Weekly Chasidic Story #997 (s5777-15 / 11 Tevet 5777)

The Story of the Story of His Life

The Besht, the Maggid, The Baal HaToldos and Menachem Mendel of Horodok/Vitebsk

Connection: Weekly Reading -- "Come together, and I will tell you what will happen in the course of time. Come and listen...." (Gen. 49:1-5, translation from "The Living Torah")

The Story of the Story of His Life

When the Rebbe-to-be, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Horodok/ Vitebsk was a young boy, he was tutored in Torah by the Great Maggid of Mezrich, Rabbi DovBer (successor to the Baal Shem Tov). By his tenth year, the child had already amazed all who knew him with his Talmudic knowledge and acuity. The Maggid was very fond of him.

One Shabbat day, after the main meal, the Maggid spied young Menachem striding speedily back and forth, in high spirits. The Maggid called out to him:

"Mendel, how many pages of Gemara (Talmud) did you complete today?"

"Six," replied the child prodigy happily.

Gazing in another direction, the Maggid spoke as if to himself. "If from six pages of Gemara his hat slips to a rakish angle on his head, how many pages will he need to learn until it falls off his head completely?" Then he went into his room and closed the door.

Young Mendel realized that he had gone too far, and began to weep profusely. He ran to his teacher's door and, while knocking strongly, cried out through his tears, "Please let me in, my Master and Teacher, and advise me what to do. I understand now that my successful studies have made me overly proud."

"Don't worry," the Maggid assured the boy. "In a few days you and I will travel together to our great master, the Baal Shem Tov (Besht), and he will direct each of us regarding how we should conduct ourselves."

On Tuesday the Maggid and Menachem Mendel set out, finally reaching Mezhibuz, where the Baal Shem Tov lived, on Friday. After securing lodging, the Maggid hurried to the Besht's house to present himself to his Rebbe. Young Menachem Mendel, however, stayed behind; he wished to bathe and carefully comb his hair. As a boy, his neatness distinguished him further from his age-mates.In later years, even as a Rebbe, he retained the trait of being meticulous about his personal appearance.

When the Maggid arrived, the Besht was already standing in his place in the front of the shul, prepared to lead the joyous prayers for receiving the Shabbat in mid-afternoon as was his custom to do. Nevertheless, he delayed starting for two whole hours, until the boy arrived. He said not a word to him, however, throughout the entire Shabbat.

Only on Saturday night, after the havdala ceremony concluding the Shabbat, did the Baal Shem Tov acknowledge young Menachem Mendel. Drawing on his pipe, he called Mendel over and told him a long, involved story. The tale hinted at all the events in the life of Rabbi Menachem-Mendel of Horodok/Vitebsk, from the day he was born until the day he would pass away in the Holy Land, in Tiberias.

The Maggid was present during the telling of the story, as was another of the main disciples of the Besht, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye. Afterwards, one of them said he understood the whole story while the other said that he understood just half. It is no longer known which man made which statement. Young Mendel himself said that he understood only until that day.

Later that evening, the Besht told the Maggid that the boy appeared to be genuinely humble. Consequently, as an adult , Rabbi Menachem-Mendel would sign his correspondence, "One who is truly lowly."

Years later, when Menachem Mendel reached full adulthood, it became clear that by then he understood the whole story. Once, while still living in Horodok, he became seriously ill. The Jews of his town, the entire province of Lvov, and the surrounding areas were in tears. It seemed imminent that their holy rebbe and leader would be recalled to Heaven. The anguished wails of those in the room stirred him to consciousness.

Said Rabbi Menachem-Mendel to them: "You needn't worry. Long ago, our master, the Baal Shem Tov, told me a tale. From that story, I know there is still a period of my life when I will be living in the Holy Land."

And so it happened. The Rebbe recovered fully, and in 1778 he led the "Chassidic Aliyah" to Israel. On the way out of Europe, the Rebbe made a point of stopping in Polnoye, in order to visit Rabbi Yaakov-Yosef (also known as "the Toldos"). He took a room in a local inn, and, after tidying himself, removing his gartel (chasidic sash) and lighting a long pipe, set out to see the Rabbi.

When the local Chasidim saw that he was going to their great rabbi without a belt and smoking a pipe, they became afraid for him. "Don't you know that the Rabbi is very strict in matters of appearance? We pity you. Anyone who comes before him with such ostentatiousness exposes himself to danger!"

The Vitebsker paid them no attention. To the surprise of the Chasidim, the tzadik welcomed him with warmth and respect. After exchanging greetings, the host asked his guest, "Where are you up to in the story [I heard the Baal Shem Tov tell you when you were a boy]?"

The younger man sighed. "I'm already more than halfway through."

"And do you understand that the story hints that you would come to visit me?"

"I know, I know. That is why I traveled by this particular route, in order to see the Grand Rabbi."

They then conversed for several hours, forging a bond of affection. When the Vitebsker took his leave, the Toldos escorted him all the way to his lodgings.

Later that evening, the followers of Rabbi Yaakov-Yosef asked him, "What is so special about that young man who came before you with such arrogance, without a belt and smoking a long pipe? Why, he even has silver-embroidered laces on his shoes!"

Rabbi Yaakov-Yosef turned to them, saying, "Let me tell you a parable. There was once a king who possessed a large, perfectly formed pearl, worth a small fortune. The king was worried that because of the great value of the gem, the cleverest of thieves would come to steal it, and would succeed in finding it no matter how well he hid it. So what did the king do? He hid the jewel in the outhouse, confident that it would never occur to anyone that such a precious item would be hidden in such a despicable location.

"That's the way it is with Rabbi Menachem-Mendel. He is lowly in his own eyes and as humble as can be. But he is concerned that if his clothing or appearance were to reflect his humility, such a display could nourish the 'other side.' So he conceals his humility in a repulsive place: a prideful appearance!"


Source: Translated and adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from Sipurei Chasidim-Torah (Bahalotecha) by Rabbi S. Y. Zevin

Biographical notes (in order of birth):
Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer [of blessed memory: 18 Elul 5458- 6 Sivan 5520 (Aug. 1698 - May 1760 C.E.)], the Baal Shem Tov ["Master of the Good Name"-often referred to as "the Besht" for short], a unique and seminal figure in Jewish history, revealed his identity as an exceptionally holy person, on his 36th birthday, 18 Elul 5494 (1734 C.E.), and made the until-then underground Chasidic movement public. He wrote no books, although many works claim to contain his teachings. One available in English is the excellent annotated translation of Tzava'at Harivash, published by Kehos.

Rabbi Dov Ber [of blessed memory: c.5460 - 19 Kislev 5533 (c.1700- Dec. 1772 C.E.)], the son of Avraham and Chava, known as the Maggid of Mezritch, succeeded his master, the Baal Shem Tov, as the head of the Chasidic movement. Most of the leading Chasidic dynasties originate from his disciples and his descendents. The classic anthologies of his teachings are Likutei Amarim and Torah Ohr (combined by Kehas Publishing as Maggid Devorav l'Yaakov), and Ohr HaEmmes.

Rabbi Yaakov Yosef HaKohain of Polnoye [5470 - 24 Tishrei 5542** (1710 - Oct. 1781 C.E.)] was one of the earliest and closest rabbinical disciples of the Baal Shem Tov. He was the first person to author a book of Chassidic teachings, titled Toldos Yaakov Yosef, which had a revolutionary effect upon publication. Subsequently, he published two other chasidic classics, Ben Porat Yosef and Ketonet Passim. These three books were the earliest chief printed sources for teachings in the name of the Baal Shem Tov. He is often referred to as the "Baal HaToldos," after his first and most famous work.
* Not certain, some say 5544 (1783) and some say 5551 (1790).


Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk/Horodok [of blessed memory: 5490 - 1 Iyar 5548 (1730 - May 1788 C.E.)] was an elder disciple of the Maggid of Mizritch and one of the earliest chasidic rebbes. He led the first modern aliyah to Israel, in 5537 (1777 C.E.), where he and three hundred chasidim and others settled in Tzefat (Safed). After a few years most of the group moved to Tiberias, where he is buried in the "Students of the Baal Shem Tov" section of the Old Cemetery. His works include Pri HaAretz and Likutei Amarim.


Connection: Weekly Reading -- "Come together, and I will tell you what will happen in the course of time. Come and listen..." (Gen. 49:1-5, translation from "The Living Torah").

Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.

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