The Early Years
It was a grim day in the town of Lukatch when the wooden house of R. Avraham and his wife, Chavah, burned to the ground.
As she stood watching the flames consume her small home, Chavah wept openly. Her eight-year-old son, Dov Ber, wise beyond his years, looked curiously at his mother.
"Why are you crying?" he asked. "Just as we are obligated to thank HaShem for good things, so must we thank Him for misfortune. And we certainly should not cry for our house, not when HaShem's house is also burnt and in ruins."
"It is not for our home that I weep," she replied, "But for the family genealogy records that were destroyed with it." The family had always been rightfully proud of its lineage, which included R. Hai Gaon, R. Yehudah HaNasi, compiler of the Mishnah, and before them, R. Yochanan HaSandlar and King David himself.
"Don't cry," young Dov Ber answered softly, "for a new genealogy will begin with me." And indeed it did, as young Dov Ber grew to fame as the revered Maggid of Mezritch.
Rashi states that rather than responding to Kaddish or Kedushah, someone reciting the Shemoneh Esrei should merely pause and listen, and this is equivalent to giving the correct response. Tosafos asks, "If this pause is considered a response, should it not also be considered an interruption, which is forbidden during the Shemoneh Esrei?"
"There is no question that Rashi is correct, "said young Dov Ber to his Rebbe. "Our Sages teach us that HaShem considers good intentions equivalent to actual good deeds but bad intentions must be put into action to be considered aveiros. Therefore, when a person intends to fulfill the mitzvah of responding to Kaddish or Kedushah, it is as though he fulfilled it. However, since an interruption is prohibited, the intention to interrupt is not considered an aveirah."
His fear of Heaven grew along with his learning. One cold winter morning, he found the frozen ground too slippery to walk on as he made his way to the mikveh. Rather than turn back, he decided to sit down and slide to his destination. When he did so, the ice melted, and he was able to walk safely.
That moment his Yetzer Hara conceded, "How amazing you are! all my attempts to lure you away from HaShem have been in vain."
The Maggid then understood that flattery, like the ice, was an obstacle put before him by his Yetzer Hara. "You fiend!" he screamed. "You wish to cause me to stumble by arousing my pride. Be gone, and don't disturb my Avodah!"
Dov Ber then took up teaching. No ordinary Rebbe, he would ask prospective students: "Do you remember standing at Mount Sinai along with all the Jewish souls?" His query penetrated the depths of the young boys' souls until each one remembered.
R. Yosef, author of Yesod Yosef and son-in-law of R. Aharon of Rovno, once heard R. Dov Ber lecture in Turchin. Upon his return to Rovno, he told his wealthy father-in-law, "There is a unique scholar in Turchin." R. Aharon told him to bring the scholar to Rovno, where he would support him. But R. Dov Ber wouldn't leave his students in the middle of the school year. Later he did move to Rovno, where R. Aharon provided him with living quarters and a stipend.
"But how will we be able to buy food for Shabbos?" he lamented. "Now that we have the vessel," she replied, "HaShem will provide something to put into it."
R. Dov Ber went to the Beis Medrash to learn and didn't return until Friday evening. As he neared his home, he was surprised to see a bright light shining forth from the window. Entering the house, he was even more delighted to find challos and wine gracing a beautifully set table.
After Kiddush and HaMotzi he inquired about their good fortune. His wife explained that a local girl had taken sick, forcing her wealthy father to postpone her wedding and distribute the wedding feast among the town's needy, including the Maggid. "Baruch HaShem, she exclaimed, "we have every Shabbos delicacy but fish." "With HaShem's help, we shall have fish, too," R. Dov Ber remarked. Suddenly, a hand appeared over the table, holding a plate of fish.
R. Dov Ber and his wife lived in a ramshackle hut on the bank of a river that divided the town. When their son Avraham was born, there wasn't even enough money to buy him an herb needed for his health.
Once, when the hunger in the household became unbearable, his wife complained, "This is how you provide for us with your service of God?!"
"Very well," he replied, "the Jews who have abandoned us to such shameful hunger deserve to be condemned!"
Going outside, he lifted his eyes Heavenwards and proclaimed joyfully, "May the Jews be abundantly blessed!"
But when he returned home, he heard his wife sigh even more deeply. "Now I'll truly give then what they deserve," he told her.
"What can I do if I cannot control my anger?" said the Maggid as he went out a second time. "I must indict the Jews! May HaShem grant them abundance, success and enormous wealth - but let it be bestowed on inanimate trees and stones!"
The Maggid's poverty persisted over the years, and he grew depressed. As he heaved a deep sigh, he heard a Heavenly voice proclaim that he had lost his share in the World to Come.
Stunned with fear, the Maggid began to quake. He had lost both worlds, for in this world he had nothing, and now the next world had been denied him. But in the next moment he rejoiced, saying, "Now I can truly serve HaShem without expecting any reward. For if I love HaShem, what more do I need?"
Not long afterwards a Heavenly voice informed him that his portion in the World to come would be restored if he complained no more - for there is no mercy greater than HaShem's.
The Maggid's wife kneaded dough and baked bread for others, receiving a small wage and a meager portion of the bread in return. One day she had no work, so there was no bread for young Avraham. After a second day without food, her husband began to weep profusely.
In Heaven, the defending angels justified his weeping, for the child had gone hungry for two days but still attended cheder. "If the boy were someone else's child," countered the accusing angels, "R. Dov Ber wouldn't be so troubled. Besides, crying over physical hardship is a sin."
The Heavenly Court chose to "punish" him by revealing him publicly as a Tzaddik, a difficult challenge for the modest, retiring scholar. After this he became known as a Tzaddik among the people but despite his renown he continued to live in dire poverty.
After the Maggid became a student of the Baal Shem Tov, the Baal Shem sent him regards with a Shabbos guest. This chassid searched the streets of the town for the Maggid, and eventually located his hovel. The Maggid greeted him cordially, and then asked him to return later, as he was in the middle of giving a lesson.
That night, the chassid and a friend found that the bench and table that had been used for the lesson had become beds for R. Dov Ber's children. The Maggid was sitting and learning on a slab of wood. When he invited them to sit down on another slab, they couldn't restrain themselves. "We aren't rich people either," they blurted out, "but at least we have furniture in our homes!"
"One needs such things in his home," the Maggid admitted, "but I am not at home, for this world is merely a corridor leading to my real home in olam haba."
Later, R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, a talmid of the Maggid, revealed that his Rebbe used to stroll by the lakes and ponds early in the morning to hear the frogs croaking. "He was trying to learn the song the frogs sing to HaShem, as explained in Perek Shirah. He wished to hear how they praise and glorify Him." It is thus no wonder their croaking kept him awake at night.
He eventually left his teaching position to become a maggid, traveling throughout Volhynia and Podolia as many of his contemporaries did. At that time, the rabbi of a town was looked to for his halachic decisions, while it was the maggid, the itinerant preacher, who gave the sermons. Exhorting and entertaining, an effective maggid could have a tremendous impact upon the people. For this reason, perhaps, a scholar of the caliber of R. Dov Ber chose the path of the maggid, rather than that of the rabbi.
When R. Dov Ber entered a town, he would go out to the main street and proclaim, "Come, children, listen to me and I will teach you the fear of the Lord" (Tehillim 34:12).
His own financial straits made him sympathetic to others. He once commented, "Our Sages have said, 'When people had money, they yearned to learn Mishnah, halachah, and Talmud. Now that they are penniless and subjugated, they want only to hear words of brachah and comfort' [Shir HaShirim Rabbah 2:5]. When I walk the streets and see Jews struggling to earn a living, I know I must give them not harsh words of mussar, but words of brachah and comfort."
The Maggid had a special approach to his avocation. He never reproached anyone directly, lest the person be embarrassed. rather, he admonished people in the presence of someone unsullied by their particular shortcoming, so they would understand for whom his words were intended.
By his word and example, he influenced and inspired everyone around him.
Like many scholars of his time, R. Dov Ber engaged in fasting, as prescribed by the Ari, z"l. He often refrained from eating for days on end, week after week. While this life of self-denial and self-sanctification raised the Maggid to great spiritual heights, it also took its toll on his already ill health. And yet it brought him to a turning point in both his life and the course of Jewish history.