To Set Sail on a Rickety Boat: Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk

By Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh

Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk was one of the great disciples of the Maggid of Mezeritch. He was born to his father, Rebbe Moshe, who was a disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov. He was orphaned at an early age and grew up in the home of the Rav the Maggid of Mezeritch. The Maggid even took him with him when he would travel to the Ba’al Shem Tov. When the Rav the Maggid passed away and as per his will, Rebbe Menachem Mendel became the leader of the Chassidim in White Russia and Lithuania. In an attempt to calm the rift and accusations against Chassidut within the Jewish communities, Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk travelled together with the Alter Rebbe in order to meet the Vilna Gaon. The Vilna Gaon, however, pressured by his family, evaded the meeting and exited the city until Rebbe Menachem Mendel and the Alter Rebbe departed the city, as well.

In 5637, Rebbe Menachem Mendel made aliyah together with 300 of his Chassidim. This was a very significant number of people to make aliyah as a group in that era. He first settled in Peki’in, then moved to Tzfat and finally to Tiberias, where his congregation settled.
Rebbe Menachem Mendel conducted himself and his court in a royal manner on an external level. Rebbe Yaakov Yosef of Polna’ah said that Rebbe Menachem Mendel conceals his deep lowliness specifically in what could be misinterpreted as grandeur. Rebbe Menachem Mendel would sign his letters with the addition, “the truly lowly”. Despite his youth, the disciples of the Ba’al Shem Tov admired him and Rebbe Pinchas of Kuritz even called him “the king of Israel.”

Rebbe Menachem Mendel died on the first of Iyar, 5648 and was buried in the ancient cemetery of Tiberias, in the section of the students of the Ba’al Shem Tov. His student, Rebbe Elazar Zusman, gathered the words of Torah that he would speak on Shabbat into the book, “Pri Ha’aretz.”
From many stories about Rebbe Menachem Mendel, we can learn the correct path of the true tzaddikim in all that is connected to establishing the Jewish community in the Land of Israel. In the following story, we will also learn why it is so important to do so:

To Continue the Ways of the Tzaddikim of the Land of Israel.

When Rebbe Menachem Mendel and his followers reached Istanbul, on their way to the Land of Israel, they went to the port to choose a boat for the last leg of their journey. There were new, strong and safe boats at the port, but surprisingly, Rebbe Menachem Mendel chose an old, rickety boat anchored at the side of the port. Rebbe Menachem Mendel’s decision also had to stand up to the test of a great storm that descended upon the travelers on the sea. The boat almost broke apart and Rebbe Mendel’s special prayer that miraculously quieted the sea is the topic for another story. Why did the Rebbe choose this particular rickety boat? He sensed with his ruach hakodesh (holy spirit) that a spirit of holiness dwelled on the old boat. Later, they learned that approximately forty years earlier, Rebbe Elazar Rokeach, author of “Ma’aseh Rokeach,” had made aliyah with that boat.

One year after he was appointed Chief Rabbi of the important congregation of Amsterdam, Rebbe Elazar Rokeach, at the age of about 50, left his position and made aliyah to the Land of Israel with a messianic goal. Similar to the aliyah attempt of the Ba’al Shem Tov, who saw that if he would meet the holy Or Hachaim in Israel, they would be able to bring the redemption (the Ba’al Shem Tov did not manage to reach the shores of Israel), so Rebbe Elazar Rokeach hoped to bring the redemption by meeting one of the tzaddikim of the Land of Israel at that time – Rebbe Nachman of Horodonka. Rebbe Nachman of Horodonka was the grandfather of Rebbe Nachman of Breslev, who was named after him. He is also buried in the section of the disciples of the Ba’al Shem Tov in Tiberias. Ultimately (and as the Ba’al Shem Tov himself foresaw), Rebbe Elazar passed away within the year of his arrival in Israel, and never did meet Rebbe Nachman of Horodonka, who was overseas during that time.

Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, who also made aliyah with a messianic consciousness, preferred to travel with his hundreds of followers on a physically rickety but spiritually safe boat, as he saw that a spirit of holiness of a special tzaddik of the tzaddikim of the previous generation who had made aliyah, dwelled upon it.

This is an important lesson for our generation: Those who have merited that their mission in life is in the Land of Israel, building and developing it with the purpose of hastening the true and complete redemption (establishing the Kingdom of Israel in the path of the Torah in the Land of Israel, until the fulfillment of all the goals of the redemption in the Land) should identify with the tzaddikim who preceded them in this task, even if they must employ self-sacrifice. Even if it seems that there are newer, safer ways that will have more chance of success, we must continue in the boat of the tzaddikim of previous generations – identify with them, with their love of the Land of Israel that was part of their complete cleaving to the ways of holiness and with an aspiration for the true and complete redemption. It is specifically with this rickety boat that we will reach our destination, with God’s help.

Financial Independence in the Land of Israel

There are another two stories connected to the same point:

“I heard from the Admo”r, author of the Birkat Avraham: In the beginning, when Rebbe Mendele arrived in the Land of Israel, he settled in Peki’in. His plan was that they would work the land for half a day and study Torah for half a day. The ba’al davar came to him and told him that if he would not leave Peki’in, he would be leaving the world entirely. The ba’al davar threatened to focus strictly upon him. With no option to remain, Rebbe Menachem Mendel left Peki’in. If he had remained there, it would have been possible for him to exchange in Heaven all the abundance to the entire world so that it would come specifically from the Land of Israel. The ba’al davar did not agree to this.” (Vayehi Or, page 120)

Before his aliyah, Rebbe Menachem Mendel founded the Kollel Reicin (and appointed the Alter Rebbe to head the Kollel) in order to attend to the financial needs of his followers who would be making aliyah with him. One time, the messenger who was to bring the funds raised overseas for the community in Tiberias was delayed, and starvation set in. When his followers complained to Rebbe Menachem Mendel, he replied, “Of course you are hungry. But why think about it all day? Do as I do: In the morning, I am hungry for about a quarter of an hour, which is the time that I am accustomed to eat breakfast. After that, I continue with my day. The same is true of the other meals. When you have food, you do not eat all day. And when there is no food, it is enough to be hungry at mealtime.”

The words of the Rebbe sounded to them like an attempt to cheer them up, which did not fit their mood, and they continued to complain. Then the Rebbe said that he sees with his ruach hakodesh that the messenger is already nearby and that they can borrow money to buy food on credit. Later, Rebbe Menachem Mendel sorrowfully pointed out that if they had listened to his advice and held out for just a short time more, they would have absolved themselves of their dependence on funds from overseas and the community would have enjoyed financial independence.

These are deep and very significant stories that are very relevant to the time period in which we are involved with the independence of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel. The tzaddikim of the previous generations desired to achieve financial independence for the God-fearing Jewish community in the Land of Israel. (Here we can also highlight the response of the Avnei Nezer, who says that the mitzvah of settlement of the Land of Israel is fulfilled only when one makes his living from it. The author of the “Lev Ha’ivri”, Rabbi Akiva Yosef Schlezinger, who passed away on the first of Iyar, as well, also strived in speech and action to establish agricultural settlements in the Land of Israel – for the financial independence of the Jewish community in Israel).

“The Land of Israel is acquired through hardship.” In order to achieve true independence we must safeguard our pure faith, expanded consciousness and focus our needs on what is truly necessary. In light of the previous story, we can say that in order to achieve pure Jewish independence, we sometimes have to forgo comfortable, safe and plush options and cling – while withstanding the trial and sufficing with little – to the ways of the true tzaddikim who aspire to pure Jewish independence and Fear of Heaven.

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