One of the greatest desires of the holy Baal Shem Tov zt”l was to emigrate to the Land of Israel and transplant there the chasidic way of life that he founded. Unfortunately, he was never able to realize this dream, due to Divine prevention. But years later, a worthy group of his talmidim did accomplish what the master was unable to do.
The leader of this exceptional band was the famed Rav Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk zt”l, at the time, the undeniable inheritor to the crown of chasidus. The Maggid of Mezeritch zt”l had inherited it from the Baal Shem Tov, and in 1773, when the Maggid passed away, Rav Menachem Mendel became his successor. During the next few years, the charismatic genius of Rav Menachem Mendel strove to extinguish the wild fires of bitter anti-chasidic sentiment in Europe while at the same time spread the message of his holy masters. Thousands flocked to Rav Menachem Mendel’s side. His deep love of his fellow Jew endeared him to the most common man, and his profound wisdom and wise leadership marked him as the new chasidic master. Most of all, Rav Menachem Mendel was a lover of peace, and due to the menacing fires of hisnagdus (opposition to chasidism), which ravaged the young forests of chasidishe avodah in Europe, Rav Menachem Mendel sought another garden in which to replant his saplings. The dream of the Baal Shem Tov glowed in his heart. Eretz Yisrael was the place in which to unite the lower and celestial worlds and truly serve the Almighty. The Land of Israel was also the ideal place to help bring about the ultimate redemption with the coming of the Mashiach, which every Jew constantly awaits.
In the year 5537 (1777), Rav Menachem Mendel took 300 of his followers and set out for the Land of Israel. The hardships involved were enormous, and one peril after another came upon the group. Even before reaching shore, one of the boats sank, taking with it the lives of 30 Jews. Still, nothing could deter the spirit of the Rebbe.
The chasidim landed at the port of Acco on the 5th of Elul 5537, more than five months after setting out from their homeland. With a growing sense of destiny, Rav Menachem Mendel’s party set out for the mystical city of Tz’fas, where, the Rebbe informed them, their work was vital and necessary. It was soon after the terrible earthquake of 1759, which decimated the entire city of Tz’fas, and rebuilding was still underway. As the colonists traveled along the twisting mountain roads, the beautiful vista of Eretz Yisrael revealed itself to them. With high spirits, they gazed across the wide valleys and distant mountain peaks. Here, at last, in the land chosen by the Creator of the Universe for His people, they would continue their divine work of serving Hashem and spreading Torah and chasidus.
The realities of Tz’fas, however, were less heartening. The outlook was bleak in every respect. Renovation and reconstruction after the earthquake, 18 years earlier, was still minimal. Poverty was acute, and indeed the future of the Jewish population was in question. The chasidim were enthusiastic idealists, however. The very air of Tz’fas invigorated the settlers and they set to work to establish a thriving community. “How difficult it is for me to sleep at night,” wrote Rav Menachem Mendel, “when the crystal air of Tz’fas sings and one can hear the heavenly voices calling out to repent.”
A few months later, one of Rav Menachem Mendel’s chasidim asked him a personal question. “Rebbe, I have always imagined it would be easier to serve Hashem Yisbarach in Eretz Yisrael,” lamented the chasid. “Now that I live here, however,” he admitted, “I find in myself bad traits that I never had in chutz laAretz (the Diaspora). How can this be?”
“You are mistaken,” answered the Rebbe. “In Europe, you had the trait of arrogance, and consequently you never felt your diminutive worthlessness. You simply did not recognize yourself. But now, baruch Hashem, you have settled in Eretz Yisrael, the land that naturally purifies a man and humbles him. Now you are capable of discerning your true nature and have found that you are ‘sickly’ in certain areas of character development.
“Don’t be afraid,” the tzadik consoled him. “This recognition is half the cure. Now you know what you need to work on to perfect yourself.”