One of the most remarkable men in chassidic lore was Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz, known as the Chozeh of Lublin.
Rav Yaakov Yitzchak was responsible for chassidus capturing the hearts of the vast majority of Polish Jewry. He was not only a great scholar but also possessed humility and modesty, traits that drew many other scholars and countless common people to him. Nor was this modesty of the false kind. He sincerely believed that he was a simple man and every Yom Kippur eve would review his acts of the previous year to attempt to ascertain whether he had inadvertently offended someone. If he felt he had, he would rush over and seek that person’s forgiveness.
The city of Lublin at this time was staunchly opposed to chassidus and its most formidable antagonist was the rav of the city, Rav Azriel Horowitz. Rav Azriel possessed a brilliant mind and became known as the ayzene kop (iron head). He was opposed to chassidus in general and to the Chozeh in particular.
When the Chozeh lost his wife, Rav Naftali of Ropshitz approached Rav Azriel and suggested that he think about having his daughter marry the Chozeh. When Rav Azriel refused, the Rebbe asked why.
“I will tell you,” said Rav Azriel. “You consider your rav to be a malach, an angel. I, however, want to fulfill the words of the Torah that says: ‘I have given my daughter to this man,’ to a man and not an angel…”
A Simple Man
Still another time Rav Azriel met the Chozeh and told him: “I have heard that you, yourself, admit that you lack Torah and good deeds. If so, how is it that you continue to be the rebbe of so many thousands of chassidim?”
“What can I do?” asked the Chozeh sincerely, “if so many people continue to come to me?”
“I will give you some advice then,” replied Rav Azriel. “This Shabbos, when you have many of your chassidim gathered at your table, tell them the truth. Tell them that you are really lacking in Torah and mitzvos and that you are not worthy of being their rebbe.”
The Chozeh listened and agreed to do it. That Shabbos, as several hundred chassidim gathered around his table to hear his words, the Chozeh said, in a broken and shaken tone cried, “I find it necessary to tell you that you have made a great mistake with me. I am a very simple man. I have neither Torah nor good deeds and there is nothing that you can learn from me by coming here.”
The chassidim listened in astonishment to the words of the Chozeh. They marveled at his modesty and the word spread throughout Poland. Impressed by this news, thousands of new chassidim began flocking to him.
After some time, Rav Azriel met the Chozeh once again and asked him: “What happened when you told your chassidim what I told you?”
“The exact opposite of what we thought would happen,” replied the Chozeh. “I honestly tried to tell them about my limitations but, instead of believing me, they continued to come and even more have started to follow me since.”
“This is the way of the world,” replied Rav Azriel. “People follow those whom they consider to be modest. I will, however, give you more advice. This Shabbos, when the chassidim have gathered at your table tell them the exact opposite. Tell them that, in reality, you are one of the great giants of Torah and that you are pious and G-d-fearing. When the chassidim see this ego they will surely stop following you.”
When the Chozeh heard these words, he shook his head. “No. I cannot do that. It is true that I am a simple and unworthy person, but a liar I am not…”
Combs For The Poor
In Lublin there lived a simple and ignorant Jew who greatly desired to do mitzvos. What did he do? He bought combs and went on Friday to the public bath where he gave out the combs to the poor so that they could comb their hair.
When the Chozeh heard of this, he was very impressed and said: “This is a great mitzvah and I wish that I had a share in it.”
When Rav Azriel heard of the comment of the Chozeh, he, in turn, said: “In the Talmud (Menachos 43b) we learn that Dovid HaMelech stood in the baths unclothed and he felt sad that he stood without mitzvos. Now,” laughed Rav Azriel, “if the giving out of combs to the poor in the baths was a mitzvah, why did King David feel sad. He could have brought combs with him to the baths and given them out to the poor and had his mitzvah…”
When the Chozeh was told of Rav Azriel’s comment, he replied in turn: “My apologies to the rav of Lublin but he has apparently forgotten the Mishna (Sanhedrin 22a) that says: ‘One is not allowed to be in the presence of the king when he takes a haircut, is undressed or in the baths.’
“Therefore, even though the giving out of combs to the poor at the baths is a mitzvah, David HaMelech was unable to do it since no poor person was allowed to be in the baths together with him…”