Reb Bunim'l, as he was fondly known throughout his life, suffered as a small child from a debilitating illness which left his legs partially paralyzed. His father HaRav HaKodosh Reb Mendele zt"l would often point out, "His legs are crooked but his brain and mind are remarkably straight!"
In the year 5628/1868, when Reb Bunim'l was a young avreich of seventeen, his father Reb Mendele was niftar, leaving the chassidim as a flock without a shepherd.
All eyes were turned to the young Bunim'l hoping that he would take over the mantle of leadership, but he refused to hear of the idea. However, pressure was brought to bear on all fronts until eventually he gave in. Reb Bunim'l travelled to one of the gedolim of his time, HaRav Yaakov Arye of Radzimin zt"l to receive his semichoh to the Admorus. Upon his return, crowned with the blessings of the Saba Kadisha, he agreed to lead the people, saying humbly, "Nu, by Yosef Hatzaddik it says, `Yosef was seventeen years old when he was a shepherd of (with) his brothers.'"
As his fame spread, people began to stream towards the Rebbe, at whose doors stood a long queue. One person sought guidance in Torah, while another a physical salvation, and so the line went on.
Rabbeinu sat and answered each person patiently. With innate sensitivity, he reached out to every Jew, recognizing his every need and the often unspoken troubles. Reb Bunim'l was wont to say, "Bnei Yisroel sometimes weep quietly and no one can hear their silent cry. As it says in reference to Moshe Rabbeinu, `And she saw him, and behold a boy was crying.' The posuk does not say she heard him but that she saw him. Bas Pharaoh realized that this must be a Jewish child because Yidden often cry quietly and it takes a person with especially sensitive vision to notice their cry."
The Rebbe himself was possessed of such a sensitive eye, that saw to the depths of a person's troubles, and so he could heal them.
His young son Reb Dovid'l once came home to his father for Yom Tov. Reb Dovid'l, who was known to be a baal yissurim, wished to go into his father's room directly after ma'ariv. But the Rebbe, who also had missed his son and wanted to ask him as to his welfare, nevertheless held him back, telling him that there were hundreds of people waiting in the line before him to talk to the Rebbe. His son understood, and dutifully waited his turn.
When nineteen years of standing at the helm of the Chassidus had passed, the Rebbe decided to do as his father had done. The latter had led his people for nineteen years. Now that an equal amount of time had elapsed, Reb Bunim'l decided to leave everything and go up to settle in Eretz Yisroel.
Shocked at his decision, the chassidim tried every means to prevent the Rebbe from leaving them, but Reb Bunim'l was not to be swayed from his decision. With heavy hearts a huge crowd accompanied Reb Bunim'l to the ship waiting at the port and parted from him.
Soon after Reb Bunim'l had settled in Tiveria, his greatness already became known to all and people streamed to his address. However his stay was to be short-lived. The Turkish ruler discovered the identity of the foreign citizen who was staying in the country longer than the legal, three-month permit. Following several attempts at hiding, Reb Bunim'l was caught and, to his sorrow, placed on a ship to return to his homeland Otvotzk.
Life resumed its old routine as the Rebbe picked up where he had left off, only growing in stature with time. Many are the stories told of the mofsim wrought by Reb Bunim'l through his brochos. Gedolim of his time too, sought his advice and blessing. It is told that the Sfas Emes would visit Rabbeinu while passing through Otvotzk. Once he arrived when Rabbeinu was absorbed in his learning. The Sfas Emes did not allow Reb Bunim'l to be disturbed, but turned on his heel to return some hours later.
Rabbeinu was a stringent machmir, never eating milk and meat on the same day at all, and likewise not in the same room. He would not dry his hands following a meaty meal on the same towel as he had done after a milky one. On Shavuos he fulfilled the minhag of eating milky foods by drinking a pareve glass of tea that had been prepared in the milky kitchen!
His strict adherence to tiny details in halacha and beyond not withstanding, Rabbeinu was an oved Hashem besimchah, as was handed over to him by the tradition of the Vorka dynasty.
In 5666/1906, yet another nineteen years had gone by. Reb Bunim'l told his chassidim that his previous attempt to live in Eretz Yisroel had been impeded by an ayin hora caused by the large crowd that had come to see him off.
"This time I will leave quietly with no fanfare."
At his final Shabbos tisch in Otvotzk, the Rebbe suddenly became very serious. His eyes seemed to be fixed on a plane far away in time and space as he declared a sentence that no one at the time could comprehend: "Yidden," he thundered, "a huge fire is burning, a terrible conflagration and nobody sees!"
It was only thirty-four years hence, when the Holocaust devastated European Jewry, that the Rebbe's parting words were understood.
Once again Reb Bunim'l set up a home in Tiveria, trying to avoid being Rebbe and preferring to live as a posheter Yid.
When people would come to him he would tell them, "I can accommodate you as guests. But I am no Admor."
He was held in high esteem by the greatest chassidim in Tiveria, who appreciated the jewel who had come to live in their midst.
The renowned chassid Reb Leizhe of Kobrin once saw Reb Bunim'l limping laboriously along on crutches and remarked, "here in this world our legs are healthy while Reb Bunim'l is limping, whereas in the World to Come it will be the opposite way round: Reb Bunim'l will walk on two healthy, sturdy legs while we? I doubt whether we will merit to limp behind him. In fact, who knows if we will be able to stand up there at all?"
One day Reb Bunim'l fell sick. The doctor who was summoned to his bedside insisted that in order to recover Rabbeinu would have to change to a nutritious, healthy diet with heavy foods such as meat and fats. Rabbeinu would not hear of it. When the elders of Tiveria came to visit him and begged him to carry out the doctor's instructions, he exclaimed vehemently, "Chas vesholom! A person can choliloh become megusham from these foods, choliloh.
On a Thursday on 2nd Shvat, Rabbeinu felt unwell during the tefillah, yet continued davening. As he reached the end of shir shel yom, with the words vaya'achileihu meichelev chittoh, umitzur dvash asbiecho, on his holy lips, Reb Bunim'l passed away.
He was buried in the old cemetery of Tiveria in the chelka of the talmidim of the Baal Shem Tov, close to the tziyun of the holy Rebbe, Reb Mendele Vitebsker zt"l.