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The chassidim are coming

About rebbe menachem mendel of vitebsk, who immigrated to the land of israel; the month of iyar begins with his yahrtzeit

When was the First Aliyah of Jews to the Land of Israel? The answer depends on who is teaching history… the first immigrant to the Holy Land was of course Abraham, and the first mass aliyah was when the Children of Israel arrived after the Exodus from Egypt. If we focus on recent generations, since the destruction of the Second Temple, there have always been individuals who immigrated to the Holy Land, including prominent rabbis such as Maimonides, Rabbi Yeshayah Halevi Horowitz (the holy Shlah), Rabbi Chaim ben Atar (author of the Or Hachayim commentary on the Torah) , and many others. However, almost no large groups made aliyah, mainly because of the difficult conditions that precluded this – dangers of travel, economic conditions in a poor and desolate Land, and the hostility of its residents and governors. Yet, in spite of the impossible situation, about 230 years ago a group of some 300 chassidim arrived under the leadership of Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, of blessed memory. His yahrtzeit (memorial day) is on the first of Iyar, when many pay tribute to his memory at his grave in the ancient cemetery in Tiberias. This mass immigration has the right to be known as the first modern-day aliyah. The following is dedicated to the remarkable tzadik who headed it.

From the Fruit of the Land

Rebbe Menachem Mendel was one of the greatest students of the great Magid of Mezeritch, and many define him as the greatest of them all. Evidence of this can be seen in the fact that after the passing of the Magid, and his son Rabbi Avraham ("the Angel") soon after – Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi followed Rebbe Menachem Mendel and chose him as his Rebbe. Rebbe Shneur Zalman even wished to join Rebbe Menachem Mendel on his voyage to the Land of Israel, but Rebbe Menachem Mendel told him to remain in Russia to provide leadership for the Jewish People. Immigration to the Holy Land has always been a true goal of all Jews, and is an ambition that became far more pronounced in the light of Chassidut. The Ba’al Shem Tov himself tried to reach the Land of Israel, but returned when he saw that his voyage was unsuccessful. Some of the Ba'al Shem Tov's students succeeded in arriving in the Holy Land even before Rebbe Menachem Mendel.

Even after his aliyah, Rebbe Menachem Mendel remained in contact with the Chassidim in Europe, sending them letters containing basic guidance in their service of God. Years later, when the Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi published the Tanya, he specified in the introduction that some of the content "was alluded to for the wise in the holy letters from our rabbis in the Holy Land" ['our rabbis' here refers to Rebbe Menachem Mendel]. Indeed, to a certain extent the Lubavitch Movement can be seen as the spiritual continuation of Rebbe Menachem Mendel, who did not leave a line of rebbes after him. Rabbe Shneur Zalman's grandson, Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (the "Tzemach Tzedek"), was named Menachem Mendel after "our" Rebbe Menachem Mendel, as was the Lubavitcher Rebbe of our own generation. Thus, the hundreds of thousands of Menachem Mendels living today in the Holy Land are a 'fourth generation' of Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk. Perhaps the verse spoken to Abraham relates to them, "but the fourth generation will return here…"

In addition to the letters of general interest, Rebbe Menachem Mendel's teachings were printed in a book entitled Pri Ha'aretz (lit: "The Fruit of the Land"). The book's name refers to the Holy Land of which the Talmud states, "there is no Torah (learning) like the Torah of the Land of Israel". The profound Torah teachings in this book are not easy to fully comprehend, but by reading it one can truly taste the fruit of the Land.

Maker of Peace

Rebbe Menachem Mendel made aliyah to the Holy Land at the height of the dreadful dispute against the Chassidim. He was "a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace" and made a desperate attempt to quell the dispute. Together with his student-friend Rabbi Shneur Zalman, he travelled to Vilna to meet the Vilna Gaon. Unfortunately, the meeting never took place and they were not able to clear themselves of the false accusations that had been spread about them. From the Holy Land, Rebbe Menachem Mendel continued trying to promote peace, as can be seen from his heartfelt words in his letters about the importance of love and peace, and the damage caused by disputes and unnecessary hatred. Here are a few lines in his unique style (Letter B, at the end of the book 'Fruit of the Land') that were originally intended for the opponents to Chassidut (misnagdim), begging them not to speak evil against the Chassidim. He even asks their forgiveness:

Please, my sirs, teachers and rabbis, my brothers and faithful friends, I fear God, and He is our witness  that we release from our minds and forgive all those who have angered and provoked us, and all those who have caused us physical or financial damage. May the Benevolent God absolve them without any repercussions whatsoever, for all deeds were intended for the sake of Heaven. Now, however, would that we are all hear brothers and friends, the faithful lovers of God who so worship Him, from this day onward do not sin my sons, have mercy on yourselves and on your good deeds, that you do not lose a world because of a single hour… I take so very badly, more bitterly than death, that people greater and more righteous than myself fell themselves with the sin of gossip about us. I therefore have come to ask for peace… my sirs, teachers and rabbis, the least of whom are greater than me, if I have sinned against their honor, the honor of kings… I come before you begging you to forgive me, and God is good and He has mercy and forgives sins, and all of you who cleave to the Living God and His ways, answer and say: I forgive. And from now on our brothers, sons of Israel, I beg you sirs distance yourselves from this evil… please my brothers, do not do bad with unworthy speech about the God's People.

The Truly Lowly

A unique phenomenon is that Rebbe Menachem Mendel signed all his letters with the words, "the truly lowly, Menachem Mendel." What did he mean by this self-appellation? No doubt his model was David, King of Israel, who danced before the Ark of God and when his wife Michal claimed he was shaming himself, he replied, "I laughed before God, and I was ever more worthless and I was lowly in my own eyes."

Lowliness can be a very negative trait when a person behaves contemptibly, treating the image of God within him with disdain, and acting like an animal. In our case, however, this trait is most exemplary, referring to lowliness of spirit, the companion of humility, about which the sages commanded, "be very, very low of spirit." The nature of lowliness, as its name suggests, is the sense that one is extremely low, like a completely empty vessel that has nothing in it. Everyone must be aware of his good points and talents—let's not fool ourselves—but it is important to understand and thoroughly integrate the idea that all the good in one (and there is plenty) is a complete gift from God in His great compassion, a gift that fills one's empty vessel. In the words of Rebbe Menachem Mendel,

"The principle and root of everything is that man has no power of his own to accomplish any action, commandment or good deed, nor to cleave to the Almighty. Man is able to do these only because God created in him the flames of loving Him and fearing Him [but He gave us the choice whether or not to activate them]. And if He shall say, "I do not want you," all the choicest rams will be of no avail in sanctifying oneself… Therefore any worship of God can only be established after spelling out His praise and reviving the memory of one's own lack of value, and lowliness, how man is made of clay, foul matter, dust of the earth, neither seeing with his eyes nor hearing with his ears, nor understanding with his heart other than that which God has done today… And his mouth has no strength to speak except what God enables him to say, as in "My Master, open my lips", so too one's love and fear are the Almighty's. For who is it that loves if not the Living God filling one's soul? … And what is love? It is quarried essence of Godliness spreading and connecting and uniting in the lower world, confined to the miniature world that is man…"

This is a profound topic and you are invited to continue studying it from the source (Pri Ha'aretz, Parashat Shoftim). Nonetheless, Rebbe Menachem Mendel was a man of truth, and when he signed that he was "truly lowly" we can be sure that he meant it with all sincerity and definitely felt that way with his entire being.

From Rebbe Menachem Mendel's writings, and from those of other great Chassidic masters, the special connection between the positive trait of lowliness and essence of the Land of Israel becomes apparent. "Be very, very low of sprit" corresponds to the verse "the Land is very, very good." Someone who is truly lowly recognizes the holiness of the Land and lives there as they should. In the Land of Israel when we are required to deal with the mundane, we must be careful not to say, "My strength and the might of my own hand brought me this success", but rather to always have in mind that everything is from God. Thus we learn from the leader of the "First Aliyah" how a true Jewish pioneer should be – a man of faith, humility and prayer.

After his attempts to settle in Safed and Peki'in were unsuccessful, Rebbe Menachem Mendel chose to settle in Tiberias. Tiberias is the lowest city in the Land of Israel (after Jericho), and can be seen as representing the trait of lowliness (as is explained in Kabbalah, Tiberias is related to the sefirah of thanksgiving, which descends to the lowest depths). The sages also report that Tiberias was the final location of the Sanhedrin, and in the future it will be renewed from there – it seems that Rebbe Menachem Mendel paved the way for this to happen.

King of Israel

One might think that a "truly lowly" person would dress and behave in the simplest manner. However, Rebbe Menachem Mendel adopted royal customs. When he visited the Baal Shem Tov's great student, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polana, author of Toldot Yaakov Yosef –– Rabbi Yaakov Yosef told him, "You can't fool me. There are those who own a precious diamond, and in order to conceal it they hide it under a pile of litter. Rebbe Menachem Mendel has chosen to hide his trait of lowliness under cover of external grandeur…" This amazing combination of great internal lowliness together with superficial grandeur is the attribute kingdom, like King David who considered himself to be, "a worm and not a man, a disgrace of man and the ridicule of the nation"; yet outwardly he ruled the Jewish People with majestic splendor.

Indeed, Chassidic tradition has it that the greatest righteous individuals respected Rebbe Menachem Mendel not only as great and righteous, but also as "King of Israel"! Before his aliyah, he visited the tzadik, Rebbe Nachum of Chernobil, who swept the floor himself in honor of the visit, saying that he did so in honor of the King of Israel (according to another version it was Rebbe Pinchas of Kobrin). The story continues that while on the ship to Israel there arose a great storm, and Rebbe Menachem Mendel turned to the Almighty and said, "Remember the anguish I had, my stomach turned over inside me when that tzadik honored me and called me King of Israel" – and the storm subsided. Such a tzadik is worthy of being King of Israel.

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