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The Maggid of Mezritch: Lost Souls

Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch, known as the Maggid of Mezritch, was the greatest disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov. He was born in Lukatch, Ukraine. His father, Rabbi Avraham, was descended from the Mishnaic sage, Rabbi Yochanan Hasandlar, and generations before, from King David. As a child, Rabbi Dov Ber was obviously brilliant and his father sent him to study Torah in the yeshivah of the Pnei Yehoshua (Rabbi Yaakov Yehosuha Falk) in Levov. After his marriage, he was a teacher in Tultshin and began learning Kabbalah. Later, he was a maggid (a preacher) in a number of villages.

As soon as Rabbi Dov Ber came to the Ba’al Shem Tov, he became his principle disciple. After the Ba’al She Tov’s passing, his son, Rabbi Tzvi, was appointed to lead the Ba’al Shem Tov’s disciples. A year later, during the festive Shavu’ot meal on the first anniversary of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s passing, Rabbi Tzvi announced that his father had appeared to him and instructed him to transfer the leadership position to Rabbi Dov Ber. Rabbi Tzvi rose from his place and gave the Maggid his topcoat, which had belonged to the Ba’al Shem Tov, and then the Maggid sat in Rabbi Tzvi’s place and began to teach Torah.

Unlike his Rabbi, the Ba’al Shem Tov, who would travel from place to place, the Maggid stayed in Mezritch and from there sent his students to teach Torah and establish centers of chassidic life throughout Russia, Poland, and even Germany. A few months before he passed away, the Maggid moved to Anapoli due to a plague that had broken out in Mezritch. He passed away on 19 Kislev 5633 (1872) and is buried in Anapoli. The great chassidic aliyah to the Land of Israel came from the Maggid’s study hall, led by his disciple, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk who made aliyah in 1777. Among the Maggid’s other famous disciples were his son, Rabbi Avraham the Angel, the Alter Rebbe of Chabad, the brothers, Rabbi Zusha of Anapoli and Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, Rabbi Aharon the Great of Karlin, the brothers Rabbi Pinchas Ba’al Hahafla’ah and Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Hakohen, Rabbi Ze’ev of Zhitomer and many more.

Reb Azriel, a chassid of the Maggid of Mezritch, was a young married man who diligently learned Torah and prayed in the Maggid’s beit midrash. This was not a way to earn money and eventually his wife turned to him with a question: “You know that there is no food in the house. What shall we do?” Reb Azriel went to the Maggid, who answered. “Don’t worry, go learn Torah and everything will be fine.”

Shabbat was approaching and Reb Azriel’s house was still empty. Suddenly the Maggid’s assistant appeared and gave Reb Azriel two gold coins for his sustenance. This was not a large sum, but Azriel and his wife were pleased. The Maggid’s support continued to come every week. When the family expanded, Reb Azriel’s wife once again asked for his help. Azriel turned to the Maggid. “Don’t worry, go to learn Torah and all will be fine,” the Maggid answered him once again. On that Friday, the assistant gave Azriel four gold coins and he and his wife were very happy.

As time went on and Azriel’s family continued to grow, the sum of the Maggid’s weekly support rose to six gold coins and then to eight. When even the eight was not enough, Reb Azriel returned to the Maggid, who sent him once again to learn Torah without worry. But on that Friday, the Maggid’s assistant brought only six gold coins. Reb Azriel was embarrassed to tell his wife about their cut in “salary” but what could he do? He put the six coins on the table in his house and went off to the Maggid’s beit midrash.

The following Friday, Reb Azriel received only four gold coins from the Maggid. The following week he received two and finally, he received no support at all. Reb Azriel returned to the Maggid. “What should I do?” he asked. “There is no food in the house!”

“Nu,” the Maggid replies possessions and with the money, bought a bit of buckwheat to sell in the marketplace. He did not have money to rent a stand, so his wife stood at the side and waited for customers. After a few days, during which time she earned almost nothing, the governor’s housekeeper came to the market. She took a liking to Reb Azriel’s wife’s buckwheat and bought a large amount. The governor’s wife noticed the change in the food and the housekeeper told her about the new buckwheat stand. The governor’s wife directed her housekeeper to buy buckwheat only from Reb Azriel’s wife. God had saved them!

After some time, the governor asked through the housekeeper why Azriel’s wife was not selling additional items. When she answered that she did not have enough money, the governor loaned her the money that she needed to get started. Slowly but surely, the stand at the edge of the marketplace became a large stand and later—a general store.

Business was good and Azriel’s wife asked her husband to help her in the store, first for two hours a day, later for four, six, and eight. From a Torah student, Reb Azriel had become a merchant. Azriel’s wife turned their home into an open house for the poor. Everyone who came to their doorstep was given food, drink, a place to sleep and a nice sum of money. Reb Azriel and his wife became famous throughout the area for their kindness.

One day, the governor’s wife lost a precious stone that had been embedded in one of her brooches. It was a great loss, because the stone was one of two identical stones in the brooch and now she wanted to find the perfect replacement stone. The governor searched throughout the area, but no fitting stone was found. With no prospects in sight, he decided to send a representative overseas, to a country where the perfect stone existed.

The governor decided to send none other than Reb Azriel on this mission. After all, he was an experienced and trustworthy merchant and the governor knew that he could count on him. Reb Azriel went to the Maggid for his blessing before he set out. But when he reached the Maggid’s home, the door was locked and the Maggid refused to receive him. The next day, Reb Azriel tried again, but once again did not receive an answer. When he still did not hear from the Maggid on the third day, he could wait no longer and set out on his journey.

After a few days of sailing, the ship upon which Azriel was sailing stopped at a small island and the passengers disembarked to stretch and look around. They agreed that when it would be time to set sail, the sailors would blow a trumpet three times and everyone would gather back to the boat. Reb Azriel left the governor’s box of money on the boat and went for a walk on the shore.

Reb Azriel walked around and did not notice how far he had strayed from the ship. He did not hear the trumpet blasts and by the time he realized where he was, the ship had already sailed. Alone on the island, Reb Azriel became very thirsty. He begged God to save him from his thirst and from the island.

After he prayed with great focus, Reb Azriel saw a spring at some distance. He dragged himself to the water and with great gratitude to God, made the blessing for water and drank. After finishing, he made the final blessing for the water and looked out at the sea. “If God saved me from thirst,” he thought, “surely he will also save me from this island.”

Azriel’s confidence in God was not for naught and not long after that, he saw a ship approaching the island. It didn’t look like the ship planned to stop. Azriel waved his arms and shouted with all his might. The sailors saw him and brought him on board. The ship was on its way back to Europe, but Reb Azriel did not complain. All the money that he had taken with him was on the first ship and without it, he had nothing to do in his original destination.

When Reb Azriel reached Europe, he began to wander from place to place with a band of beggars. Slowly but surely, he came closer to his home in Mezritch. On one hand, Reb Azriel was happy to return home. On the other hand, he was afraid of the governor’s wrath when he would return to him empty-handed.

Even before they reached Mezritch, the beggars began to talk about Reb Azriel and his wife and all their acts of kindness, hoping to reach their home. But the closer they got to the town, bits and pieces of news began to trickle in: First about the governor, who had died and left his inheritance to someone who knew nobody in the area. Afterwards, there was news that lightening had hit Reb Azriel’s house and burned all of his possession. The family was fine, thank God, but Azriel was left penniless.

When Azriel arrived in Mezritch, he ran straight to the Maggid and found the door open and his rabbi waiting for him with open arms. Reb Azriel fell before the Maggid and tearfully related all that had befallen him, asking: What will be now? The Maggid serenely answered, “What are you worried about? I will continue giving you eight gold coins per week…”

“But Rebbe!” Reb Azriel cried, “I used to be poor, and even then, the eight coins were not enough. Now I have become used to great wealth. What good will eight golden coins do me?”

“On the deserted island,” the Maggid answered, “there were two reincarnated Jewish souls that had been there for hundreds of years. No Jews had passed through that place, and they had been waiting for their rectification for a long time. When you came and made those two blessings, you performed a great rectification for those two souls. Everything that befell you was so that you could save those souls and now, you should be happy with that.”

There are three main characters in this story: Reb Azriel the chassid, his kind-hearted wife, and the Maggid of Mezritch. Each of them teaches us an important lesson and we will attempt to give each of them a voice.

Let us begin with the Maggid, who, from his room, navigates the ups and downs of his disciple’s life. From the path upon which the Maggid took Reb Azriel, we can learn that many people have three main time-periods in their lives: Torah, livelihood and Torah once again. As opposed to other stories in which leaving the beit midrash turns out to be a tragic move, in our story, it is an essential process, directed from above by the Maggid. Beyond the rectification of the souls, we can understand the Maggid’s mode of operation with a parable that he related:

Two wealthy people lived in one city. One was very wealthy and the other – reasonably wealthy. The townspeople liked the very wealthy man, while they were jealous of the reasonably wealthy man. Why? Because the very wealthy man had many expenses, and most of his money came in and went out. The reasonably wealthy man, however, made less money, but did not have many expenses.

The Maggid explained that the two wealthy men are two Torah scholars. The scholar who studies Torah for its own sake is the wealthy man with many expenses. Every law and Torah teaching that he learns are immediately expressed by him in his actions or his service of God. A person who studies Torah in order to make himself great is like a “mouse who lies on gold coins.” What good is all his Torah? Reb Azriel was sent to earn his livelihood because the Torah has to affect mundane reality. Without this, his Torah becomes a Torah of personal acquisition. Although his actions certainly brought about great joy Above, ultimately the abode of kindness he built was burnt to the ground and he was sent to learn Torah once again. These are God’s most hidden ways, secrets of the world.

Reb Azriel teaches us how to remain a chassid and a person who studies Torah for its own sake in all situations. He cleaves to his Rebbe even after he leaves the beit midrash and as soon as he reaches Mezritch, he rushes to see him. All his adventures did not move him from his place with his Rebbe, just as even at the pinnacle of his fear and thirst, he does not forget to thank God and trust in Him.

Despite our admiration for Reb Azriel and of course, for the holy foresight of the Maggid, it is Reb Azriel’s wife who is the most important character in this story. From doing nothing at the beginning of the story, she establishes a major food and charity outlet, and in her own way, turns the wheels of the events. Her acts of kindness prove that her requests of her husband stemmed from true need and not greed. And true to form, the end of the story is different than what we may have expected and Reb Azriel does not experience a spiritual descent.

The story does not tell us, but we can guess that this woman of valor did not easily surrender her life’s work of kindness and demanded (and received) revealed good—both Torah and funds for the continued functioning of her charity project. Even if that is not the case, in our generation it is clear that taking action is our primary goal—taking action to perform acts of kindness for others and to illuminate the world with consciousness of God, which literally brings Mashiach down to earth.


Photo by Daniel Öberg on Unsplash

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