And so they came, flocking to the home of the frail, pale man. What lured these luminaries to Mezritch, and what did they see there? What did they learn about life - and about themselves - from the Maggid?
According to one source, "truth and humility, the two qualities so fundamental to Chassidus, are what attracted so many Jews, who considered them interdependent...
"These two gems were set in the crown of the Maggid of Mezritch, spiritual heir to the Baal Shem Tov. He himself said, 'Chassidim as well as misnaggdim [opponents of Chassidus] both learn Torah; what, then, is the difference between them? The more a misnaggid learns Torah, the haughtier he might become; but when a Chassid learns Torah, he sees how poor his understanding is and how inferior it is to that of previous generations.'"
In his youth, R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk learned in the Maggid's Beis Medrash. One Shabbos afternoon, the Maggid noticed him strutting about proudly, his hat jauntily on his head. "Mendel," asked the Maggid, "how many pages of Gemara have you learned today?"
"Six," replied the lad
"Let's see," said R. Dov Ber. "If six pages lead to a tilted hat, how much must one learn before his head is completely bare?"
R. Dov Ber once asked R. Yechiel Michel of Zlotachov, "How is it that you have so many chassidim?"
"Because people know I hear Torah from one of the Tzaddikim of the generation," he answered, referring, of course, to his Rebbe, R. Dov Ber.
"But the person you consider a Tzaddik," said R. Dov Ber, "has neither Torah nor good deeds; he is merely 'dust and ashes.'"
"That's why I consider him a Tzaddik."
One night, R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi knocked on the Maggid's door. "Who's there?" asked the Maggid.
"It is I," said R. Shneur Zalman.
"Who?" R. Dov Ber repeated.
"It is I," R. Shneur Zalman replied.
"Who?" the Maggid inquired again.
"Shneur Zalman," he answered. With that, he was finally admitted.
At the Maggid's request, the next day R. Shneur Zalman went to a bris milah held in a nearby village. Seeing R. Shneur Zalman's old and tattered clothing, it was assumed that he was a beggar, and he was seated at the end of the table.
When a silver spoon was found missing after the seudah the "beggar" was immediately suspected of theft. Denying the charge, he shouted, "It was not I!" His accusers began to beat him. "It was not I," he repeated.
Eventually, it was discovered that an attendant had taken the spoon, and R. Shneur Zalman was exonerated. When he returned to Mezritch, the Maggid was waiting for him.
"How many times did you have to shout, 'Not I'?" he asked his astounded student.
"Two times you announced to me, 'It is I,' he continued. "There is only One in the universe who may say this. If we are aware of HaShem's presence, how can we, mere mortals, pride ourselves on being 'I'? We must strive for total bittul, self-effacement.
"Twice you called yourself 'I,' so two times you had to announce, 'It is not I.'"
"What did you learn in Mezritch from your Rebbe, the Maggid?" R. Aharon of Karlin was asked.
"Absolutely nothing!" he replied.
"What do you mean?" cried his questioners.
"I learned that I am absolutely nothing!"
A misnaggid once complained to R. Zev of Zhitomir: "I am a well-respected scholar and a wealthy man, yet I feel no pride. But my son-in-law, who doesn't reach my ankles, you have dragged off to Mezritch, where he battles pride day and night!"
"That's why he went to the Maggid," explained R. Zev.
"What do you do at the Maggid's?" asked the fuming misnaggid. "What greatness is there without Torah or good deeds? I was in Vilna and heard true Torah from the Gaon himself!"
R. Zev answered with a smile, "In the Maggid's Beis Medrash, one realizes that he can live seventy years filled with pride, while believing with perfect faith that he has never tasted pride in his life!"
One of the Maggid's students once asked another: "Where will our sins lead us?"
"Is that what we learned in Mezritch?" the other berated him. "I'm not worried about sins, for which we can repent. What concerns me is our mitzvos: How can we raise our heads with such mitzvos?"
"Is that what he said?" responded R. Avraham. Electrified, he leaped out of his window and made his way to Mezritch.
Returning to Kalisk after his first encounter with the Maggid, he visited his former mentor, the Gaon of Vilna. "What did you see in Mezritch? What innovation did you find there?" asked the Gaon.
"'Vechai bahem' - and you shall live by them" was his brief reply.
"One remark by the Maggid would suffice for a long time," he later commented. "And we would guard it in holiness and purity until the next one came."
R. Zev also related, "Only once in my life did I make a motion of excitement. One Friday, the great Maggid was sitting in his room near the Beis Medrash, learning the weekly Torah portion by reviewing the Scripture twice and the Aramaic translation once. Several students were sitting in the Beis Medrash when suddenly a great light shone upon us. The door to his room opened, our eyes beheld his glowing face, and we lost our senses. R. Pinchas Horowitz of Frankfurt, his brother R. Shmuel Shmelke of Nikolsburg, R. Elimelech of Lizensk, and his brother R. Zusia of Onipol all fled outside. R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev had such a spiritual awakening that he rolled under the table. And even I began to clap my hands out of great fervor and excitement. Ever since, I have repented mentally for that movement."
"Once on Rosh HaShanah, during Minchah, I saw the Maggid's face, as resplendent as a beautiful rainbow," related R. Levi Yitzchak. "Filled with fear and trembling, I fell backwards. People supported me, unable to understand why I had fallen. When my master saw my trembling, he turned to the wall and I saw no more."
Upon his arrival in Amdur, R. Aharon asked R. Chaim what he was doing.
"I am learning Torah for its own sake," declared R. Chaim.
"The Tanna R. Meir says, 'Whoever engages in Torah for its own sake merits many things' [Pirkei Avos 6:1]. So where are your 'many things'?" R. Aharon challenged.
Shaken, R. Chaim said, "Alas, you are right; but where shall I go?"
"To Mezritch," advised R. Aharon.
R. Chaim subsequently became one of the Maggid's closest pupils. He even merited "many things."
R. Azriel and R. Yisrael of Politzk once decided to seek out a rebbe's guidance. That night in a dream, R. Yisrael saw an image of a righteous man and was told that this Tzaddik would "open their hearts." The two set out immediately to find him.
After years of wandering, they came upon the Maggid's house, where R. Yisrael recognized the Maggid's face from his dream.
When he returned to Politzk, R. Azriel was asked what he had learned at the Maggid's. "The Maggid," he replied, "taught me that one must daven with a seething, torn heart, as if a cruel armed bandit were about to slay him!"
R. Shmelke and R. Pinchas Horowitz first came to the Maggid on erev Shabbos. Although they expected a lengthy discussion with him, the Maggid dismissed them after a few words. they had hoped to hear impressive Torah at his tish, and were deeply disappointed when they felt nothing from his words. which - unbeknownst to them - contained deep secrets of Torah. Like the Maggid upon meeting the Baal Shem Tov, they decided to go home.
Aware of their intention, R. Zusia of Onipol cautioned, "We have learned, 'if a rabbi is like an angel of God, seek Torah from his mouth' [Chagigah 15b]. Has any of us ever seen an angel? Nevertheless, if one came you way, you wouldn't question him, test him, or seek a sign from him. So it is with a true Tzaddik: from him you should seek Torah!"
With these words, the brothers returned to the Maggid and asked him to teach them the revealed part of Torah.
the Maggid then posed a very difficult question about a Gemara and offered an answer so simple and straightforward that they were amazed they hadn't arrived at it themselves. This was followed by a strong refutation, and another solution. After nine such exercises, the Maggid closed the Gemara and asked, "Why have you traveled here? Do great ones like yourselves need the likes of me?"
He then referred to their ascetic lifestyle, which he knew through Ruach HaKodesh: "One who prays and ascends into the upper spheres but remarks at the end of the day, 'You know, today I was not so bad!' - his Divine service is cast out of Heaven."
When they heard this, R. Pinchas and R. Shmelke said, "You ask why we traveled to see you. We would have walked even a thousand miles to hear such words!"
When R. Shmelke returned home after this encounter, he, too, faced the query of what he had learned in Mezritch. "Until now, I would afflict my body so that it could accommodate the soul," he replied. "Now, I've learned how the soul can withstand the body and needn't be separate from it. Thus the Torah promises: 'I will place My sanctuary within you, and My soul will not abhor you' [Vayikra 26:11]; that is, the soul will not abhor its body!"
The Jews of the German towns Frankfurt-on-Main and Nikolsburg asked R. Pinchas and R. Shmelke to serve as their rabbis, leaving the brothers to decide who would become the rabbi of Frankfurt, the more prestigious position, and who the rabbi of Nikolsburg. It was a very difficult decision. Although R. Shmelke was older, he felt that R. Pinchas was more suitable for Frankfurt. They finally decided to consult the Maggid, and to use their visit to hear his explanation of an unfathomable passage in the Zohar as well.
When they arrived in Mezritch each maintained that the other was greater and should therefore see the Maggid first.
"The rabbi of Nikolsburg should come in first, for he is older," the Maggid declared, thus giving the brothers the answer to their problem.
When they approached him, he told them a story of a high-ranking minister and how he handled his servants and mansions. he finished the story, and bid them farewell before they could ask about the Zohar. Later they realized that the story had been a parable through which they could understand the enigmatic Zohar.
"Before I came to my master, the Maggid of Mezritch," said R. Yisrael, the Maggid of Kozhnitz, "I learned eight hundred books of Kabbalah. But when I met him, I discovered that I hadn't begun to learn!"
What did R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev learn in Mezritch? "There is a Creator who directs the universe."
"But everyone knows that!"
"No!" he replied. "Everyone says it, but I know it!"
"When the Maggid opened his mouth," he said, "the Shechinah spoke through him and he was not in this world...." Another time he declared, "What do we know of Ruach HaKodesh of wonders? In the Maggid's house we drew Ruach HaKodesh in full measure; the miracles rolled under the benches, and there was no time to pick them up."
When R. Shneur Zalman once came to Berditchev, long after the passing of the Baal Shem Tov, all the scholars there marveled at his Torah genius. "Mine is nothing compared to that of my master, the Maggid, and his son, the Malach. And both of them followed in the footsteps of the holy Baal Shem Tov, whose genius was incomparable," he said.
What else did the author of the Tanya gain from the Maggid? "Elsewhere one learns how to master the Torah. In Mezritch, one learns to let the Torah master you."
As the Maggid began to recite Ein K'Elokeinu (There is None Like Our God), R. Yaakov Yitzchak fainted, and was revived only with great difficulty.
"Didn't I tell you not to let that young man in?" the Maggid said. "When I recited Ein K'Elokeinu, he saw the Heavenly host and immediately became frightened and fainted. Someone with eyes of flesh wouldn't have seen anything at all."
"At that moment," recalled the Chozeh, "all seven firmaments opened before my eyes, and I saw clearly that 'there is none like our God.'"
On his way back, he visited his brother, R. Elimelech of Lizensk, who had yet to "taste" Chassidus.
Young R. Zusia spent much of his time in contemplative isolation in the forests, singing praises to HaShem. Even with his brother, he seemed absorbed in his thoughts. When his brother questioned him about his ways, R. Zusia responded with a parable: "There was once a great, wise king who was beloved throughout his kingdom. A wealthy plantation owner had a burning desire to serve the king. He sold everything he owned, went to the king's city, and tried to find work in the palace, where he could see the king whenever he wanted.
"The only job available was that of an oven stoker, who heated the palace. Although this position was one of the lowest, it required the king's approval. Using his wealth to bribe the appropriate officials, the man got the job.
"That winter, he took special care to provide steady, even heat. The king noticed and asked how he could reward him for his faithful, dedicated work.
"'I wish to be able to see the king whenever I'd like,' was his reply.
"'I'm sorry, but my servants cannot come to me whenever they wish. However,' the king continued, 'above my room is an attic. You may go there and drill a hole in the ceiling, and whenever you desire, take a telescope and look at me.' Delighted, the oven stoker did as he was told.
"Shortly thereafter, the prince was banished from the king's presence because he spoke foolishly at a royal banquet. Eventually, the prince discovered the oven stoker's telescope in the attic, and, longing for his father, he, too, peered into it.
"'Woe to you, prince,' said the oven stoker. 'I am a common, unlearned person, and I have no other way of seeing the king,. But you, his son, should be seated right next to him. You need only be careful with your words.'"
As he finished the parable, R. Zusia told R. Elimelech humbly, "You know I have neither Torah nor wisdom, and I must slave to see the splendor of the Shechinah. But you, a great scholar, need only be careful with your words - Torah and prayer - to be seated next to the King of Kings, and to behold His Presence."
R. Elimelech, too, journeyed to Mezritch and became one of the Maggid's prominent pupils.
R. Zusia of Onipol said, "I once needed to connect the world to my master, the Maggid, for it was a troubled time, and the world had to be uplifted. I told my master, 'Rebbe, you're the Tzaddik of this generation!"
"The Maggid rose to his feet and declared, 'Master of the Universe! My sin is more than I can bear!'"
Another time, R. Dov Ber lamented, "What did I do wrong that my name is on the lips of the multitudes, and many of them come to me? When will I do something for my own household? The more they cling to me, the more my leaves fall off and in the end I'll be a beaten willow. Have mercy upon me. Let me serve HaShem, pray and learn....Do you think it's good being a Rebbe? A Rebbe is greatly pained by the troubles of the Jews." He them "cursed" the wicked, saying they should become Tzaddikim and Torah greats so they would feel this pain.
The Maggid often quoted the Baal Shem Tov, who said, "A preacher is like a broom that becomes dirty as it cleans. Similarly, one who wishes to purify hearts with his mussar [ethical teachings] must fall somewhat from his level, for his flock's strange thoughts fall upon him.
"When the Temple stood and the Kohen atoned for his people, their thoughts fell upon him. When the Kohanim and Levi'im knew someone hadn't repented, the Kohen would signal the Levi to sing more fervently, in order to arouse the person to do so."
"Like a gentile entering a synagogue on Yom Kippur," answered R. Yosef.
"At that moment," said the Trisker Maggid, who related this story, "it was proclaimed in heaven that the halachah was according to R. Yosef, and his books would be accepted as authoritative throughout the Jewish world."