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Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk: Making a Splash in the Land of Israel

Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk was one of the great disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch. He was born to his father, Rebbe Moshe, who was a disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov. He was orphaned at an early age and grew up in the home of the Rav the Maggid of Mezritch. The Maggid even took him with him when he would travel to the Ba’al Shem Tov. When the Rav the Maggid passed away and as per his will, Rebbe Menachem Mendel became the leader of the chasidim in White Russia and Lithuania.

In 5537 (1777), Rebbe Menachem Mendel made aliyah together with 300 of his chassidim. This was a very significant number of people to make aliyah as a group in that era. He first settled in Peki’in, then moved to Tzfat and finally to Tiberias, where his congregation settled.

Rebbe Menachem Mendel conducted himself and his court in a royal manner on an external level. Rebbe Yaakov Yosef of Polna’ah said that Rebbe Menachem Mendel conceals his deep lowliness specifically in what could be misinterpreted as grandeur. Rebbe Menachem Mendel would sign his letters with the subscript, “the truly lowly”. Despite his youth, the disciples of the Ba’al Shem Tov admired him and Rebbe Pinchas of Kuritz even called him “the king of Israel.” Rebbe Menachem Mendel died on the first of Iyar, 5548 (1788) and was buried in the ancient cemetery of Tiberias, in the section of the students of the Ba’al Shem Tov. His student, Rebbe Elazar Zusman, collected his Torah teachings into the book, “Pri Ha’aretz.”

When Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk reached the Land of Israel, he maintained two customs: First, as was his custom in Vitebsk, was to go to the river every Friday afternoon. Immediately upon arrival he would call out: “Mendel needs fish for Shabbat!” And several fish would jump out and place themselves before him. It is known that some tzaddikim chose to live near a river with fish. And it is known that the Ba’al Shem Tov knew from Heaven that he would live in Nemerov or Mezhibuzh. He chose Mezhibuzh because it was next to a river with many fish. When Rebbe Menachem Mendel made aliyah to the Land of Israel, he was already known as a great rabbi and miracle worker. On Friday afternoon, he sent his assistant to the shore of the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) and instructed him to stand there and say that Rebbe Mendeleh needs fish for Shabbat. The assistant did as he was told, but returned empty-handed. Not even one fish had jumped out to ‘volunteer’ to be part of Rebbe Mendeleh’s Shabbat feast. Rebbe Mendeleh sent the assistant back to the Kinneret and once again, nothing happened – even though the Kinneret is full of fish. Rebbe Mendeleh decided to go for himself and called out “Mendeleh needs fish for Shabbat!” A large fish jumped out of the water with such a splash that Rebbe Menachem Mendel was soaked from head to toe.  “Here is your fish for Shabbat…” said Rebbe Menachem Mendel.

From this episode, Rebbe Menachem Mendel learned that any level of lowliness that he had attained outside the Land of Israel was just another rung in the ladder. But now that he was in the Land of Israel, he would have to achieve the ultimate lowliness with such simplicity that he would think nothing of the fact that a simple fish could drench him from head to toe. This is the new level of the Land of Israel – that he would be so connected to God that with every movement, service or utterance, he would be connected to God with complete nullification.

Another story: Rebbe Menachem Mendel went outside and a small boy approached him and asked “Perhaps you can give me a pinch of tobacco?”

“Now you have found the small brazen children of the Land of Israel,” said Rebbe Mendeleh to himself. “An elderly Jew who looks quite illuminated is walking down the street with a silver cane, and a six year-old boy does not hesitate to ask him for tobacco…”

Rebbe Menachem Mendel gave the boy some tobacco and taught himself that here in the land of Israel, complete nullification is required.

(Nifla’ot Hatzaddikim)

It is no coincidence that the tzaddik chose to take fish for Shabbat specifically from the Kinneret. In Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, on the verse “And God finished on the seventh day” [1] the Midrash enumerates various parallels to the days of the week and Shabbat: “God created seven lands and from them all He chose only the Land of Israel…God created seven seas and from them all He chose the Sea of Galilee.” The seventh sea, in the seventh land in honor of the seventh day, requires special lowliness – which is the inner dimension of the sefirah of malchut (kingdom), the seventh sefirah.

This story emphasizes the chutzpah of the Land of Israel, which is known (for better or for worse) both in Israel and throughout the world. Does chutzpah fit the Land of Israel, which is known for its affinity to the attribute of lowliness? After all, lowliness includes relating to others in a pleasant manner, elevating them and seeing their positive traits.  The Talmud also says that the Torah scholars of Babylon are called a “severe stick” while the Torah scholars of the Land of Israel are called “a pleasant stick.”

Interestingly, in a different, opposite version of this story, Rebbe Menachem Mendel says that the chutzpahdik fish was actually a reincarnation of a tzaddik from outside the Land of Israel, specifically. This Torah scholar had been severe during his lifetime and after his passing, as well. Tzaddikim, as is known, reincarnate as fish, specifically. What does this explanation tell us?

Viewing the fish as a reincarnation – a person who seeks his rectification by means of another person – is very relevant to people who work with bringing their fellow Jews closer to Torah. Sometimes, they may meet a “big fish” – a person whom they strongly desire to bring closer to Torah – and this big fish pours cold water on their aspirations. Then the person attempting to bring the big fish closer has to remember that in its very depths, the big fish does have a spark of holiness seeking its rectification – even if it protests with all its might.

The first version of the story also teaches us an important lesson for the person seeking to bring others back to Judaism: For a person to truly belong to the Land of Israel and holiness, he has to be permeated with lowliness and nullification. It is only in this manner that he will extricate others from “the severe stick” of the Diaspora and bring them into the consciousness of “a pleasant stick” of the Land of Israel.

[1] Genesis 2:2.

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