enyu, your father the rebbe sent me to you that you should help my son.’ “‘What’s the problem?’ I asked him. And he told me that the boy was mute. I went to the boy and asked him where he was from. And the boy told me. I asked him what his name was. And the boy told me.
“‘What do you want from me?’ I turned to the hassid, ‘He speaks like any other person!’” When the Holy Ruzhiner finished recounting the vignette, he added, “But now, I am very far from that world.”
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah. His book, Relics for the Present, was recently published by Maggid Books and Pardes.