Chassidic Story #229

(s5762-# 229-25/ 21 Adar 5762)
Rebbe Yechezkel of Kuzmir always did whatever he could to arrange a special fish delicacy for Shabbos.


The mitzva of honoring the Shabbos by eating fish was beloved to all Jews, but especially to the tzaddikim of each generation. It is said that the Baal Shem Tov chose to dwell in Medzibuzh rather than in Nemirov, because of its proximity to a river which contained fish with which to honor the Shabbos.

Rebbe Yechezkel of Kuzmir had a special regard for this mitzva, and did whatever he could to find a special fish delicacy for Shabbos. Everyone in Kuzmir - down to the non-Jewish fishmongers - knew that if they came across a special, large fish, that they could command a good price for their efforts by bringing it to the Rebbe.

Chassidim are accustomed to bring a kvittel [note] to their Rebbe with their names [and requests] on it, so that the Rebbe would bless and/or pray for them. This kvittel would be accompanied by a pidyon [redemption] - usually a sum of money, which the Rebbes generally used to support poor people and orphans, redeem captives, and for other charitable activities. However, Rebbe Chatzkel's chassidim, aware of his special way of honoring the Shabbos, knew that the best pidyon they could bring him would be a choice fish for Shabbos.

AND SO IT WAS that one of Rebbe Chatzkel's chassidim, who needed help from the Rebbe, had a strong desire to bring him a kvittel. However, he was very poor, and he wouldn't allow himself to give the mere few pennies he had available for a pidyon. He therefore constantly postponed his journey to the Rebbe, hoping to come across some special coin that he could bring as a suitable pidyon.

This chassid lived in a town located on the banks of the same river which flowed through Kuzmir. From time to time he would go fishing at this river to provide a meal for his household. Whilst sitting on the riverbank, the chassid pondered on the water, and grew jealous - for while he was "stuck" in his place, these waters flowed all the way to Kuzmir.

One day, while engaged in such thoughts, he felt a strong tug on his fishing line. He held on tight, realizing that this was no small fish that he might catch. Concerned that his line might break, he carefully drew it in until the fish was close to the riverbank, his mouth firmly caught on the fishing pole.

As soon as the fish poked his head out of the water, the chassid realized that this is a fitting pidyon sent to him from Heaven, for which he had been waiting for such a long time. This fish was destined to be served at the Rebbe's table, and he would be the means for this to happen. The chassid did not allow these thoughts to distract him from his task of fishing - he was very careful to pull on the fish, not allowing it to escape.

Upon pulling the fish out of the water, he saw that it was not only extraordinarily large for him, but even the fishmongers did not have such a huge fish in their stores. The fish began jumping and moving convulsively, trying to make its way back into the water. But the chassid, a skilled fisherman, maintained his control over the fish, holding it tightly in his arms. He put it into a sack, tying it closed tightly. Only then did he allow himself to sit down near the riverbank, reveling in the wonderful pidyon that he would bring the Rebbe - and of the wonderful salvation it would bring him.

In the midst of these pleasant thoughts, a terrifying idea arose in his mind. Since there was quite a distance to Kuzmir, surely the fish would die on the way - and by the time he'd arrive in Kuzmir it would not be fit at all to eat. He began to panic and despair of any way that he could bring a fresh fish, fit to eat, to the Rebbe.

BUT as we know, "nothing can stand in the way of one's will." He began to probe his mind for some way he could bring such an outstanding pidyon to the Rebbe. Suddenly, he had an idea! He got up, removed his gartel [a prayer sash worn by chassidim], opened the sack with the fish still convulsing inside, and tied the long gartel around the fish. As he did so, he thought, "Indeed, this fish should come to the Rebbe wearing a gartel like a dedicated chassid." He kept wrapping the belt around the fish until it was completely tied up.

He then took the fish and cast it back into the water, all the while maintaining his grasp on the other end of the gartel as a "leash." He then made his way towards Kuzmir. When the fish tried, from time to time, to get away, the chassid maintained a firm grip on his "leash" to make sure that this wouldn't happen.

FILLED with joy, he continued on his way towards the Rebbe. But he couldn't follow the best [shortest, easiest] path, since he was forced to stay along the riverbank. His feet bumped into rocks along the way, the sun beat down upon his head, and the fish didn't cease to try and break loose - and the chassid had to hold on tight so it wouldn't get away. His pain and distress vanished, however, when he thought of the moment he would appear before the Rebbe with this fish.

As the path became an arduous one, he thought to himself, "A pidyon without some difficulty is not a pidyon. A man earns his livelihood by the sweat of his brow, and then must take from it to give to the Rebbe as a pidyon. You didn't work so hard to catch this fish, it came to you from Heaven - what value does it have? But now that you have to work so hard for it, this fish is a real pidyon, and oh, what a pidyon!

Due to the length of the journey to Kuzmir, the chassid had to rest from time to time. When he did, he took the end of the gartel [his "leash"] that was in his hand and tied it firmly to rocks and stones. Only then would he sit down on a rock himself. He then pondered on the fish, which was a foot or two beneath the surface of the water. He would smile as he thought that this "chassidic fish," wearing a gartel, was immersing himself in the river, to purify himself in preparation to come before the Rebbe.

As he was eager to get to Kuzmir, he never allowed himself to rest for too long. After a brief respite, he would get up and take hold of the gartel and continue on his way. When he felt a strong tug by the fish, he tightened his grip. Sometimes, however, he felt as if the fish was pulling him to Kuzmir. He thought that surely the fish knows to whom it's heading, and that's why it's rushing to get there. "Slow down, Mr. Fish. You'll get to the Rebbe, but together with me," he thought.

EVENTUALLY, though, his thoughts became haughty. "Who else ever merited to bring such a pidyon to the Rebbe? Even the wealthiest chassidim could never find such a fish as this!" Such thoughts began to run through his mind, without his realizing that he had lost all the innocence and simplicity that he had up till now.

He continued with such arrogant thoughts, when suddenly there was a fierce tug on the "leash." He tried to hold on tightly, but lost his balance and almost fell into the river. He was able to extricate himself, but not the fish. The gartel slipped out of his hands, together with the fish, who returned to his "friends" in the deep waters. He soon saw the end of the gartel disappear beneath the surface of the water, and was dumbfounded.

His previous thoughts vanished, and he felt as if his world had been destroyed. Standing on the riverbank, he stared into the water, where the fish that was once "his" was now swimming to its freedom...

Brokenhearted, he sat down on the ground, and began to feel the pain in his feet and the exhaustion in his entire body from the long journey. His hand which had held the gartel up till now was also in pain from the immense effort of holding onto his pidyon.

Halfway to Kuzmir, the chassid sat and wept over his misfortune, and his hopes which had been dashed. He felt like a rich man whose ship had sunk at sea. After a long cry, he took hold of himself and resigned himself to his fate - he would go to Kuzmir anyway, and give the Rebbe his kvittel, without a pidyon.

BEING that it was now Thursday, the chassid realized that if he wanted to spend Shabbos with the Rebbe, he should leave the riverbank and take the shorter way to Kuzmir. Now he could certainly go at a quicker pace, without encountering all the stones and other obstacles near the river. But his broken heart was very heavy, and if it were not for the approach of Shabbos, he wouldn't have been able to budge.

In place of his previous joyous thoughts, he was now filled with sorrow and dejection. He began to think, "Why did this happen to me? What sin did I commit to deserve this?" And thus began his cheshbon hanefesh -[self-examination]. "The Rebbe doesn't need my gift, nor those of the other chassidim," he thought. "The Rebbe is always giving to others. What then, is the meaning of this custom, that chassidim, rich or poor, bring gifts to the Rebbe - and the Rebbe receives them so graciously? It should be just the opposite!"

He then came to the realization, that even by receiving, the Rebbe is really giving. For when a distinguished man consents to receive a gift from anyone, his taking is really a gift to the one who gave to him. So it is with the Rebbe. He receives only from the One Above. From everyone else, whether they give or receive, the Rebbe gives to them.

This, then, was the chassid's sin and the reason for his loss. When he had the huge fish with him, his heart was filled with pride and joy, he forgot his own poverty and lost his humility. He then thought that he was actually giving something to the Rebbe. If he were to come to the Rebbe with such thoughts, could the Rebbe then do anything for him? If he is coming to give to the Rebbe, how can the Rebbe give him what he needs?

From Above it was known that this chassid ultimately had pure intentions. G-d had mercy on him, so that all his trouble would not be in vain. He who brought the fish to his line, was the One who caused it to get away - in order that he should learn this lesson.

Concluding his self-examination, the chassid thought, "It was worth losing such a fish, and even [if it were] a bigger one, if only to learn this lesson. G-d was kind to me. Imagine if I came to the Rebbe with that huge fish in hand, and my head and heart swollen even bigger than that?" Not only did the chassid accept what had befallen him, he even praised G-d for it. With these thoughts he approached Kuzmir. "Now I can go in to the Rebbe and give him my kvittel. My pidyon will be my poverty. Hashem's help comes in the blink of an eye."

MEANWHILE, as the chassid was undergoing his self-examination, the fish was on its way to Kuzmir. Still bound up in the gartel, which severely limited its movements, the fish had no choice but to go with the current of the river, flowing towards Kuzmir.

It was Thursday night, and the non-Jewish fishermen of Kuzmir were busy at work in their fishing boats. They had to be diligent, in order that they should appear on Friday morning at the market with fish to sell to the Jews for Shabbos. Pulling in their nets, their eyes beheld an amazing spectacle - a huge fish wrapped in a gartel like a real chassid! This wondrous sight brought smiles to all their faces
Even without the gartel, they would have brought such a fish to the Rebbe, knowing it would command a good price. But now that it appeared with a gartel, it was obvious to all that its place was at the Rebbe's table. And so they brought it to Rebbe Chatzkel's house. His family couldn't make sense of what their eyes saw, but the Rebbe saw in the fish what they did not.

AS the Rebbe's family was preparing the fish for Shabbos, the chassid arrived at his destination, kvittel in hand, brokenhearted. As he entered the Rebbe's chamber, the Rebbe received him warmly, joyfully saying, "What are you so worried about? Your pidyon arrived before your kvittel!"

This translation-adaptation by Reb Yitzchak Dorfman, an old dear friend living in Jerusalem, based on a story told by the chassid Mendel Berichta, of blessed memory, is taken from the official Modzitzer website, .

Biographical note:
Rabbi Yechezkel of Kuzmir
[? - 17 Shvat 1856], a disciple of the Seer of Lublin, was the grandfather of the first Modzitzer Rebbe, a famous chassidic dynasty best known for its creative and exciting chassidic music.


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