From Rabbi Chaim Ephraim Zaitchik, “Sparks of Mussar” (Feldheim), translated by E. van Handel, pp. 121-123. We have added several explanatory notes in brackets.
Rabbi Yosef Yozel Hurwitz (1848-1919), known in Yiddish as as the “Alter” (or “Elder”) of Novhardok, was a leading disciple of Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin of Salant (1810-1883), founder of the Lithuanian “Mussar” movement, which emphasized spiritual refinement in order to come close to G-d. However, the Alter of Novhardok was a master teacher in his own right, who paved an original path in the Mussar tradition.
R’ Yosef Yozel spent many years learning Torah and serving G-d in solitude.
His first house of solitude was in the home of his father-in-law in Slobodka, where he had a separate room with a locked door. His meager meals were passed through a small opening. He planned to remain there for seven years, but after a year and a half he suffered a lung disease, and R’ Yitzchok Elchonon ordered him to come out.
Once R’ Zalman Sirotzkin was traveling on the train, when he saw R’ Yosef Yozel look out the window at the fields and forests, longing to be along with his Maker. R’ Yosef Yozel murmured, “If someone would build me a little house in the woods where I could find solitude, I would promise him a share in the world to come.”
Stirred by R’ Yosef Yozel’s longing, R’ Zalman immediately agreed to fulfill his wish.
Driving R’ Yosef Yozel home one Erev Shabbos, the wagoner lost his way, and they were forced to spend Shabbos in the house of a villager. At first R’ Yosef Yozel was distressed, and he wondered why circumstances had turned out this way. But he soon saw that indeed man’s steps are directed by G-d.
The villager bore a grudge against R’ Zalman, now deceased. All day Shabbos the villager complained to R’ Yosef Yozel about R’ Zalman, while R’ Yosef Yozel tried to convince the villager to forgive him, in view of the fact that the latter had already atoned for his sin through death. At first the villager refused to budge from his position, but he finally succumbed to R’ Yosef Yozel’s persuasion, and granted the deceased complete forgiveness.
Then R’ Yosef Yozel understood why the wagoner had lost his way, and he said: "See how great is the mitzvah of helping the public come closer to G-d! Because the deceased had done such a mitzvah, G-d arranged for me to lodge in this villager’s house in order to acquire forgiveness for his soul.”
In his little house in the wood R’ Yosef Yozel shut himself off from the rest of the world. He had a shtender [lectern] there so high it reached his nose. That way while he was learning at night, the effort of standing on tiptoe kept him awake.
There was a time when he returned home from his house of solitude in time for Kiddush Shabbos evening, and after bidding farewell to Shabbos with havdalah, he returned. The whole week no one was permitted to go to him, and on Shabbos he did not speak at all.
In the period of his solitude, he hid his deeds from people -- even the members of his household and his closest disciples.
From time to time he would travel to a town to establish a yeshiva and a rosh mesivta [administrator] and a dean; then he would return to his solitude. He did not reveal his activities in spreading Torah.
Only after the outbreak of World War I, when the Novhardok Yeshiva fled deep into Russia, did it become known that R’ Yosef Yozel had already been there, establishing yeshivas.
During this period of solitude, he came Erev Pesach in the afternoon to bake the matzos with all the hidurim [i.e., according to highest standards]. In the midst of preparing the dough, he suddenly realized that his action would bring shame to the rabbi of the city, for people would say, “Look at how meticulous that recluse is in keeping all the hidurim of the mitzvos! We haven’t seen this in our own rabbi.” Thereupon R’ Yosef Yozel got up and left right in the middle of preparing the dough (taking care, of course, not to let it become chometz).
One night his wife dreamed that his opponents had planted counterfeit bills in his house of solitude and then informed the police that R’ Yosef Yozel was running a counterfeiting operation there. At dawn she hastened to the house of solitude, found the bills, and burned them. A short while later the police came to search, but found nothing.
Even after he emerged as a public figure, he would repair at times to his house of solitude. Once when he went to his house in the woods at midnight, he found to his surprise that a talmid [disciple] who had come during the day was sleeping over. In order to prevent the talmid from discovering his rebbe’s practice of going at midnight to seclude himself, R’ Yosef Yozel left hurriedly before he could be recognized.