Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk
A giant amongst giants, the holiest of the holy – such was Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, the leader of the third generation of the Chassidic movement.
The leader of the first generation was, of course, the venerated founder of Chassidism, the Baal Shem Tov; his greatest disciple was the Maggid of Mezritch, who was accepted as mentor by the overwhelming majority of Chassidic Jewry. The third generation of Chassidism included Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizansk and his brother Reb Zusha, who disseminated Chassidism in Poland and Galicia; and Rabbi Nachum of Chernobyl, who spread Chassidism in the Ukraine. Also counted among the leaders of this third generation were Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, Rabbi Aaron of Karlin, and Lubavitch’s founding Alter Rebbe. But Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, who spread Chassidic teachings throughout Russia and along the border of Lithuania, rose above all of them. The Maggid of Mezritch himself willed that, following the tenure of his son, Rabbi Menachem would be his inheritor. In all of the letters written by the disciples of the Maggid, Rabbi Menachem Mendel was always the first to sign.
With the Maggid and the Baal Shem Tov
While still young, he merited studying with the Maggid of Mezritch, astounding all those who knew him with his scholarship and talent. His teacher, the Maggid, took a special liking to him.
Once, on a Sabbath after breakfast, the Maggid opened the door of young Menachem Mendel’s room to find his student pacing back and forth. The boy’s manner of walking contained an air of arrogance, and his hat was tilted to one side.
The Maggid called to him and asked him how many pages of Talmud he had learned that day. Mendel replied that he had learned six. The Maggid said, “How many pages do you think you need to study before your hat falls completely off your head?” Having finished speaking, the Maggid left for his own room. The young student understood from the words of his Rebbe that there was a bit of conceit in his behavior.
The Maggid suggested that they make a visit to the Baal Shem Tov in order for Menachem Mendel to learn the proper path from the Great Master himself. They arrived at the residence of the Baal Shem Tov just before Sabbath, and the Maggid went speedily to see the eminent Rebbe in order to greet him. The young Menachem Mendel, though, went to bathe and to arrange his clothes. This was a practice which Rabbi Menachem Mendel kept even until his later years – to take special care regarding his outer appearance.
During the Sabbath, the Baal Shem Tov stayed entirely hidden from the lad, so much so that it seemed as if his intention was to rebuke him. Upon Sabbath’s departure, while the legendary Sage sat smoking his pipe, the Maggid entered with the budding pupil. The two of them sought the advice of the Baal Shem Tov on the matter of improving the boy’s character traits. The Baal Shem Tov responded, remarking that the youngster was fine and devoid of arrogance; on the contrary, young Menachem Mendel possessed humility – only outwardly did he appear conceited.
Humility in Royal Attire
On the one hand, Rabbi Menachem Mendel placed heavy emphasis on the attribute of humility and meekness, repeatedly explaining that this was the most essential attribute when serving the Creator. On the other hand, though, he was adamant when it came to elegant clothing, and would adorn himself in majestic garments.
Once, while still a young married Yeshiva student, Rabbi Menachem Mendel passed through the town where the “Baal HaToldot Yaakov Yosef” lived. First he checked into an inn, and took off his hat and sash; then he went out with a pipe in his mouth and a simple yarmulke on his head. In this manner he went to greet Rabbi Yaakov Yosef. In order to understand the significance of his behavior, it is important to understand that Rabbi Yaakov Yosef was one of the Baal Shem Tov’s preeminent disciples, and was older than the Maggid of Mezritch, Menachem Mendel’s own mentor. In addition he was known to be very strict, and it was not unlikely that he would become infuriated at the appearance of Rabbi Menachem Mendel hatless and smoking a pipe as if he were his close friend.
Yet, to everyone’s great surprise, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef received him most warmly and even escorted Rabbi Menachem Mendel to his inn afterwards. Ultimately, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef explained Rabbi Menachem’s behavior to his disciples by way of an analogy: There once was a king who possessed a rare pearl of unmatched value and he did not know where to hide it from thieves in his palace. Finally, the king decided to hide it in the bathroom, for no thief would think to look there. This is the case with Rabbi Menachem Mendel — in truth, he is exceptionally humble and meek, and only adorns himself in majesty so as not to become overly proud of his humility.
Disseminator of Chassidism in Russia
Following the instructions of the Maggid of Mezritch, Rabbi Menachem Mendel began spreading Chassidic philosophy among the Jews living in the villages of White Russia, and thus, even during his mentor’s lifetime, he became the rabbi of Russia’s Chassidic Jewry. Two years after being sent on his mission Rabbi Menachem Mendel traveled to visit his Rebbe, the Maggid. When he entered, the Maggid asked him what he had achieved with Russian Jewry. “I found there,” said Reb Menachem, “Jews whose clothes were torn and whose hearts were whole, and I turned them into Jews whose clothes are whole and whose hearts are torn.”
In other words, he found destitute Jews who were unable to make the calculations necessary in order to earn a respectable living. For this reason their “clothes were torn.” On the other hand, their hearts were whole, for they were unaware of the fact that man’s purpose in this world is to perfect the soul. Rabbi Menachem succeeded in transforming them into wealthy Jews with “torn hearts,” i.e., concerned with perfecting the soul.
The Maggid of Mezritch’s Chief Disciple
After the death of the Maggid of Mezritch, Rabbi Menachem Mendel was viewed by his fellows as the most prominent among them. Had he not left to live in the land of Israel, he may very well have attained the status of the Rebbe of all Chassidic Jewry, in a manner not unlike that of the Baal Shem Tov in the first generation of Chassidism, and the Maggid of Mezritch in the second. Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s standing was especially high in the eyes of the Chassidic Jews of Russia and Lithuania. In these places he was seen as master, mentor, Rabbi and leader, and everyone heeded his words. Even Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Lubavitch trend within the Chassidic movement, took orders from Rabbi Menachem Mendel, aiding him in efforts to spread Chassidic thought in White Russia; and Rabbi Aaron of Karlin, the founder of Karlin Chassidism, helped Rabbi Menachem to spread teachings along the Lithuanian border. His followers reported that they had to be careful about their thoughts while in his presence, for he could sense what was in their mind. Even after his arrival in the Holy Land, he continued to be seen as their leader, and, to a large degree, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi acted as agent of Rabbi Menachem by leading his followers. Together, Rabbi Schneur Zalman and Rabbi Aaron were responsible for gathering and sending donations from the Chassidic Jews of White Russia and Lithuania to the Chassidic community in the Land of Israel. It is also noteworthy that the “Tzemach Tzedek,” Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, was named after him, and the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, also Menachem Mendel, was named after both of them.
The Decision to Emigrate to the Land of Israel
It is difficult to understand what exactly caused Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk to suddenly make the move to the Holy Land. He was at his zenith; he was the most important of the Maggid’s students, and had great influence over his followers who loved him dearly, and he loved them as well. So great was his authority that even leading students of the Maggid, themselves fit to be great spiritual leaders, were subordinate to him. Then, unexpectedly, he decided to lead a group of followers and travel to the Land of Israel with the intention of staying there for the rest of his life.
Some believe that the ongoing persecution at the hands of his opponents, the “mitnagdim,” caused him such hardship that he decided, in order to divorce himself from the quarreling, to move to the Land of Israel. And, indeed, because he succeeded in disseminating Chassidism in areas bordering on Lithuania and even enjoyed a following inside the country, Rabbi Menachem Mendel became the main target of the attacks of the ‘mitnagdim’. Public denouncements and excommunications were issued specifically against him, and it was due to such persecution that he was forced to leave his home in Minsk. However, it is difficult to accept that someone with such a forceful character as he possessed would be deterred by such things. Besides, he was flourishing and his influence was perpetually expanding.
It would appear that, in truth, his thirst for closeness to God, and his great longing for the Holy Land – the land wherein God rests His Divine Presence – shook his inner being so strongly that no worldly enjoyment could compare to living in the Land of Israel. In addition, by settling in the Land of Israel, Rabbi Menachem Mendel wished to transcend all factional discrepancies, and to indicate for the entire Jewish nation a path towards complete ‘tikun’.
The Hardships Involved in the Move
In the Jewish year 5537 (1777), Rabbi Menachem Mendel took three hundred of his followers and set out for the Land of Israel. The hardships involved were enormous, with one peril following another. Even before reaching Israel, one of the boats sank, taking with it the lives of thirty Jews. When they arrived in Israel they settled in Safed, but the Turks and the Arabs persecuted them, and in the end, due to a libel, they were forced to leave the city and move to Tiberias. Yet, they were not permitted to settle comfortably in this new setting. The difficulties of income were great; most of the company possessed no skill from which they could earn a living in Israel. Some of them were elderly, while others were Torah scholars. As a result, Rabbi Menachem was constantly forced to ask the Jews of Russia to send donations in order to support the Chassidic community in Eretz Yisrael. On top of all of these difficulties, epidemics would occasionally break out taking the lives of some of Rabbi Menachem’s followers.
Yet, despite all of this, Rabbi Menachem Mendel remained adamant about remaining in the Land of Israel. It would have been easy for him to return. Many of his followers longed for him to rejoin them. But, he had decided to stay and to continue to bear the heavy burden of caring for his community’s livelihood.
Once, before the Friday afternoon prayer service, while the study hall was already filled with Jews, Rabbi Menachem walked to the window and stood there staring out at the Sea of Galilee for a long time. When the sun had set, he began to lead the congregation in prayer. Upon the conclusion of the Sabbath, Rabbi Menachem spoke with his students and explained to them that each Friday afternoon, all of the prayers which were offered up in the lands outside of Israel during the previous week make their way up to heaven. And the place from which they ascend is above the Sea of Galilee. Rabbi Menachem saw the prayers gathering above the sea, yet they were not permitted to ascend, for the Jews of the Diaspora were being accused, in Heaven, of not sufficiently supporting the needy Jews of Israel. Only after the Jews in exile had taken upon themselves to provide added support for their destitute brothers in the Holy Land, were their prayers able to ascend.
The Trials and Tribulations of Life in Israel
Among those who accompanied Rabbi Menachem Mendel were a number of outstanding Torah scholars, each of whom was capable of being an important spiritual leader in his own right. They, however, chose to make themselves subservient to Rabbi Menachem because of his unparalleled greatness. They too demonstrated extreme self-sacrifice in settling the Land of Israel, and did not cease in their task of clinging to the land amidst great hardship, even after the death of their beloved Rabbi.
When the great Chassidic leader, Rabbi Yaakov Shimshon of Shpatibka, made a pilgrimage to the Land of Israel, he went to visit Rabbi Velveleh of Zebraz, a Chassid who had made his home in Eretz Yisrael. Upon approaching the house of the Rabbi Velveleh’s family, he saw, to his great astonishment, the wife of the Rebbe, once a woman of means, dressed in raggedy attire, busying herself washing somebody else’s clothing. Rabbi Shimshon could not hold back his tears. Overcome with grief, he considered turning back and not entering the house of Rabbi Velveleh in order to avoid having to witness the Rebbe’s downtrodden state. But it was too late. The rebbitzen, who had discerned Rabbi Yaakov Shimshon’s presence, realized that he had been shocked at the sight of their poverty and called out to him saying, “Rebbe, Rebbe, don’t be so distressed. Come! Enter our house. We thank the Almighty for allowing us the privilege of settling the Land of Israel, and supporting ourselves through the labor of our own hands.”
The Torah of Eretz Yisrael
His followers reported that the Torah insights that Rabbi Menachem voiced after having arrived in the Land of Israel were far more profound than those he had uttered outside of Israel. Some of his ideas were published in his book “Pri HaAretz.”
Rabbi Menachem Mendel used to say that the reason that lust entices man is that the soul originates from a spiritual plane that is above the realm of pleasure, and after it descends to our material world, it longs for pleasure. If a person worships God with pleasure and delight, the soul is satisfied; but if one does not serve God joyously, the soul searches out other forms of pleasure, turning to base delights, Heaven forbid.
One of the more fundamental and well-known teachings of Rabbi Menachem Mendel deals with the problem of Jews who abandon the Torah and its way of life. This is what he wrote to his students: “I only wish to distance you from that which is prohibited, and to warn you: Do not mock others, lest you be struck by hardships, Heaven forbid. More specifically, do not mock those who have abandoned the Torah… for it is quite obvious and clear to me that mocking those who have abandoned the way of the Torah is the cause of decline and destruction, for have not the Sages taught that Jews are considered God’s children no matter what? Consequently, one who derides the irreligious, in effect, separates himself from the collective community of Israel. Furthermore, he forfeits his reward in the World to Come as far as the benefits of the collective body of Israel are concerned. This is what is meant by the words of the verse, ‘I reside amongst my people,’ as interpreted by the Holy Zohar. He who heeds these words will be visited by enormous material and spiritual blessing through the merit of the Assembly of Israel, and will ascend ever higher.” Our Rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, of blessed memory, would often quote this passage in Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s name.
Unifying the Nation through Settling the Land
The Sephardic Jews living in Israel at that time held Rabbi Menachem Mendel in great esteem, and he related to them affectionately. Rabbi Menachem even matched his dearly loved son, who was also an outstanding scholar, with the daughter of a Sephardic family (a practice that was not at all accepted in those times – and even today is frowned upon by some…). In his last, will he advises against scrutinizing or quarreling with the Sephardic Jews whether on issues of religious practice or any other matter.
The tremendous difficulties of settling the Land, while caring for the material and spiritual welfare of his followers in Israel and in the Diaspora, sapped the pious Rabbi’s strength. Ten years after his arrival in the Holy Land in the month of Menachem-Av, 5547 (1787), at the age of fifty-seven, Rabbi Menachem Mendel passed away.
Disease had weakened him greatly, but his mind remained clear until his final hour. The Rabbi, in his last will writes: “Regarding my prodigal son, Rabbi Moshe, I ask that he not be appointed to any position of authority over others, and that he distance himself from all honor and from all wantonness. He should study ethical writings (‘mussar’) on a daily basis and attach himself to people of integrity. Let him love even the lowliest of Jews and flee from falsehood with all of his might, even if it is for the sake of Heaven. He should not say words of Torah in my name. Let no words of praise be engraved on my headstone – just “Our teacher, Rabbi Menachem Mendel.”
Regarding burial procedures he writes: “I request that there should not elapse more than one hour from the moment that my soul leaves my body until the time that I am buried. They should not bury my body upon boards or in a casket – just straight into the holy soil. Those responsible for carrying my body should take care to repent. And when covering my eyes with broken clay pottery as is customarily done, mention the name of the holy Rabbi Baal Shem Tov, and the name of our holy master, teacher, and rabbi, the Maggid of Mezritch, of blessed memory.”
Before departing, they asked him who he would like to be buried next to, for, as is well known, many people make an exerted effort to be buried near the righteous. Surprised at the question, Rabbi Menachem Mendel answered, saying, “I would be quite happy to be buried next to any Jew – and I only hope that no Jew be ashamed of me, just as I am not ashamed of any other Jew.”
On the first day of the Jewish month of Iyar, Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s holy soul ascended to heaven.
As a result of his move to the Land of Israel, Rabbi Menachem Mendel forfeited his central position in the Chassidic arena. His younger students and friends became the leaders of the movement, and founders of dynasties, while his own name was forgotten by many. Yet, it seems that thanks to Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the Land of Israel became engraved in the consciousness of the Chassidic movement. Leading Chassidic sages, his students and his friends, were appointed with the task of collecting donations in order to support the Jewish settlers in Israel. As a result, they and their followers became attached in one way or another to the Land of Israel.
Who knows just how great the impact of Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s move to the Holy Land was on the greater Chassidic community, especially the Jews of Russia. The personal example of the greatest Chassidic sage in that generation giving up a comfortable life and, with great self-sacrifice, moving to Israel, was more effective than thousands of sermons. Slowly, little by little, the Chassidic community in the Holy Land began to sprout and grow. It was this community which was to serve as the foundation upon which Chassidism would be rebuilt after the terrible Holocaust destroyed European Chassidism.
In fact, it may very well have been Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s move to the Land of Israel that sowed the vision of settling and nurturing the land of Israel deep in the hearts of Russian Jewry – a vision that would lead to the appearance of a movement for practical Zionism led by Russian Jewry many years later.
The great Chassidic sage and leader, Rabbi Yisrael of Rozin, the grandson of the Maggid of Mezritch, would compare Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s emigration to the Land of Israel to that of the patriarch Abraham. For, similar to Abraham, his move paved the way for his progeny, allowing them to enter the Holy Land a few hundred years later.
We may well credit Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s great self-sacrifice for Eretz Yisrael with having helped preserve Chassidic Jewry in the face of the terrible Holocaust, giving it the strength to rise up from the dust and continue in the service of God here in the land of Israel.
May it be God’s will that we merit following in Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s footsteps, to cling to the Almighty, to love every single Jew, and to settle the Land of Israel. And may today’s rabbis merit students who earn a respectable living, who dress themselves respectably, and who possess hearts which are “torn” and wide open with love for God and the desire for world perfection.