(Rabbi Levi Yitzhak was one of the Magguid’s students)
Born: Lukatch, Volhynia, 1704
Died: Hanipol, 1772
When Dov Ber was a small child of five, his parents’ home was consumed by fire. The child was upset by his mother’s display of grief and he asked her: “Mother, is it right to grieve so much for the loss of our house?” “God forbid, ” she replied, “I am not grieving because of the loss of the house, but over the loss of the document of our family tree burnt in the fire. That document traced our descent to Rabbi Yochanan HaSandlar who was a direct descendant of King David.” “If so,” replied the child, “with God’s help, I shall start for you a new dynasty.”
Young Dov Ber, the future Maggid of Mezritch, was the son of a poor melamed (teacher of young boys). A brilliant student, he went to Lemberg to study in the yeshivah of Rabbi Yaakov Yehoshua, the celebrated author of Penei Yehoshua. Dov Ber married young and earned a meager living as a teacher in a small village. There in the privacy of the modest hamlet, he perfected his knowledge of Torah and began to delve into the mysteries of Kabbalah.
A gifted orator and original thinker, he served as maggid, or preacher, in Turshin, Koritz, and Dubno. Like most of the early masters of Chassidism, he was initially a fierce opponent of the new chassidic movement. Once when he was gravely ill, someone suggested that he visited the Baal Shem Tov, who was known as a healer. The encounter proved to be the turning point in Rabbi Dov Ber’s life. He became the Baal Shem’s ardent follower and the foremost emissary of his time for Chassidism. After the Baal Shem’s death, the mantle of leadership passed to the Maggid (in which he served for 11 years until his death), who established Mezritch as the new center of Chassidut. Under his guidance the movement expanded rapidly, despite its numerous adversaries. His students fanned out through the entire region, tirelessly spreading the chassidic message of hope, consolation, and faith-and above all, joy in the service of God and the fulfillment of mitzvot.
The conflict that erupted between the established Torah community and the Chassidic movement led to a rift within Eastern European Jewry, which took a century and a half to heal. The second leader of the Chassidic movement, R’ Dov Ber, was the consolidator of the movement, following the kindling of its flame by the Baal Shem. He broadened its base. He institutionalized its vaulting vision. He attracted a brilliant following, who, within one generation, won tens of thousands of devotees to the cause. No less important, the condemnation faced by the movement stimulated its leadership and following to demonstrate that Chassidism was not guilty of the accusations leveled against it. Torah luminaries of the first order were among its mentors and leaders. Total devotion to the practice of Jewish Law became one of its central emphases. In time, the Chassidic movement became a decisive element within the Torah community. The debate remained alive only over emphasis, no longer over root principles. In fact, both parties came to defend a common Torah against the onslaught of rising tide of enlightenment and secularization.
Some of the most illustrious Torah scholars and tzaddikim of that age were among the Maggid’s students: Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg and his brother Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz of Frankfurt, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, Rabbi Nachum of Chernoble, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk and his brother Rabbi Zusha of Anapoli, Rabbi Zev Wolf of Zotamir, Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, and many others. The Maggid’s only son was the saintly Rabbi Avraham HaMalach (the Angel)(1740-1776).
The Maggid himself did not write any books. His thoughts were recorded and published by his students under the titles Maggid Devarav Le’Yaakov, Ohr Torah, and Ohr Ha’Emet.
The Maggid’s greatness was that he nurtured the seed that had been sown by the Baal Shem Tov, and made it grow into a healthy young tree, a tree that continues to bear abundant fruit to this day.
A Tzaddik Leaves this World
The Maggid was on his deathbed. On Monday, 18 Kislev 1772, his son, Rabbi Avraham HaMalach, was by his side, along with R’ Yehudah Leib HaCohen and R’ Shneur Zalman. “My children, if you stay together, you will overcome everything. You will continually progress without backsliding, Heaven forbid, as it is written: ‘He is unified, and who can turn Him back?’ [Iyov 23:13].”
The Maggid then lapsed into a lengthy silence, closed his eyes, and appeared to doze. R’ Zusha tiptoed into the room, and the Maggid awoke and beckoned him with a weak motion of his hand. As he approached the Maggid’s bed, the master grasped R’ Zusha’s right hand, looked into his eyes, and whispered in a faint but clear voice: “You, Zusia, are mine in this world, and in the next world you will be next to me, as body and soul are joined.” His head fell onto the pillow as his strength faded, but his eyes remained fixed on R. Zusha. Again he drifted off into slumber. “Where is Menachem Mendel?” he asked upon awakening, his voice even weaker than before. “Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk is not here,” replied R’ Shneur Zalman. “Is R’ Yehudah Leib HaCohen here?” the Maggid inquired, sounding like his end was very near. “R. Yehudah Leib HaCohen is here,” answered R’ Shneur Zalman.
As R. Yehudah Leib drew near the bed, the Maggid lifted his head off the pillow and took R. Yehudah Leib’s right hand. “You will also be close to me,” he told him, “for the ‘lips of a Kohen guard knowledge’ [Malachi 1:7] and knowledge is my realm.” His lips moved distinctively, his voice clear and sure. He then turned to R’ Shneur Zalman. “Zalmanyu,” he said, “give me your hand. You will remain alone, you are for yourself – you have your own way. You will need a lot of help from Heaven. I will yearn for you very much, and God willing, I will save you from all your troubles.”
After bidding his other disciples farewell, he cried, “Where’s Avraham? Where are you, my son? I don’t see you!” They found him locked away in his room and brought him to the Maggid. “Avraham,” he said in an unmuffled voice that had regained some strength, “I don’t have to tell you anything. Continue on your holy path. Listen to Zalmanyu and things will be good for you. But above all, do not afflict yourself, for a small hole in your body can leave a large hole in the soul, and your neshamah is unique.” The Maggid stared intently at his son for a long while, awaiting a reply. But the Malach was silent. At this point the Maggid said, “good-night,” closed his eyes, and fell asleep. On the 19th of Kislev, wrapped in Tefillin, his face aflame, the Maggid returned his soul to its Maker.
His First Shabbat With The Baal Shem Tov
R’ Dov Ber arrived on Erev Shabbat and spent Shabbat with the Baal Shem. At the Friday night seudah (meal), the Maggid listened attentively, hoping to hear teachings affecting Heaven and Earth.
“Once I was traveling with Alexi, the wagoneer,” recalled the Baal Shem. “We came to the middle of the forest and there was no more hay for the horses. We didn’t know what to do until, thank God, a non-Jew passed by with his horse and gave us some hay.” With that the Baal Shem said Birkat HaMazon and the meal was over.
The Maggid was horrified. “Instead of delving into the depths of man’s soul,” he thought, “he speaks about horses!” He considered absenting himself from the second Shabbat seudah, lest he waste even more time. But he didn’t want to embarrass his host and hoped that this time things would be different.
The next day, the Baal Shem recollected how he and Alexi had once traveled through parched fields under a scorching sun, with no water to drink and no spring or well in sight. They wouldn’t reach the nearest town until evening. Suddenly, like a Godsend, a non-Jew appeared carrying water buckets. When they asked what he was doing in such a remote place, he replied, “I don’t know myself. My feudal lord seems to have lost his senses. He sent me on a three-day journey through the forest and fields with these buckets, and today is the third day.”
The Maggid understood that these stories were intended to demonstrate G-d’s providence. It was the Baal Shem’s way of instilling emunah in people by means of parables and mundane stories. What he didn’t know was that they contained deep wisdom as well. He decided to skip the Third Meal and return home immediately after Shabbat, without even seeking a cure or spiritual guidance.
There wasn’t enough moonlight to begin the return journey home. At midnight R’ Dov Ber was summoned to the Baal Shem. His host inquired if he knew how to learn Kabbalah. When the Maggid replied affirmatively, the Baal Shem asked him to explain a passage in Etz Chaim (Tree of Life) by R’ Chaim Vital, a disciple of the Ari Hakadosh.
The Maggid studied the passage for a few minutes and proceeded with his explanation. “You don’t know anything!” declared the Baal Shem. The Maggid reread the passage. “My interpretation is correct,” he maintained. “Tell me yours and we’ll see who’s right.”
The Baal Shem grasped the book, and his face began to shine. He told R’ Dov Ber to stand. Light filled the room, and the Baal Shem was encircled by fire. The Maggid saw angels appear as the Baal Shem recited their names, and suddenly he understood the lofty secrets hidden within the text. At this point, the Maggid could no longer stand, and the Baal Shem showed him to a bed. The Maggid later related, “I no longer saw him, but for two hours I heard sounds and beheld awesome fire and lightning. I became very frightened and fainted.” The Baal Shem later told the Maggid, “Your interpretation was correct, but you were learning only the ‘body’ of the hidden Torah. Now you have penetrated its ‘soul.'” R’ Dov Ber remained in Medzibozh…
Lessons from the Baal Shem
Not everything the Maggid learned in Medzibozh was taught through books. When the Maggid asked the Baal Shem Tov to explain why the Zohar states that the verse “And these are the judgments…” (Shmot 21:1), refers to the secret of reincarnation, he told his disciple to go to a forest and stand near a tree by a stream. the Maggid did so, and soon a well-dressed, wealthy-looking man came by, rested in the shade of the tree, and drank from the stream. He then left, but forgot his wallet. Another passerby found the forgotten wallet, pocketed it, and walked off. Then a wretched-looking pauper lay down beneath the tree to rest from his wearying journey. Before he could close his eyes, the first man came back in search of his lost wallet, accused the poor man of its theft, and beat him relentlessly.
The Maggid, perplexed, returned to Medzibozh, where his mentor explained what had taken place. “In their first incarnation on this earth,” said the Baal Shem Tov, “one man took another to court, demanding a certain sum of money. Though the man’s claim was well-founded, the judge negligently dismissed the case. In their return to this earth, the man who actually owed the money lost his wallet, which contained just the sum under dispute. The man who ought to have collected that sum in court found the wallet. The pauper had been, in his first incarnation, the judge, so he was roundly beaten because he’d caused the debtor to sin by keeping money not rightfully his. Thus, each got what he deserved! That, then,” he concluded, “is the meaning of the Zohar – ‘the secret of reincarnation.'”
The Best Doctor…
Passing through Mezritch on business, a distinguished Jew from Vilna who had heard great things about the Maggid decided to see for himself. Although he expected to hear words of Torah from the Maggid, R’ Dov Ber simply told him, “Medicines do not always cure a person. Sometimes the mere presence of a doctor can heal, for each physician is accompanied by a Heavenly healing force, and the best are escorted by Raphael [the angel of healing] himself.” The puzzled man dismissed these words as meaningless, and resumed his business. When he returned home to Vilna, he took ill. The doctors were helpless, and his condition worsened. He lost his voice, and his family began to lose hope.
Meanwhile, a German Jew named Dr. Aharon Gordia had left Judaism to become the personal physician to the king of Prussia and his ministers. he happened to be in Vilna, and the family of the sick Jew sought him out. When Dr. Gordia entered the Jew’s home and saw that the man’s life was ebbing away, he grew angry. “I am only a doctor,” he declared. “I cannot resurrect the dead!” The family members apologized to him as he prepared to leave. As he stood to depart, he noticed that the patient’s face showed signs of improvement. “There’s still hope,” he announced as he took the man’s pulse. Dr. Gordia sent someone for some medicine, but before the envoy returned he saw that the patient had improved further, so he sent for a weaker remedy. This happened several times, until the Jew regained consciousness.
“Doctor, please – just sit next to me,” he implored. “A Rebbe told me that if a great doctor comes to see a patient, the angel Raphael himself comes with him, and a sick person can be cured without any medicines. Now that you’re here and I’ve revived, I am convinced that the Rebbe was right. So please stay with me until I recover.” Astounded, Dr. Gordia took down the Rebbe’s name and address, gave the patient some medicine, and eventually left. he was deeply impressed with everything he’d heard about the Maggid, and a long-extinguished spark of Jewishness was rekindled within him. He remembered his youth, his parents’ home, and the Jewish festivals, and developed a thirst to return to his faith.
Dr. Gordia came to Mezritch in a magnificent carriage, and prepared himself to meet the Maggid by resolving to change his indulgent lifestyle. “I’ve waited a long time for you,” said the Maggid upon greeting him. “Now, I will heal your soul, and you will heal my body.” Over the months, Dr. Gordia purified his soul and learned a great deal of Torah, becoming a Tzaddik, a scholar, and a devotee of the Maggid.
The Maggid in Prayer
R’ Yaakov Yitzchak of Lublin, later know as the Chozeh (Seer) of Lublin, first came to the Maggid in his youth. The Maggid used to pray alone each morning, and only towards the end of his prayers would he summon nine of his best students to form a minyan. R’ Yaakov Yitzchak once tried to be among the privileged nine, but the master requested someone else, branding him a batlan (idler). When they couldn’t find anyone else, though, he remained to complete the minyan. As the Maggid began to recite Ein K’Elokeinu (There is None Like Our God), R’ Yaakov Yitzchak fainted, and was revived only with great difficulty. “Didn’t I tell you not to let that young man in?” the Maggid said. “When I recited Ein K’Elokeinu, he saw the Heavenly host and immediately became frightened and fainted. Someone with eyes of flesh wouldn’t have seen anything at all.” “At that moment,” recalled the Chozeh, “all seven firmaments opened before my eyes, and I saw clearly that ‘there is none like our God.'”
Observing Thieves at Work…
A Jew once spent shabbat with the Maggid and then went on his way. En route, he decided to rest, and tied his packages to a nearby tree. When he awoke, his Tallit and Tefillin were gone.
When he heard what had happened, the Maggid instructed his visitor to attend a brit milah (circumcision), in the next town. One of the poor people there, whom the Maggid carefully described, was the culprit. The victim was told to ask for his belongings back, and if the poor man denied taking them, he was to repeat his demand in the name of the Maggid. These directives worked, but the thief agreed to return the stolen goods only in the presence of the Maggid.
When they came to Mezritch, the poor man said to the Maggid, “I see you are very perceptive, and I can’t deny your claim. But do you have nothing else to do but observe thieves at work?” “I was in the lavatory at the time. Only there does one see such things,” the Maggid answered.
What did R’ Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev learn in Mezritch? “There is a Creator who directs the universe.”
“But everyone knows that!”
“No!” he replied. “Everyone says it, but I know it!”
“Before I came to my master, the Maggid of Mezritch,” said R’ Yisrael, the Maggid of Kozhnitz, “I learned eight hundred books of Kabbalah. But when I met him, I discovered that I hadn’t begun to learn!”
May the merit of the tzaddik Rabbi Dov Ber – The Maggid of Mezritch protect us all, Amen.