Wednesday, April 18, 2007
The Vitebsker – An Inner Perception
from R. Yosef Zevin’s Sippurei Chassidim, Parshas Pinchas [#382]
The Maggid of Mezritch had Chassidim from Belorussia, who would travel a great distance to be in his presence and learn from him. Once they came to him and expressed their difficulty in making the long, tedious journey. But on the other hand, it was difficult for them to go on for a long time without the teaching and influence of a Rebbe.
The Maggid brought out a garment of his, a belt, and a walking stick, and said, "Take these and give them to a man named Mendeleh in Vitebsk. Whenever it is too difficult for you to come to me, you can go to him."
These Chassidim went to Vitebsk, seeking out Rav Mendel. However, this was before Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk was known. The townspeople told them that there is no Rav Mendel in Vitebsk. Not satisfied with this, the Chassidim continued to investigate until they came upon a woman who asked them what they were looking for.
"We are looking for Rav Mendel," they answered.
"There is no Rav Mendel here," she said. "But there are many [plain] Mendels here. In fact, my son-in-law is named Mendeleh."
They understood that this man was the one they were looking for. They came to her home, found her son-in-law, and handed him the items that the Maggid had sent.
Reb Mendel took the garment and belt, put them on, and grasped the walking stick in his hand. He was immediately unrecognizable to people. His appearance had changed so drastically, that people were in awe of him.
Upon the Maggid's death, Rebbe Menachem Mendel, along with fellow disciple Rebbe Avraham of Kalisk ("Kalisker") settled in Horodok. Among the thousands of Chassidim who thronged to him were many prominent former students of the Maggid, such as Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Rabbi Baruch of Kossov, and many others.
In 1777 Rebbe Menachem Mendel, along with disciple Rebbe Avraham, and 300 followers emigrated to the Land of Israel, settling in Tzfas. In 1783 they left Tzfas and moved to Tiveria.
From his residence in Eretz Yisrael, Rabbi Menachem Mendel maintained a close contact with his Chassidim in Russia through personal emissaries and a steady flow of letters. His reflections, letters, and commentaries have been published in the sefer Pri Ha'aretz.
The Vitebsker had an uncanny perception, reflected in his senses of sight, smell, hearing and his spiritual perception of others, as the following stories demonstrate. But first, why not listen to his Niggun L’histapchus HaNefesh – a niggun of outpouring of the soul, courtesy of Chabad’s English Niggunim site.
How to View the Stones
from Ohr Sameach's website
Don't think that Rebbe Menachem Mendel made a special meal because now he was rich. Don't think that he went to the grocery store and bought all the requirements for the meal with a stone he picked up off the ground! Quite the opposite! For the store owner and everyone else, all the "diamonds" were still stones.
No, Rebbe Menachem Mendel was celebrating the moment that he was able to recognize the diamonds that were all around him, but that he had never been privy to see before. He was celebrating his new-found blessing to be able to cut away, just like a master jewelsmith, the unimpressive, the unprepossessing, exterior to reveal the magnificent opulence that lies underneath.
[Note – we posted a similar story, Jewels of Our Lives, about the Bas Ayin here. Very often, the protagonists of Chassidic stories can change, depending upon who is telling the story.]
The Scent of Moshiach
A composite of several sources, including R. Levi Brackman and Inner Stream
When the famous Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk founded a Chassidic community in Tiberias, in northern Israel, in 1777, this raised the hopes of many for the coming of Moshiach and the redemption of the Jewish people.
Shortly he arrived, a man climbed Har HaZeisim [the Mount of Olives] in Yerushalayim and sounded a Shofar. A rumor quickly spread that the Shofar’s call heralded the arrival of Moshiach. Word spread quickly; many even stopped working and began making preparations for the Messianic era. When news of Moshiach’s arrival reached Tiveria, Rebbe Menachem Mendel’s Chassidim couldn’t wait to see his reaction.
"Rebbe, the Shofar was sounded on the Mount of Olives! Moshiach is here!"
They expected their Rebbe to jump for joy. Instead, they saw him rise slowly and walk to the window. He then threw the shutters wide open and sniffed the air. He then sadly closed the windows and remarked, "No, he has not come; I cannot smell the scent of Redemption."
In retelling this story Chassidim have often asked why Rebbe Mendel need to open the window to sniff the air outside? His followers explained that Rebbe Menachem Mendel had to open his window for this because the smell of Redemption, the revealed manifestation of the Divine, always pervaded his private room. This Chassidic leader and Kabbalist had reached the stage of self-mastery where no other influence either outer or inner was able to contain him from reaching that which his authentic self wanted to achieve. Thus, his room was filled with the fragrance of Redemption, but the outside was not.
(Note: The term odor was used allegorically to imply an indiscernible presence. It’s worthwhile noting the Talmudic text from Sanhedrin 93b. "Bar Koziba (Kochba) reigned two and a half years, and then said to the Rabbis, 'I am Moshiach.' They answered, 'Of Moshiach it is written that he smells and judges (Isaiah 11:3) let us see whether he [Bar Koziba] can do so.' When they saw that he was unable to judge by the scent, they slew him.")
Why Did He Leave Tzfas?
from the Shalom Rav [Tzfas] yeshiva website.
The end of the eighteenth century again witnessed a flowering of Tzfas, this time from the followers of the Baal Shem Tov and to some extent the followers of the Vilna Gaon. Barred from settling in Jerusalem by the libel against the Ashkenazim, and attracted to Tzfas by the mystical atmosphere, they found a haven on this hilltop in the Upper Galilee. Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, a student of the Baal Shem Tov, explained why he left Tzfas and moved to nearby Tiberias.
from Akiva of Mystical Paths
After the Maggid of Mezritch passed away (the Maggid was the Baal Shem Tov’s successor), the disciples each looked for a Rebbe to follow. The eldest of the disciples was Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl. Rebbe Schneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad, did not follow his close friend Rebbe Nachum, but instead looked to Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk for guidance. Rebbe Schneur Zalman and Rebbe Nachum would visit one another once a year on Sukkos.
On one of those visits, when they were sitting and discussing the deep mysteries of the Torah in the sukka, Rebbe Nachum asked Rebbe Schneur Zalman: "Why did you take Rebbe Menachem Mendel as your Rebbe and not me?"
Rebbe Schneur Zalman replied: "I once saw him when he was giving audience and I realized that everything that the person seeking his council had done in his life was known to him."
Rebbe Nachum shrugged, as if to say that he too saw past actions.
Rebbe Schneur Zalman continued: "I then realized that not only could he see all his actions in this present lifetime, he also was aware of all of the person’s previous incarnations since the six days of Creation."
Rebbe Nachum shrugged again.
Finally, Rebbe Schneur Zalman said: "In the end I realized that not only could he see his past actions and past incarnations, he could also see everything that this soul was destined for in the future until the coming of the Moshiach and after."
At that moment Rabbi Nachum raised his brows in wonder, thereby acknowledging Rabbi Schneur Zalman's choice of a Rebbe, but the conversation abruptly ended, as the Chassidim, who had been intently listening to the holy words of the two tzaddikim from on top of the sukka, suddenly moved and were heard...
BTW, although it is often said that R' Baruch of Kosov was a talmid of R' Mendele, this is probably a mistake - and I didn’t know this until not all that long ago either - I believe that the cause for this confusion was that he was actually a talmid of a different R' Mendel (Rimonover, IIRC).
Also, in case you haven’t seen it, There is an incredible story that I always read to my children on R' Mendele's Yohrzeit that was told by the Tzemach Tzedek - it's really a wild one, and fairly long. If you want, I can email it to you (or try to post it as a comment, if it will fit).