I first heard the following story at the Passover table of the late Dr. Zvi-Victor Saks of Pittsburgh. I have since researched the story and can vouch for its authenticity.
Rabbi Eliezer Zusha Portugal (1896-1982), the Skulener Rebbe, was a Chassidic master from a small town, Sculeni, in northeastern Romania. (Note: “Skulener” is pronounced skoo-LEH-ner). Toward the end of the Second World War, in March of 1945, he found himself along with other holocaust survivors and displaced persons, in the Russian-governed town of Czernovitz, Bukovina. (The Russian army liberated Bukovina in April 1944 and completed the expulsion of the Nazi’s from most of Eastern Europe by January 1945, at which time the Russians entered Budapest, Hungary. )
Passover, beginning March 29th, would soon be upon them. Some Passover foodstuffs might well be provided by charitable organizations. Nonetheless, the Rebbe sought to obtain wheat that he could bake into properly-guarded and traditionally baked matzah. Despite the oppressive economic situation of the Jews, he was able to bake a limited number of these matzahs. He sent word to other Chassidic leaders in the area who would conduct larger Passover seder’s, offering each of them no more than three matzahs.
One week before Passover, Rabbi Moshe Hager, the son of the Seret-Vizhnitzer Rebbe, came for the matzahs that had been offered to his father, Rabbi Boruch Hager. After being handed the allotted 3 matzahs, he said to the Skulener Rebbe: “I know that you sent word that you could give only three matzahs, but nonetheless my father, the Seret-Vizhnitzer Rebbe, told me to tell you that he must have six matzahs”. The Skulener Rebbe felt that he had no choice but to honor the request, albeit reluctantly.
On the day before Passover, Rabbi Moshe returned to the Skulener Rebbe. “What can I do for you?” asked the Skulener Rebbe. Rabbi Moshe answered, “I want to return three of the matzah’s to you”.
“I don’t understand”, replied the Skulener, ”I thought your father absolutely had to have six matzahs?”
“My father said to ask whether you had saved any of the matza for yourself.”
Embarrassed, the Skulener Rebbe replied, “How could I, when so many others needed matza for Passover?”
“My father assumed that this would happen”, explained Rabbi Moshe. “That is why he requested an extra three matzahs to hold them for you.”
For me this episode captures what it means to live a life of dignity and of true inner freedom.
Dr. Susskind, a marital psychotherapist (Ph.D., Yale ’69), lectures nationally and also counsels over the telephone. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org