A story is told about a time the community of Mezritch was in dire straits: a young Jew was arrested and held hostage by the Russian police on the eve of his wedding. The police chief demanded 10,000 rubles as bail to release the young man — essentially ransom. The young man was an orphan, as was his fiancée, so the community set about raising as much money as possible. People sold their cows and chickens, furniture and samovars, but they only raised 1,000 rubles.
It was clear that they needed the help of Zev the Miser. Zev was rich, but he had never given so much as a kopeck to anyone.
Four great rabbis, the Alter Rebbe (then still a young man), the Maggid of Mezritch, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, and Rabbi Mendel of Vitebsk, went to visit Zev.
Zev welcomed them into his home and listened to the heart-breaking story they told. This is indeed an emergency, he said. I will give you one kopeck. Now, a kopeck is 1/100 of a ruble — essentially a penny. The Maggid of Mezritch, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak and Rabbi Mendel wanted to throttle the miser, but the Alter Rebbe stopped them. He shook Zev’s hand and said, Thank you so much. What you’ve done is wonderful and we are deeply grateful.
Then the four rabbis left. They had not gone half a block when Zev called them back. Here’s another kopeck, he said. The Alter Rebbe again expressed his gratitude and praised Zev for his generosity. Again the rabbis left. Within a minute, Zev called them back again. This time he gave them a ruble. Again the Alter Rebbe treated it as a truly significant gift. This pattern continued, with Zev giving 5 rubles, then 10 rubles, then 100 rubles. In several hours, Zev the Miser had contributed the entire sum needed to ransom the young man in time for his wedding.
After the wedding, the Maggid of Mezritch, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak and Rabbi Mendel asked the Alter Rebbe, How did you know what to do? What changed Zev the Miser into a generous man?
He responded, Last night Zev learned that he had far more spiritual strength than he ever knew. At first he had only the strength to give a kopek, but then he gave another and another. Each time he gave, he realized the good he was doing and grew in generosity and spiritual strength. It goes step by step for all of us.
This story teaches us that generosity and all of the character traits of mussar are learned by practicing. None of the character traits are an innate trait in anyone, but they can be developed and nurtured. So we must approach each trait in mussar with the same attitude. Take the first step for each trait, then another and another. This is a never ending journey to bring our character in line so that it mirrors HaShem’s. Tzelem (Image) / Demut (Likeness).
You can read more about Tzelem/Demut in Equanimity – HaShem’s Example
Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), the first rebbe of Chabad.
Maggid of Mezrich: Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch (c. 1705-1772), a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev (1740-1809), a disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk (1730-1788), a disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch.
Blessings and Peace
Rebbetzin Revi Belk