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Rabbi Meshel Glebstein: Guarding the Temple

Rabbi Hillel Meshsel Glebstein was born in Bialystok on 4 Kislev 5594 (1833) to his father, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch, who was a Torah scholar and community leader. In his youth, he became an enthusiastic chassid of Kotzk and journeyed to Kotzk several times, without the knowledge of his parents. Rabbi Meshel married the daughter of Rabbi Eliyahu of Sokulka, one of the important Kotzker chassidim in the city, and remained in Kotzk for ten years. He became close to Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk and Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Gur (the Chiddushei HaRim). With the special permission of the Saraf of Kotzk, Rabbi Meshel traveled to Lubavitch to study Chabad Chassidut. Rabbi Meshel stayed in Lubavitch for half a year. The Tzemach Tzedek, who was the Lubavitcher Rebbe at the time, drew him into his inner circle and even after Rabbi Meshel returned to Kotzk, he remained loyal to the Tzemach Tzedek. After the Rebbe of Kotzk passed away, he continued to journey to the Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Gur (the Rim), whom he referred to as “My master and rabbi, the genius of geniuses, holy of holies.” The Rim said of Rabbi Meshel, “If he would not have invested himself in Kaballah, he could have reached the learning acumen of the Shaagat Aryeh.”

After the passing of the Chidushei HaRim and the Tzemach Tzedek in 5626 (1865)—three weeks apart—Rabbi Meshel decided to make aliyah to the Land of Israel. In 5629 (1869), he arrived in Jerusalem and was the first representative of the Kotzk Chasidut in the Land of Israel. He was persecuted for being a Kotzker, but the great Jerusalem Torah scholars like the Aderet, the Torat Chesed and the Sdei Chemed were very impressed with his genius and sharp mind. In the Holy Land, Reb Meshel invested his efforts in prayers to hasten the redemption and also in the mitzvah of safeguarding the Temple site, which he saw as a spiritual remedy to hasten the redemption, as he wrote in his famous book, “Mishkenot La’abir Yaakov.” Rabbi Meshel wrote more books on the revealed and concealed aspects of the Torah, combining all disciplines of the Torah—from Kabbalah to the Bible. Rabbi Meshel passed away on the 24th of Cheshvan 5668 (1907) while he was in Hebron, and was buried there in the Chabad section of the Jewish cemetery.

When Rabbi Meshel was young, he was already a great Torah scholar. By the age of ten, he was an expert on the entire Talmud. The genius, however, was still a child, and quite a mischievous child, at that. Sometimes, he would spend his entire day on adventures and would afterward spend the entire night in the study hall, learning Torah.

Once he came to the city of the famous scholar, Rabbi Izel Charif, where a wedding was being held. Rabbi Izel saw the young Meshel drinking alcohol and entertaining the guests there with his sharp intellect. At the end of the wedding, the boy snuck into the study hall, where he proceeded to learn Torah intensely. When Rabbi Izel entered the study hall to pray at daybreak, he saw the boy with a volume of Talmud opened before him and almost slapped him. After all, Torah is serious business and is not appropriate for every idler. Before he managed to slap him, Reb Meshel made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. “You tell me any topic you want in the Talmud, give me a few minutes and I will recite a pilpul (a scholarly discourse) on that topic. Rabbi Izel agreed and after the boy lived up to his end of the bargain, he admitted that it was both permissible and appropriate for him to study Torah…

Even when he matured and was a famous scholar and chassid, Rabbi Meshel still had that spark of mischief and daring. He was very impressed by the teachings of Chabad and did not hesitate to say so to his Rabbi, Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, and ask his permission to travel and study by the Tzemach Tzedek of Chabad. To the amazement of the chassidim, the Kotzker Rebbe agreed, saying, “Mendel, Mendel,[1] form a gezeirah shavah,[2] and Rabbi Meshel went to Lubavitch. When he arrived, he did not waste his time waiting to hear Chassidut from the Rebbe Tzemach Tzedek. He went directly to the Tzemach Tzedek’s private room. The Rebbe was learning with his son and successor, Rabbi Shmuel who would eventually be known as the Rebbe Moharash. Rabbi Meshel entered the room and joined the learning naturally. The Tzemach Tzedek’s son was astounded and wanted to tell him to leave, but the Tzemach Tzedek said to let him be. For the next six months, Rabbi Meshel joined those private classes. The impression that they made upon him was visible for the rest of his life. He continued to write to the Tzemach Tzedek and his sons, prayed in Nusach Ha’ari, as per the Chabad custom, and regarded the Tzemach Tzedek as his pre-eminent rabbi.

At that point, Rabbi Meshel already expressed his desire to go to the Land of Israel. The Tzemach Tzedek sent him to the Holy Land on a number of missions. At that time, the Tzemach Tzedek alluded to the fact that he had a spark of Mashiach. Additional tzaddikim who Rabbi Meshel met on his way to the Land of Israel assigned him the mission of attempting to hasten the redemption. Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh of Radzimin told him, “Do not refrain from praying for the Mashiach to come when you are there.” Interestingly, in one of his letters to the Tzemach Tzedek, Rabbi Meshel writes, “…and even more so the people who cleave to your love, and say that the Rebbe is an aspect of Mashiach, as is the custom….”

Rebbe Meshel devoted himself to the mission assigned to him by the tzaddikim with all his strength, particularly in his attempt to found guard duty for the Temple mount.[3] Rebbe Meshel attached great halachic and spiritual importance to the renewal of this mitzvah and saw it as a means to hasten the arrival of the Mashiach. Initially, Rebbe Meshel enlisted the help of ten of his students and would pray with them at the Western Wall regularly on Shabbat and holidays. This was unusual at the time and required courage because the Turkish rulers did not view this activity favorably.

In his old age, Rebbe Meshel became a chassidic Rebbe. It is told that he had a special segulah (spiritual remedy) for women having difficult labor. Once, when he was not home, one of his family members attempted to say the segulah instead of him, but it did not help. When Rebbe Meshel returned home he said, “It seems that it is important who says it….”

Rebbe Meshel of Bialystock was very connected to his rebbes and continued to see them in his dreams. However, he was an independent thinker with his own path, and he feared no one. The Lubavitcher Rebbe held him in the highest esteem, emphasized his connections to Lubavitch and particularly admired his main project: the safeguarding of the Temple. The Rebbe even gave several talks in which he strongly highlighted his halachic decision that the mitzvah of safeguarding the Temple is still relevant in our times.

The Rebbe brings a simple question on Maimonides: According to the Rambam, safeguarding the Temple is due to the respect it is given, and is not meant to protect it from robbers or invaders. Why then, does he specify that safeguarding the Temple is at night and not during the day? The answer is that in the day, respect for the Temple is expressed through the manner of the service performed there. But at night, when the service is over and the Temple grounds remain empty and quiet, respect for the Temple is expressed by safeguarding it. When we understand the mitzvah of guarding the Temple, Rebbe Meshel’s stance becomes clear in all its depth. When the Temple is destroyed and no service can be performed there, the mitzvah of safeguarding it becomes doubly important.

On the spiritual plane, night represents exile—a state of darkness and confusion for both the individual and the public. When the exile intensifies, our ability to discern God’s immanent presence in the world is diminished. Despair creeps into the heart and it is specifically then that we must be on the guard and remember the holy point of connection to God. Protection from distractions that hinder our focus stems from great faith in the coming of Mashiach. This is much more than faith and wishes. As Rebbe Meshel taught, by guarding the site of the Temple, the Temple itself and its service will return to their place, speedily in our days.

Endorsement by Ruach Hakodesh

At the beginning of Rebbe Meshel’s book, Mishkanot La’abir Yaakov, there is an endorsement from “His honorable holiness, the man of God, the holy candle, the true genius…Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the memory of the tzaddik and holy one is for a blessing, the great rebbe of the chasidim of Chabad.”  In practice, the Tzemach Tzedek had already passed on and was not the one who wrote this endorsement for the book. But the body of the endorsement is a story that the author wrote, excerpted as follows:

Rabbi Meshel studied under the Tzemach Tzedek between the years 5612 and 5613 (1851-1852). Later, in 5616 (1856), a certain Jew came to the Tzemach Tzedek and gave the Rebbe a note, as was customary. We do not know the man’s name. The Rebbe asked him if he was a Levite, and the man confirmed that he was. The Rebbe said to him, “There is a matter that I cannot give to anyone else but you, because of a great mitzvah that you performed. Be careful not to say anything to anyone but the person whom I instruct you to tell. There will come a time when you will be in Jerusalem, somewhere in the years 5641-5644 (1881-1884). When you are there, search for a man whose name is Hillel Moshe ben Rabbi Tzvi. In 5644 you will get to know him well and tell him everything that you hear from me. To prove to Hillel Moshe that it is me who sent you to him, tell him that he was here by me some years ago, before he even had a beard. Tell him in my name: He will reveal new secrets of the Torah, about which it is said that “They are more desirable than gold and fine gold”[4] and “Truth will grow from the ground.”[5] When the Children of Israel heed him, the salvation will grow.” The Tzemach Tzedek added some mysterious allusions, laid his hands on the Levite, and said, “I bless you to successfully carry out my mission to serve the service of the Levites in the Temple.” The Levite kept this mission sealed in his heart and did not reveal it to anyone.

Many years passed. At the end of 5641, the Levite saw the Tzemach Tzedek in a dream, and he told him, “Go to Jerusalem to fulfill my mission.” The dream repeated itself three times and made its impression on the Levite. He left for Jerusalem. To his sorrow, when he reached Jerusalem, he did not find anyone who answered to the name Hillel Moshe. About two years later, in 5644 the Levite was in the synagogue when “Hillel Moshe Meshel ben Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch” was called up to the Torah. He had found his man!

The Levite told Rebbe Meshel about his mission. Initially, Rebbe Meshel found it difficult to believe him, but the Levite took an oath before the Torah ark on Yom Kippur eve that he was speaking the truth. Rebbe Meshel began to delve into the words of his rabbi, the Tzemach Tzedek and in the allusions that he had sent him and understood that it was all pointing to the mitzvah of safeguarding the Temple, about which he had written his book, Mishkenot La’Abir Yaakov in 5641.

Rabbi Meshel concludes that because this matter is relevant to the entire Jewish people, he publicized it. To certify that it was true, he asked several sages in Jerusalem to hear the testimony of the Levite, after they warned him that he must say only the truth. They wrote and signed that it was true…

[1] Both the Tzemach Tzedek and the Kotzker Rebbe’s first names were Mendel.

[2] Gezerah Shavah is one of the thirteen hermeneutical methods by which the Torah’s meaning is deciphered, in this case by comparing two concepts that use similar terminology. In this case, a comparison was being drawn between the Kotzker and the Lubavitcher on the basis of their common first name.

[3]. Mishnah Tamid 1:1. Hilchot Beit Habechirah, ch. 8. The Lubavitcher Rebbe addressed this subject a number of times and referenced Rebbe Meshel’s writings on the subject: see Likkutei Sichot v. 13, pp. 56-65 and Torat Menachem 5750 v. 3, pp. 85ff.

[4] Psalms 19:11.

[5] Psalms 85:12.

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