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 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 Toltshin and began learning Kabbalah. Later, he was a maggid (a preacher) in several villages.
As soon as Rabbi Dov Ber came to the Ba’al Shem Tov, he became his principal disciple. A Chabad tradition relates that following 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 teacher, the Ba’al Shem Tov, who would travel from place to place, the Maggid remained in Mezritch and from there sent his students to teach Torah and establish centers of Chasidic 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 Chasidic aliyah to the Land of Israel was fueled by the Maggid’s disciples, 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, abbi Zusha of Anapoli and Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, Rabbi Aharon the Great of Karlin, the brothers Rabbi Pinchas Ba’al Hahafla’ah and Rabbi Shmelkeh of Nikolsburg, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Hakohen, Rabbi Ze’ev of Zhitomer, and many more.
In the kloiz (study hall) in Ruzhin, the chasidim sat down for the fourth meal of the Shabbat, the meal that escorts the Shabbat as it departs, and the new week begins. Rebbe Yisrael of Ruzhin opened the door from his room, which was adjacent to the synagogue. He stood in the doorway and said: “You should know that the Ba’al Shem Tov was not the “as it were” (a connotation for the Almighty) and my grandfather, the Maggid of Mezritch, was not a simple wagon driver.” Then he told the following story:
Once, the Ba’al Shem Tov was leading the prayers and his prayer shawl was hanging over his belt. My grandfather, the Maggid, approached the Ba’al Shem Tov and folded the prayer shawl under his belt. Fear of God fell upon the Maggid and he began to tremble. He was in such great danger that they had to interrupt the Ba’al Shem Tov in the middle of his service of cleaving to God, so that he could calm the Maggid down. And I already told you that the Ba’al Shem Tov was not the “as it were” and my grandfather the Maggid was not a wagon driver.
Nevertheless, when he [the Maggid] touched the Ba’al Shem Tov’s garment, he was overcome with such great fear. And now just think: The entire world is the garment of the Holy Blessed One. His holiness, as it were, is enclothed in all His creations. If we understand this, how fearful we should be when we touch something in this world.
Indeed, this makes sense. Why then are we not overcome by fear, as was the Maggid? Perhaps because of the concealment that shrouds the world and does not allow us to sense God, Who conceals Himself. The Ba’al Shem Tov, conversely, was a tzaddik who was completely consumed with cleaving to God and did not conceal himself so much. But this is only a partial answer.
In the future, the prophet Zechariah relates, it will be revealed that the Jewish People are royalty and that God’s limitless revelation illuminates through them. Ten non-Jews will try to cling to the corner of a garment of one Jew. The value of “the corner of a Jew” (כְּנַף אִישׁ יְהוּדִי) is 496, the same as “kingdom” (מַלְכוּת). In the future it will be revealed that all Jews are royalty. If so, how will the non-Jews of the world be able to approach the Jews without being overcome by fear?
It could be that the answer is in the words of the Ruzhiner: “My grandfather the Maggid was not a wagon driver.” With his words he was showing that the gap between the Ba’al Shem Tov and the Maggid was not as great as it may seem from the story. But it also illuminates another point: The great refinement that the Maggid achieved, as opposed to the image of a rather coarse wagon driver.
It is related that the Maggid was able to purify his body to such a great extent that it seemed he was physically transparent. Perhaps this heightened sensitivity to the Ba’al Shem Tov’s level of cleaving to God stems from the fact that—unlike a wagon driver or any other person who is not so pure and transparent—the Maggid powerfully sensed spiritual realities that we cannot even think of. Furthermore, we see the unique connection between the Maggid and his Rebbe, the Ba’al Shem Tov. If the Ba’al Shem Tov was cleaving to the Creator, the Maggid also connected to this spiritual level.
This sensitivity to the Ba’al Shem Tov’s spiritual position is a characteristic of the soul’s faculty of knowledge (da’at). To be a person with da’at does not only mean that one has a well-developed intellect. It also refers to the ability to connect (as in the verse in Genesis, “And Adam knew his wife, Eve” ) to ever more refined, ephemeral insights. A wagon driver would not have connected to cleaving to God; it is simply outside the realm of his spiritual capabilities. But the Maggid of Mezritch was not a wagon driver, and he trembled from contact with someone cleaving to God.
From the standard set by the Ruzhiner Rebbe, we learn that it is possible and expected of us to broaden our faculty of da’at and to always increase our sensitivity to the concealed Divinity found within everything in this world.