Throughout his life, Reb Yisroel of Tchortkov tried to hide the magnitude of his greatness in Torah. In his younger years he succeeded and it was only from time to time that a tiny ray of this great light would inadvertently pierce the cloud of secrecy in which he was shrouded, revealing a glimpse of his true greatness.
When all the young bochurim would gather together and talk with a talmid chochom, Reb Yisroel would suppress his yearning to give his opinion or suggestion. Instead he would stand off to the side and remain silent, all the while paying attention to every word that was being said.
The Tchebiner Rov, zt"l, recounted that his father, Reb Yekele, rov of Horimlov, was a chossid of the old Tchortkover Rebbe and would often visit the Tchortkover court. Once he chanced upon the Rebbe's son, R' Yisroel, and began talking in learning with him, becoming increasingly amazed at the boy's depth and breadth of Torah knowledge.
Immediately, Reb Yekele entered the room of the Admor and exclaimed, "Yismach ho'ov beyotzei chalotzov" in praise of the Rebbe's son.
The Rebbe heard but did not react. As soon as Reb Yekele left, he called his son with a broken accusation. "For this I worked so hard? So that Reb Yekele should become aware that you're a lamdan — is this the true tachlis? That your madreigos should become public knowledge?"
The famous gaon, the Maharsham, was once visiting in Tchortkov and was constantly surrounded by people and their sheilos. "Why are you asking me?" asked the Maharsham. "Go and ask the Rebbe's son!"
An interesting episode occurred when Reb Yisroel was a little boy. He once fell very sick and his life was endangered. All the chassidim gathered to beseech Hashem to spare the life of their Rebbe's only son. As they were davening, the father entered to join the tefillos and when they had finished, he raised his eyes heavenward and said, "Ribono Shel Olom, if this is Your will, it is my will too." All those gathered trembled in fear for the Rebbe's words seemed to imply that the difficult decree had been sealed. A panic ensued, as news of the impending tragedy passed from one to another.
In the confusion, the Rebbe's simple Jewish maid became extremely agitated. Through her tears, she suddenly called out loud, "Ribono Shel Olom, even the Russian officer who drafts the young boys into the army doesn't take an only son away from his parents." Then, wiping her tears on her apron, she continued her work about the house.
"These straightforward words, spoken in emunah temimoh by the simple maid, saved my son," the Rebbe later said. "Her statement was a powerful prayer that pierced the heaven and annulled the death sentence hanging over Reb Yisroel's head!"
On Hoshanna Rabboh 5664 (1904), the old Rebbe, Reb Dovid Moshe, zt"l of Tchortkov, passed away and his son Reb Yisroel was crowned Rebbe. There followed 40 years of a glorious era in the Tchortkover chassidus.
Thousands came to the Rebbe to seek his advice and blessing, each one feeling that he was a son and Reb Yisroel his father.
Rabbi Meir Shapira, rov of Lublin, retold how he once came to Reb Yisroel before Shavuos. The Rebbe's sons informed him that their father was planning to spend Shavuos with his chassidim who lived in Poland. "Please," they requested of the Lubliner Rav, "when you go in to the Rebbe, persuade him to change his plans and not to travel. Poland is in a state of political unrest and antisemitism is rearing its ugly head ever higher."
Rabbi Meir Shapira, too, realized that in the insecure situation it was better to stay home and expressed his opinion to the Rebbe.
"Is that what I'm a rebbe of chassidim for?" retorted Reb Yisroel, rhetorically. "To stay at home when times are hard for them? Davka because of the difficulties they are facing I must travel to Poland to be with them and give them the support and chizuk they need."
A distinguished Tchortkover chossid who sat and learned constantly was once drafted into the army. His wife came crying to the Rebbe, describing the harsh conditions under which her husband was forced to do army service.
The Rebbe stopped her in the middle of her sobbing and literally pleaded with her, "Please, please try to control yourself somewhat. Your plight and your crying are breaking my heart!"
Another incident displaying the Rebbe's devotion to his chassidim is told by the talmidim of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin. The latter accompanied Rabbi Meir Shapira on a visit to the Tchortkover following the Rebbe's eye operation. Rabbi Meir Shapira tried to urge the Rebbe not to strain his eyes so much to read the kvittlach of the bochurim.
"They exert themselves constantly with their yegias haTorah," replied the Rebbe. "Surely it is incumbent on me to exert myself a little for them."
On one occasion, on a Shabbos Rosh Chodesh, Rabbi Meir Shapira was given the honor of being baal tefilloh for Shacharis, Hallel, and Musaf, in the Tchortkover Beis Medrash. The Rebbe enjoyed his uplifting tefillos tremendously and invited Rabbi Meir to his house for Kiddush.
When the Rebbe repeatedly pointed out how beautiful and rousing were the prayers of Rabbi Meir, the latter asked his Rebbe, "Perhaps I should leave the yeshiva and become a baal tefilloh," implying that he should become a "Rebbe" who rouses his chassidim with the warmth of his prayers.
The Tchortkover smiled and replied with the following story:
During the course of his self-imposed wandering, the Rebbe, Reb Zusya once arrived in Zolkova. He joined the shiur of Reb Yuspe, the rov of the town and, when the session was over, went up to the Rov to thank him. "I was positively impressed by your shiur."
"I'm not surprised that you were impressed by the shiur," replied Reb Yuspe, "after all who doesn't enjoy divrei Torah. However, why am I so impressed with you even though I have no idea who you are and this is the first time I set my eyes upon you?"
Puzzled, Reb Zusya asked, 'Why have I found favor in the Rav's eyes? I don't even know how to learn."
"And what do you know?"
"I know how to daven."
"Well, of course, who doesn't know how to daven?"
Reb Zusya motioned to Reb Yuspe to sit down with him and study a chapter of tefilloh. For several hours Reb Zusya revealed to him the esoteric secrets of the tefilloh, after which Reb Yuspe could barely contain his excitement. Turning to Reb Zusya he asked, "Perhaps I should leave the shiurim and start delving into the study of tefillos?"
"No, no," came the reply. "Each person has his own mission to accomplish in this world. You were sent here as a rov to teach and spread Torah while I was sent here to pray."
Concluded the Admor of Tchortkov to Rabbi Meir Shapira, "Rav of Lublin — your mission from heaven is to teach a multitude of talmidim and raise the glory of the Torah."
A chossid of Reb Yisroel was once in Berlin for medical treatment. On Shabbos an assimilated Jew came in to him, placing an envelope on the table. In it was money and a kvittel, which the Jew asked that the chossid give over to the famous Rebbe of Tchortkov.
Knowing full well that the Rebbe never accepted money from a mechalel Shabbos, the chossid hesitated, but then decided to deliver the envelope and allow the Rebbe to make his own decision.
Usually, upon receiving a kvittel with a pidyon, the money would be placed at the side of the Rebbe's table, while the kvittel went into his pocket.
This time, however, the chossid gave the envelope wordlessly to the Rebbe. To his surprise, Reb Yisroel placed the kvittel on the table and the money from the assimilated Jew in Berlin in his pocket.
The following day, the puzzle's pieces fell into place. Walking through the woods close to the town, the Rebbe met the local priest. The latter greeted him congenially and told the Rebbe that he was collecting funds for a (non- Jewish) orphanage.
Immediately, the Tchortkover withdrew the envelope from his pocket and willingly donated it to the priest's worthy cause.