The years have passed, Chassidus has flourished, and we can now truly appreciate the accomplishments and legacy of the frail man of indomitable spirit, the Maggid of Mezritch.
The Maggid was not so much an innovator as a developer of the teachings of his master, the Baal Shem Tov. His contribution lay in transforming a fledgling group of chassidim into a mass movement that spread far beyond its original borders. If the Baal Shem was the architect designing a lofty palace, the Maggid was the master builder, carefully piling brick upon brick until a mighty edifice had been completed.
When asked what he considered his greatest accomplishment, the Maggid replied, "I found a light in a closet, and all I did was open the door." And yet, the Maggid did more than merely interpret his master's teachings, for it was under his guidance that much of Chassidic thought was crystallized.
"Nevertheless," the Maggid replied, "however it's written, it shall be good , for it will be a testimonial to Avodas Hashem."
Other books containing the Maggid's teachings include: Or Torah, edited by R. Yeshaye of Dinowitz, and published in 1804 in Koretz; Likutei Yekarim, compiled by R. Shmuel ben Yehuda Leib [Lemberg, 1792]; Kisvei Kodesh, based on manuscripts found among writings of Kozhnitzer Maggid [ Lemberg, 1862]; Or HaEmes [Imrei Tzaddikim], put together by R. Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev [Husayatin, 1899]; and Shmuah Tovah, also by R. Levi Yitzchok [Warsaw, 1938].
In Rovno, the Maggid once instructed his chevraya to bring him three thousand rubles within three days.
Aghast, the students replied, "Rebbe, where can we secure such a large sum? Even if we sold all our possessions, we couldn't come up with such an amount!"
"That's not my concern," replied the Maggid. "I must have the money."
If their Rebbe demanded it, so it must be.
The chevraya dispersed themselves through the area, raised the money, and brought it to the Maggid on the third day.
As they stood before him, they saw a man come in and demand of the Maggid: "Where are my three thousand rubles?" Then he grabbed the money and hastily departed.
Afterwards, the Maggid explained to the chevraya: "The Satan came to me and demanded the return of his three thousand rubles. I didn't know what he was talking about, but he produced a receipt bearing my signature indicating that he had lent me the money. He threatened to take me to a Beis Din if I refused to pay.
"The Satan, I realized, must have been thinking of the Mishnah that states that when litigants stand before a judge, they should be considered wicked. He wanted me to become wicked, even for an instant, so I would be in his position and he would be able to lure me after him. Better to give him the money than to let him trap me!"
A newly trained shochet once brought his slaughtering knife to be examined by the Maggid. As R. Dov Ber passed his hand over the blade, he exclaimed, "Ai!" The shochet hurriedly adjusted the knife and resubmitted it for inspection, but again the Maggid cried out. When this happened a third time, the shochet was distraught.
"Rebbe, I must not be sensitive enough to be a shochet."
"Heaven forbid!" said the Maggid. "I was only examining your truthfulness, and I saw the Divine Name upon the knife!"
R. Elimelech and R. Zusia had an ongoing dispute about how to begin serving HaShem. R. Zusia claimed that one should start by considering his own lowliness, which would bring him to perceive the greatness of HaShem. R. Elimelech held the opposite position: By pondering HaShem's greatness, one would see his own unworthiness.
Neither brother could convince the other, so they approached the Maggid for an authoritative decision. "You are both correct," he said. "Both ways have merits. But Chessed rests on the one who begins with himself, not with the Creator. It's a more secure path: One cannot fall from the ground."
A sickly man suffering great pain once came to the Maggid for a brachah, giving him a Pidyon. To the astonishment of R. Elimelech of Lizensk, R. Dov Ber burst out laughing. "Laughter creates joy," he explained, "which is rooted in chochmah [wisdom], which contains the ability to correct an abnormality. I laughed to alter the stern decree imposed on him."
R. Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Kolbisov (later of Apt) had a similar experience. An elderly man once came to the Maggid to learn how to repent. At R. Dov Ber's instruction, he made a list of his sins. As the Maggid read the list, he began to laugh.
R. Avraham Yehoshua didn't understand this strange behavior until later, when he heard the following teaching of the Baal Shem Tov: The Talmud teaches that no one sins unless a spirit of folly enters him. When a fool speaks foolishly before a scholar, taught the Baal Shem, the wise man laughs and rejoices, and the sin is automatically mitigated.
After learning this, R. Avraham Yehoshua finally understood the Maggid's actions.
R. Zusia visited the Maggid every summer and winter. But one winter he arrived at R. Dov Ber's house only to be told by his master to return home immediately.
"But Rebbe," replied R. Zusia, taken aback, "I planned to stay three months. I can only obey your orders if you can provide me with three months' worth of inspiration."
"All right," the Maggid agreed. "Pay attention to what I tell you, and you will be able to derive whatever inspiration you seek.
"There are three things you can learn from a baby, and seven from a thief.
"A baby is always happy, and never depressed. He is never idle, even for a moment. And when he needs something from his father, even something insignificant, he immediately cries out.
"A thief works chiefly at night. If he doesn't obtain what he wants one night, he will try again the next. Thieves like one another and sacrifice for each other. A thief will sacrifice himself even for something insignificant. He sells what he steals for half-price, so that people shouldn't know what he has. He never admits that he steals. Even if tortured, he has one answer: 'I don't know.' He is proud of his work and wouldn't exchange it for anything else."
"Where can one obtain hislahavus [fervor]?" the Maggid's students once asked him.
"Fire hides in the ashes," he replied. "If you dig deep, you'll find it. But one who seeks fire in the mountains will find only wind and air."
R. Shlomo of Lutzk, who recorded the teachings of the Maggid, spoke reverently of his teacher. "The words of our saintly master, R. Dov Ber, are very sublime.... His words entered [the hearts of those who heard them] like a flaming fire, and enflamed their souls to serve the Creator.... With our own eyes we saw the great level of his comprehension; and yet, he was extremely humble, the fear of Heaven was constantly upon his face, and the glory of God hovered over him all day long."