The clock struck one and the melamed closed his Chumash with a satisfied smile, as did the little boys surrounding him. Soon the fields surrounding the small shtetl were filled with the playful shouts and laughter of the cheder boys.
Following them at a distance, their Rebbi noticed one boy standing, hands outstretched, his head turned towards the open field and his eyes gazing heavenward.
"Tzomo Lecho nafshi," the melamed heard him saying, " . . . my heart and flesh sing to the living G-d!"
"Ahhh," mused the melamed to himself knowingly. "Little Menachem Mendel is destined for greatness."
After he married, Reb Menachem Mendel went to live in Tomashov, the hometown of his father-in-law. There he sat absorbed in his Torah, oblivious to his surroundings and, in fact, to Olam Hazeh altogether.
This period of intense learning was followed by a journey to Lublin, where he became a close talmid and chossid of the Chozeh of Lublin.
However his father, Reb Leibish, did not condone this step, afraid that being a chossid would deter his son from learning. He followed Reb Menachem Mendel to Lublin and demanded to know why he was seeking new ways for avodas Hashem. What was wrong with the well-trodden path his father and grandfather had taken?
"In the shirah," his respectful son answered, "the Jewish nation said, `Zeh Keili ve'anveihu, Elokei ovi va'aromemenhu.' First and foremost is `Keili' — my own G-d, and only then `Elokei ovi.' Each Jew must seek his personal derech avodoh, and only afterwards the way of his father."
From Lublin, Reb Menachem Mendel went on to the Yid Hakodosh. Upon entering the Rebbe's room for the first time, the Yid Hakodosh said to him, "Don't you know what Shlomo Hamelech said? It's good for a person to carry a burden from his youth on."
Taking his words to heart, Reb Menachem Mendel devoted himself entirely to the ol Torah, barely eating and drinking enough to stay alive.
With the passing of the Yid HaKodosh, the Rebbe Reb Bunim of Pershischa became the leader to whom Reb Menachem Mendel became totally subservient. For the next thirteen years he learned from him Torah and avodas Hashem.
In 5587 (1827) the Rebbe Reb Bunim was niftar and now the chassidim turned unanimously to Reb Menachem Mendel as his successor.
"What is it you're looking for?" Reb Menachem Mendel attempted to dissuade them. "You're looking for a Rebbe who'll serve Hashem, distribute shirayim, work yeshuos in Heaven for you and bring down a shower of parnossoh.
"I don't distribute shirayim, neither do I arrange yeshuos or parnossoh. With me, each person must toil for himself. All he'll get from the Rebbe are instructions how to rise ever higher in avodas Hashem."
Disappointed, the chassidim turned to the Chidushei HaRim, Reb Yitzchok Meir. Perhaps he would agree to be their rebbe. But the Chidushei HaRim insisted on placing himself under the charge of only Reb Menachem Mendel.
And so, there they remained in Tomashov, the Rebbe Reb Menachem Mendel with the Chidushei HaRim and a group of chassidim around him, with the Rebbe demanding total subservience to Hashem with no consideration for the body or its demands and needs.
After two years, they could no longer stay in Tomashov and sought a new area in which to settle. A few small towns were suggested, but the Rebbe rejected them until they came to the small shtetl "Kotsk."
There the welcome was less than pleasant.
"Here we'll settle," announced the Rebbe to the immense surprise of his followers. Then he explained, "When we are graciously and with honor accepted, I'm not sure if the outer show reflects the true inner motives. However, when we are met with insults, I know that the residents are truthful people and do not hide or disguise their feelings.
"In a place where the people are ready to throw stones to express their convictions — in such a place of emes — we are ready to stay."
* * *
"Lo Signov," the Kotzker would declare with a bang on the table, "doesn't mean merely not to steal from others. No, no. It includes do not steal from yourself, do not deceive yourself. Search your deeds thoroughly and check if you are truthful and consistent in your avodas Hashem."
Calling on one of the chassidim who was wont to daven aloud and with feeling, `ve'ohavto es Hashem Elokecho bechol levovcho.' The Kotzker asked, "Is your love for Hashem, love for Hashem? Or is it because you love yourself?"
The chossid paused to think. "Well, I afflict my body and don't benefit one iota from Olam Hazeh — is that called loving myself?"
Reading his thoughts, the Rebbe burst out, "If a person likes a certain food and eats it, does he eat it because he likes the food or does he eat it because he likes himself? Now reckon it out: why do you serve Hashem? Because you love yourself and therefore want to serve Hashem — or do you truly serve Hashem?"
The Kotzker court began to fill with hundreds of chassidim, all prepared to learn Torah and live a life devoid of gashmiyus. But the Rebbe stood and declared, "I don't need people to come to me — I just want to see three hundred avreichim who are ready to give up everything and cry out, `Hashem Hu hoElokim." I don't need more than that!"
A talmid of Rabbenu, R' Mordechai Yosef of Izhbitza, once came in to the Rebbe and began hinting to him of the various troubles of the chassidim. One had fallen into poverty and another was even starving for bread. The wife of a third had been sick already for three months.
Subtly he tried to persuade the Rebbe to help these people in their gashmiyus as well. Not everyone can live a life exclusively ruchniyus.
However, the Kotzker retained his stance. "Hakodosh Boruch Hu hears people's cries," he said. "We know that the Gates of Tears are never closed. If so, why was it necessary to have gates at all? The gates are for the foolish people who cry for unnecessary things. To their cries, the gates are slammed shut. Who are we to know which conditions in gashmiyus are considered necessary and which are considered foolish in Heaven? I have no wish to cry and have the gates closed on me!"
After a number of years the Rebbe saw that people were not willing or able to follow such a stringent lifestyle as he demanded and a new era descended on Kotsk.
The Rebbe would seclude himself in his room while the chassidim learned in the adjacent hall.
From time to time the Kotzker would emerge, deliver a "sharfe vort" to be pounced upon by all the chassidim, and then retreat to his solitary avodoh.
Each vort would be turned over and chewed upon by the chassidim as they learned how to serve Hashem.
When they expressed a desire to print the few notes that the Rebbe had written for his own use, the Kotzker shouted, "`Zeh sefer toldos odom.' The sefer of a person is the person himself, not to be satisfied with written notes and printed matter," and did not allow anything to be put to print. He maintained that writing down depletes the contents and clarity of the subject.
Before his petiroh, he begged the Chidushei HaRim not to leave any of his writings for the chassidim.
Then, turning to all those present, the Kotzker said weakly, "I can no longer breathe the polluted atmosphere of this olom hasheker," and so saying his neshomoh went up to Heaven.