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Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk: What is the Source of the Fire?

Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk, author of the “Noam Elimelech,” was the brother of Rebbe Zusha of Anipoli. Rebbe Elimelech was born to his father, Eliezer Lipa and his mother Mirel in 5477 (1717). Following in his brother, Rebbe Zusha’s footsteps, Rebbe Elimelech became one of the greatest disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch. His book was known as, “the book of the righteous” and Rebbe Elimelech himself was called “the little Ba’al Shem Tov.” In many ways, Rebbe Elimelech fashioned the chasidic ways of Poland in its entirety, delineating the persona of the tzaddik and the way to connect to him. His disciples were the chasidic masters of the next generation. Rebbe Elimelech passed away on the 21st of Adar, 5547 (1787) in Lizhensk. His son, Rabbi Eliezer, served as a rabbi after his father’s passing, but did not assume the mantle of Rebbe.

Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak, the Seer of Lublin, was a disciple of Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk and would journey to Lizhensk to be in his presence. Once, while traveling through a certain city, he heard that the rabbi of that city was a great tzaddik and he went to meet him. He saw that the man was a great man and full of fire. He stayed with him for Shabbat so that he could investigate his nature and practices up close. The Seer saw that he was a great man in the realms of Torah and prayer. But when he asked him if he had learned under the tutelage of a tzaddik, he answered that he had not.

This was a warning light for the Seer. He knew that Chasidut teaches that a person cannot know how to direct his service of God by himself and he must receive personal guidance from the tzaddikim of the generation, as did all the great chasidim. “Please come with me to the holy Rabbi Elimelech,” the Seer said to him. “There, you will experience true Chasidut, in Torah, mitzvah observance, and fear of Heaven.”

“I would be glad to go with you,” answered the man. “But I can’t get away right now. If you will stay with me for another week, I will make arrangements and travel together with you to your rabbi.” The Seer stayed with him another week, carefully observing the practices of this rabbi, and he was very pleased. He took great pleasure in the thought that through his efforts, a man of such great stature would become a disciple of his rabbi, Rebbe Elimelech. After Shabbat, the two traveled to Lizhensk. On the way, the man asked the Seer to present him to Rebbe Elimelech as a person of great stature so that he will relate to him accordingly. The Seer agreed, thinking that his holy rabbi will certainly be pleased to meet this new disciple.

When Rabbi Elimelech would hear the Seer’s footsteps approaching his house, he would run to the door and lovingly greet him. This time, however, the Seer was horrified to see that when he entered Rebbe Elimelech’s home with this man, Rebbe Elimelech turned his face to the wall and did not greet them at all. He didn’t even look at them. The Seer was extremely upset. “I will come to my rebbe’s home alone, and see how he relates to me,” the Seer said to himself. He brought the guest to the guest house and hurried back to Rebbe Elimelech’s home. As soon as he stepped on the threshold, Rebbe Elimelech hurried to warmly greet him as usual. “Why did you bring me this man, in whose polluted and disgusting face I couldn’t even look?” asked Rebbe Elimelech.

The Seer was frightened. “All I saw in him was goodness and loving-kindness, Torah and prayer. How is it possible to say that this man is polluted?” he thought to himself. He was afraid to speak his thoughts to his Rebbe, so he just stood there, astounded. Rebbe Elimelech read his thoughts and answered.

“You should know, that impurity has a translucent husk (kelipat nogah), where good and evil are mixed together. Sometimes, when a person begins to serve God, a feeling of partiality or self-aggrandizement can enter his mind. If he doesn’t work to uproot that evil and transform it into good, his service of God becomes mixed with good and evil. He walks in the darkness and does not at all sense that there is a great blemish in his service of God. His service can be performed with great enthusiasm because it is close to the husk that is called eish mitlakachat (combusting fire), may God have mercy. The man with whom you came, his entire service is from this impure root and is all mixed with evil. There is no fear of Heaven in his service whatsoever, just foreign fire. Hence, I couldn’t even look at his face and didn’t want him to stand in my home. I was forced to turn my face away from you, for I have no advice for him that will rectify him.”

When the Seer heard his Rebbe’s words, he felt great sorrow for this man who spent his days in Torah and service of God and didn’t even know that he had entered the realm of the impure husks. He went to the man and told him what Rebbe Elimelech had said, and held nothing back from him. The man cried bitterly from his heart and asked the Seer to go to Rebbe Elimelech and beseech him to save his soul, have mercy on him, and extricate him from his narrow strait. This man really did desire to serve God, he simply did not know the correct way. Rebbe Elimelech repeated that he had no advice for him, but added that if he truly wished to return to God, he should wait, for his holy brother, Rebbe Zusha, who would soon be coming. “When we are together, perhaps we can save him,” he said.

The man remained in Lizhensk for a long time until Rebbe Zusha came and outlined a way for him to rectify his soul. The man returned to God with all his heart and attained lofty spiritual heights.[1]

This rather extreme story provides us with a peek into a lesson from Rebbe Elimelech’s “School for Tzaddikim.” The Seer of Lublin, who later became a rebbe himself and was known for his piercing vision, learns how to look at those people who wish to draw near to God. We, as simple people, can learn the depths of the self-nullification that Rebbe Elimelech demands of his chasidim and the way that he instills it in them.

True, Rebbe Elimelech repeats that he has no advice on how to rectify the man, but it is easy to discern that the rectification begins from the moment that he entered the Rebbe’s home. What can we learn from his short presence in the tzaddik’s room? What does Rebbe Elimelech’s conduct teach us about the desired service of God?

In this story, Rebbe Elimelech acts like Abba Chilkiyah, the grandson of Choni Hame’agel. The Talmud relates that when the sages came to ask Abba Chilkiyah to pray for rain, they found him working in the field. They greeted him with blessings, but to their surprise, Abba Chilkiyah completely ignored them and continued working. Later he explained that because he was a day laborer, he did not want to stop his work at the expense of the field’s owner, even for a short time.

His explanation is reminiscent of the expression, “We are day laborers, we are.[2]” The simple explanation of this phrase is that it refers to the time that Torah scholars are active. Chasidut, however, explains that it expresses their essence. The Torah scholars have to work to create the day, to illuminate the world with the light of the Torah. Service of God is like the toil of a day laborer, who cannot allow himself to relate to anything that is not his work (such as partiality or self-aggrandizement, for example…).

Complete dedication to one’s current activity and ignoring everything else, important as it may be (as in the law, “He who is busy with one mitzvah is not obligated to fulfill a different mitzvah[3]) stems from nullification. Within the attribute of wisdom, the inner dimension of which is nullification dwells the “true one.” This is the place of the consciousness of focusing on one matter at a time. All the other matters and issues will be included in that one matter and will be superfluous.

There is an element of severity or halachic stringency in this absolute loyalty to work. The Kabbalists indeed explained that the source of the attribute of wisdom is in the attribute of might of Atik. In our context, this is expressed in Rebbe Elimelech ignoring his guest. The attribute of wisdom has the capacity to overpower the feeling of self-importance found in another person, particularly a Torah scholar, in a rectified manner. (This is the secret of “You have made everything with wisdom,”[4] which is an expression of rectification, which is the nullification of the husk). Following this submission, the rabbi could become a true day laborer.


[1]. Butzina Kadisha, p. 35ff.

[2]. Eiruvin 65a.

[3]. Sukkah 25a.

[4]. Psalms 104:24.

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