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Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vurke: Love, Fear and Deep Connection

Rabbi Mordechai Menachem Mendel Kalisch, ‘the Silent Rebbe’ from Vurke (Warka, Poland), was born in 5579 (1819) to Rebbe Yisrael Yitzchak, the founder of the Vurke dynasty and the disciple of Rebbe Simcha Bunim of Peshischa. While his father was still alive, Rebbe Menachem Mendel led a small group of Vurke chasidim, among them some chasidic greats, who he guided with his unique approach to service of God. Rebbe Menachem Mendel synthesized the warm Vurke strain of Chasidut with the acerbic strain of the Kotzk chasidism. His group was called “The Lion’s Group.” Following his father’s passing on 22 Sivan 5608 (1848), Rebbe Menachem Mendel refused to accept the mantle of leadership. In his stead, Rebbe Shraga Feivel of Gritza (Grójec, Poland) was appointed. This Rebbe, however, passed away half a year later, on Sukkot 5609 (1849). It was only then, with the instruction of Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, that he agreed to succeed his father as the Rebbe of Vurke.

Rebbe Menachem Mendel used words sparingly. Even his words of Torah were succinct. On Pesach 5628 (1868) he became ill. Following Shavuot he was brought to Warsaw, where he passed away a few days later, on the 16th of Sivan.


Rebbe Menachem Mendel was once sitting at a festive meal with his children and grandchildren in his home. The atmosphere during the meal was very familial and heimishe (homey). At the end of the meal, Rebbe Menachem Mendel’s chasidim entered his home. Suddenly, the family felt great awe before Rebbe Menachem Mendel and didn’t understand what had happened…Just seconds before the atmosphere had been so relaxed…

Most of us fill several different roles. Sometimes, these roles even contradict each other. Who am I?  A friend, or  a teacher? A family man or the charismatic leader of many people?

This question disturbs public servants more than others. These roles oblige them to keep a certain distance from the people serving under them, creating a feeling of imbalance. Clearly, this split personality leaves its mark on the leader’s day-to-day conduct and simple relationships with others. The need to frequently change behavior patterns is necessarily accompanied by tension.

In our story, however, we see that there is another option: Rebbe Mendel literally changes his persona before our eyes, in a fraction of a second. The awe that his family felt was so sudden that it cannot be written off as a result of the entrance of the chasidim, who greatly admired their Rebbe and hence the changed atmosphere. When the Rebbe was with his family alone, the distance between them disappeared, but when the chasidim entered, the Rebbe precipitated in himself a change of essence, transforming from a father figure to a king. (Interestingly, in addition to this immediate change during his tenure as rebbe, the beginning of Rebbe Menachem Mendel’s leadership was characterized by the transition from openness and togetherness with the public to insulation and loftiness. He explained this to his chasidim on several occasions in order to placate them).

This ability characterizes many tzaddikim. Similar stories abound about the Lubavitcher Rebbe. When people would first enter his room, they would feel great awe. But when they looked into his eyes, they would feel deep calm, as if they were with a good friend.

The ability to transition freely from friendliness to awe and back again is a sign of a true king. If the leadership role is not extraneous to a person’s essence, but is part of the role that his soul was meant to fill, he does not have to prop it up with the help of an external or false self-image. This type of royal demeanor is natural to the king, just as fatherhood is natural to a father. In chasidic terms, the king has an essential loftiness that exists within him whether he is an acting king or not. Of course, this is possible only when his sovereignty is an expression of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the honor of the Creator is reflected in the honor of the created being. Otherwise, where would a human being find the audacity to rule over someone else? The feeling that all the different states of being that he reflected actually expressed one Godly truth is what made it possible for Rebbe Menachem Mendel to easily transition from state to state.


Once Rebbe Menachem Mendel entered the study hall, which was filled with chasidim, with the intention of giving over a chasidic teaching. (As is known, Rebbe Menachem Mendel was reticent, and even when he did give over chasidic teachings, they were very short). The Rebbe looked to and fro in the study hall but did not find anyone worthy enough to receive his Torah thoughts, so he did not say them.

Rebbe Menachem Mendel went upstairs to his son-in-law, the holy Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh of Nadarzin, who was taking a rest at that hour. When Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh heard his father-in-law’s footsteps approaching (for he had heavy steps) he immediately got out of bed. When the Rebbe entered his room, he said to his son-in-law: “If you will be a chasid, that is good. And if not, I will uproot you. (In Yiddish, “I will flick you” as a chicken’s feathers are flicked from its carcass). That was the content of the Torah teaching that he had wanted to give over.

There are two major components to this story: The Rebbe’s caustic statement and his lengthy search for a chasid worthy of hearing it. This reveals two sides of the sefirah of thanksgiving (or hod, also meaning acknowledgment). The first is the recognition of one’s weakness and the need to be attached (to God, to a tzaddik, or to one’s spouse). This is the first explanation of this sefirah as a state of thanksgiving to the source that has showered goodness upon me. This is the content of the tzaddik’s statement, which acerbically expresses the vitality of the true connection between a rebbe and his chasid.

The second side of the sefirah of hod appears in Rebbe Menachem Mendel’s lengthy search for the appropriate listener. He needed someone with enough courage to fully acknowledge the truth. The very existence of such a chasid cannot be taken for granted and the Zohar accords lofty praise to a tzaddik who merits such a listener: “Happy is he who speaks to ears that hear him.”

In the body, hod corresponds to the immune system. This is the system responsible for defending the body and rejecting foreign invading entities. If the immune system is not working properly, it allows illnesses to penetrate the body and even causes the body to attack itself, giving rise to autoimmune disease. This is the message that Rebbe Menachem Mendel wanted to convey to his disciple: If you are not connected to me and do not recognize the importance of the connection between us, then you are nothing more than a danger that must be treated before it weakens the entire body. Kabbalah explains that the sefirah most vulnerable to the danger of empowering external, negative forces is hod (הוֹד), whose letters can be rearranged to spell “sorrow” (דָּוָה), as in the verse, “sorrow all day”[1] (כָּל הַיּוֹם דָּוָה). The Rebbe had to search for a person for whom these words would strengthen the bond between them and who would not become agitated for lack of sufficiently strong vessels to contain the message

[1]. Lamentations 1:13.

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