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14 Adar 5775 - March 5, 2015 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Sparks of Greatness
HaAdmor Reb Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk zt"l

In honor of his yahrtzeit — 1 Iyar 5548/1788

Rabbeinu was born in the year 5490 (1730). His father Rabbi Moshe was a close disciple of the holy Baal Sheim Tov, and took the young Mendele to his Rebbe.

The Baal Sheim Hakodosh related to the boy a long story with many distinctive details, a story which, towards the end of his days Reb Menachem Mendel revealed, hinted at all the episodes which would occur to him and all the experiences he would endure throughout his lifetime. Included therein was the fact that he would eventually reach Eretz Yisroel and reside there.

Rabbeinu was the talmid of the Maggid Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch zt"l.

The story is told of a time when Reb Menachem Mendel was falsely accused of a crime. He was promptly incarcerated in a dank prison with the lowest and most debased of society as company.

On the first day when the time came to daven, Rabbeinu sought out a secluded corner and began to pray with great fervor. Throughout the tefilloh he sensed that someone was watching him closely, and upon finishing he turned round to find a fellow inmate staring at him in awe.

When he had recovered from his trance, the prisoner approached Reb Mendele and asked if he could serve as the holy man's attendant, promising that he would see to his every need.

"Who are you?" asked Reb Mendele gently, "and what are you doing here?"

"I am a Jew. Nochum is my name."

Resignedly, Nochum told Reb Mendele that although usually when a Jew is imprisoned the community rallies together to collect money for pidyon shevuyim, in his case it was different. He was so far gone from anything Jewish, having become a notorious thief, that the kehilloh had not noticed his absence at all and would have no interest in redeeming him anyway. As far as the wretched Nochum could see, his future lay within the prison walls.

With his indomitable faith in the inherent value of every Yid, Reb Mendele began to teach Nochum how to serve Hashem. With the passage of time and under the Rebbe's guidance, the former thief truly regretted his past and began fulfilling some mitzvos right there in the prison. Once again he donned tefillin and the long-forgotten laws of kosher food became part of his daily fare. He was careful to refrain from eating forbidden foods and became a true baal teshuvoh.

"This is only the start," encouraged the Rebbe. "Once we leave this jail, I will take you to my Rebbe and teacher the Maggid of Mezritch where you will attain your true shleimus."

No sooner had Reb Mendele finished speaking than the prison officer entered, seeking the Rabbi. He duly informed him that the accusation against him had been proved false and he was now free to leave.

To his surprise Rabbeinu did not walk out, but insisted that he would not leave unless the long-term prisoner Nochum was dismissed with him.

"That vagabond? No way!"

But Rabbeinu was adamant. "If he stays here, so do I."

It seemed the only solution was to bring the strange case before a judge. There in the courtroom Reb Mendele vouched for the newfound integrity and sincerity of the former thief, pledging to be his guarantor.

The two were released together.

At that point Rabbeinu exclaimed that he now knew why Heaven had sent him to be imprisoned in the first place.

From then on whenever a Yid poured out his heart to him over tzoros that had befallen him, Rabbeinu would relate this episode, pointing out that one must be firm in emunoh for "you never know why a tzoroh befalls you and who may be saved through it."

Nochum joined Reb Menachem Mendel on his journey to Mezritch.

Immediately upon their entry to the Maggid, the latter announced joyfully, "I've been waiting a long time for this soul to return!"

In time Nochum became one of the Maggid's most distinguished talmidim.


Prior to Reb Menachem Mendel's departure for Eretz Yisroel, he went to take leave and receive the blessings of his close friends, the gedolei hador.

His name preceded him wherever he went, and Reb Mendele was received with the honor accorded to royalty.

At the port, Rabbeinu chose to set sail on an old dilapidated ship that hardly looked seaworthy, much to everyone's wonder and concern.

Sure enough, out on the high seas a storm broke out, tossing the vulnerable ship dangerously in its high winds and enormous waves.

The captain, a veteran seafarer, begged the Rebbe to pray on behalf of the ship and its passengers. Above the roar of the mighty waves crashing against the ship's hull, he related how, forty years previously, he had steered this very same vessel with the great Rabbi Elozor Rokeach (author of Maaseh Rokeach) on board. He vividly recalled how the ship had almost sunk in a storm, but was saved by the prayers of the Rabbi.

Rabbeinu stood on the deck and called out:

Ribono Shel Olom! You surely know that when I took leave of all my friends I was accorded the greatest honor. Lavish praises and noble titles were showered upon me. Yet despite the fact that these made my stomach churn and I felt ill, I was ready to suffer just so that I could reach Eretz Yisroel and glorify Your Name there. I beseech You in this zchus that the fury of the sea subside and we reach safe shores.

The ship and its captain witnessed a second miracle as the storm abated and their voyage continued without further mishap.


The humility of Reb Mendele seen in the instances noted above extended to a degree of true self-deprecation.

In his letters, Rabbeinu would sign before his name, "hashofol be'emes," which chassidim say he began to add after coming to Eretz Yisroel, in line with profound reasons al pi chassidus.

When the holy Ruzhiner Rebbe zt"l was asked how Reb Menachem Mendel could exhibit openly and in so great measure his middoh of anovoh, the tzaddik answered, "With Reb Mendele who was an onov with each of his limbs, this signature was not a sign of an exalted character or an extra trait. For him it was mamash part of his name."


The Rachmastrivke Rebbe shlita tells that when Reb Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk first arrived in Eretz Yisroel he chose to reside in Peki'in, saying that if he would succeed in living there for a whole year, he would bring Moshiach.

The Satan however, hearing his words, brought wolves and fierce animals to the area, endangering the Arabs who lived there. The latter attributed the sudden influx of wild animals to the arrival of their strange new neighbor and they drove him away.

Subsequently, Rabbeinu settled in Tiveria. The reason for his choice was given by Tiveria's later Rov, HaRav Moshe Kliers zt"l. It was due to the heat and harsh climate of Tiveria that Reb Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk chose to live there. As he himself would say, "In Tzfas you can eat cool fresh vegetables with your bread, whereas in Tiveria even this is denied and one can disassociate oneself completely from physical pleasures. For this reason I will settle in Tiveria."


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