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Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vurke: When I Reach Fifty

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 Simchah 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.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel was known as a wondrous man and engaged in trade with the Cossacks. His father, the holy Rabbi of Vurke, stipulated during his marriage negotiations with his father-in-law, Reb Hirsch Leib, that he would provide his son-in-law with any amount of money he requested, and the father-in-law agreed. Once, Rabbi Menachem Mendel made a deal with a Cossack that he would whip him with fifty lashes, and for each lash, he would pay the Cossack a silver coin.

In the dead of night, he went to his father-in-law's house and requested the sum of coins he owed the Cossack. With no choice, his father-in-law got out of bed and handed him fifty coins. He then woke his father-in-law again and told him that it was agreed between him and the Cossack that since neither the Cossack nor he would be able to correctly count the number of the blows, therefore, he wanted his father-in-law to count the intended number of lashes…

In this story that is both amusing and chilling, a unique and forceful aspect of Rabbi Mendel's personality is revealed. As if his unconventional leadership background wasn't enough (when was the last time you heard of a rabbi doing business with Cossacks?!), Rabbi Menachem Mendel also stood firmly on the fulfillment of the agreement between his parents and his father-in-law, even making his father-in-law witness how his money was being paid to a Cossack for nothing….

Interestingly, although Rabbi Menachem Mendel generally opposed self-flagellation, here he seems to have a special interest in it. It likely represented what the Lubavitcher Rebbe described as itkafya, an act of external self-coercion that ultimately leads to a profound inner transformation (ithapcha). What transformation was the righteous rabbi aiming for that required fifty lashes? We cannot know for certain, as "the silent rabbi" zealously guarded his secrets. However, a statement he made in another context might shed some light on the matter.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel said about himself: "When I reach the letter nun, everyone will know who I am…." Yet he did not reach the age of fifty, the value of the letter nun, as he passed away while still forty-nine years old. What was supposed to happen when Rabbi Menachem Mendel reached fifty? And why did it not happen during the forty-nine years that preceded it? Note Rabbi Mendel's language: "When I reach fifty (nun), everyone will know who I am…"

The goal to which Rabbi Menachem Mendel aspired is not merely a respectable number of years. The nun represents something more. It alludes to the Gate of Nun (50) that lies beyond human comprehension. Even Moses did not achieve it—as hinted by the verse: "And you have made him a little lower than the Divine."

The Gate of Nun belongs to the sefirah of crown (keter), whose deep and hidden aspect is called in the Zohar as the unknowable head that does not know itself (reisha delo yada (the unknown head that does not know itself) and lo ityada (will not be known to others)." This reveals a surprising dimension of this gate, which in a certain sense even contradicts itself: The person who knows what cannot be known merits that everyone will know who he is. But what is the connection between public recognition and the inner gate of fifty, which is not even known to oneself?

It seems that every righteous person has his own "fiftieth gate" hovering above all that his soul can achieve and reveal in this world. The expression "higher comprehension"  (השגות עליונות) is usually perceived as the comprehension of something external to the person, but in fact, the souls of Israel are an inseparable part of their Father in Heaven. Therefore, the highest Divine perception of any Jew is actually a part of his personality, encapsulated in the phrase "our portion in Your Torah." However, the personal Fiftieth Gate is not only how a particular Jew's soul understands its Creator but also something with which he must infuse the entire world. It is explained that within the soul of every Jew lies a spark of Mashiach, waiting to be revealed and to redeem the part of the world that belongs to it. When this spark is fully revealed, no one remains indifferent to it.

Of course, to recognize someone in such a way, it is prerequisite that the person will first recognize himself. This is the significance of Rabbi Menachem Mendel's hope to reach a state where everyone would know him. Yet this profound recognition is not a simple task, especially for a great tzaddik whose infinitude is so present. It is said that the Ba’al Shem Tov, just before his passing, stated, "Only now do I know why I came into this world." Sometimes self-recognition comes only at the last moment. It is also written that Moses attained the fiftieth gate only at the time of his passing.

It can be surmised that the Rabbi from Vurke had an intuition about his essence and the essence of his personal fiftieth gate, but for others to recognize it as well, he needed to fully understand it himself. However, like most matters related to Mashiach, God has other plans. The Rabbi from Vurke passed away in his forty-ninth year, without turning the most elusive faith into knowledge. One can only guess that there is a connection between Rabbi Menachem Mendel's desire to reach the age of fifty and the deal he made with the Cossack. Perhaps this is what he intended when he bought the fifty lashings.

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