Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk (1717-1787) was an early Chasidic master whose powerful example set a template for inspired leadership that became standard in Chassidic courts throughout Poland and Galicia.
He and his brother, Rebbe Zusha of Anipoli, were devoted students of the Maggid of Mezrich, who led the Chassidic movement after the passing of the Baal Shem Tov.
Reverently referred to as "the Rebbe, Reb Elimelech," and a spiritual guide to many thousands, he was a "rebbe of rebbes." Among his students were some of the most influential leaders of the next generation: Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak, the Chozeh ("seer") of Lublin; Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel, the Ohev Yisrael ("lover of Jews") of Apta; Rebbe Yisrael Hopsztajn, the Maggid ("preacher") of Koznitz; and Rebbe Mendel of Riminov. Each of these students had many of their own students who also became rebbes, and in this manner, his approach and teachings spread across Poland and beyond.
Reb Elimelech's teachings are laid out in his book, Noam Elimelech, a classic of Chassidic thought, highlighting his emphasis on the Rebbe and his role in shepherding his flock and interceding on their behalf.
To this day, thousands visit his gravesite in Lizhensk, Poland, especially on his yahrtzeit, Adar 21.
His Mother's Legacy
Many stories are told about R' Eliezer Lipa and Mirel, who were blessed to have Rebbe Elimelech as their son. The Alter Rebbe told the following story:1
Beggars came to the home of Reb Eliezar and Mirel and asked if they could bathe there. The hosts heated water for them.
One of the beggars was a leper with wounds all over his skin, and the other beggars refused to help him bathe.
Mirel had pity on this beggar, and she helped him by handing him the ointments and dressings he needed.
The beggar told her, "Since you helped me so devotedly, I give you my blessings that you should bear a son who is like me!"
That was the last thing that Mirel wanted to hear. But suddenly, the entire group miraculously disappeared.
She understood that these were special, holy people. A year later, Elimelech was born.
Love for Others
Born in the merit of kindness, Reb Elimelech's teachings emphasize the mitzvah to love one's fellow.
A prayer he composed includes the line, "Put into our hearts that everyone should see the qualities of their fellows, and not their faults."
Rebbe Elimelech's student, Reb Zecharyah Mendel of Shedisnshov, described the love that existed among his students, which is certainly due to Rebbe Elimelech's influence:
There is a lot of love between them. The love is greater than the love a father has for his son or the love a husband has for his wife. They are completely one; they practically share the same wallet. They love their friends' children as their own, and one almost isn't able to discern who are the parents…2
Rebbe Elimelech's son wrote, "My father would constantly bless Jews, and he was moser nefesh for them all the time…"
His ahavat Yisrael was a focal point in his life; deeds of kindness and praying for others was how he served G‑d.
The Call to Teshuvah
Early one morning, the Maggid of Mezritch said to Rebbe Elimelech, "Did you hear the message proclaimed in heaven? They said the mitzvah to love your fellow is to love a rasha (wicked person) just as you love a tzaddik (righteous person). A tzaddik can rouse … people to teshuvah, and a minyan of the tzaddik's students can rouse a great rasha to teshuvah."
Reb Elimelech repeated this conversation to the other students of the Maggid, and they were studying the lesson in depth when a rasha came in. He heard them say that they could influence a rasha to do teshuvah, and he laughed. "What are you talking about? Teshuvah? Me? Never."
As he mocked them, the holy students prayed tearfully, chanted Psalms, and beseeched G‑d to arouse the man to return to the Torah's ways.
And indeed, he had a change of heart and did complete teshuvah.3
Rebbe Elimelech and his brother, Rebbe Zusha, often traveled from town to town to rouse people to teshuvah.4
In fact, Rebbe Shalom (the "Saar Shalom") of Belz said, "The teshuvah that people did, currently do, and will do is all from the empowerment of the Rebbe, Reb Elimelech."5
A wagon driver was once driving chassidim to their Rebbe, and he told them, "Years ago, when Elimelech was alive, I brought chassidim to him in this very wagon."
The chassidim cringed when they heard the driver say Rebbe Elimelech's name without using the appropriate title. The wagon driver was a simple, unlearned person, and he didn't know how to properly respect tzaddikim.
"I was curious to know what this rebbe is all about, so I went to see him Friday night," he continued. "The prayers were very energetic, and I didn't understand why everyone was so thrilled. The tallit fell off Elimelech's head and I saw his neck; it was red like a beet. I thought, 'Oh, so that's what it's all about! The Rebbe probably drank an entire bottle of vodka!'
"But then the Rebbe turned around (at the end of Lecha Dodi) and I saw that his face was white like the dead. I couldn't understand it. If the Rebbe drank so much, and his neck was so red, why was his face so white? I'll tell you the truth, until today I don't understand this."
And then, the driver said with a cracked, emotional voice, and with tears streaming from his eyes, "But when Elimelech sang Lecha Dodi, it was something to listen to."
The driver sang to them the song he heard Rebbe Elimelech sing 50 years before.
The chassidim in the wagon said to each other, "This shows us Rebbe Elimelech's ability to rouse people to teshuvah. Look how this simple Jew cries when he reminds himself of a song Rebbe Elimelech sang 50 years ago."
Rebbe Elimelech managed to rebuke people, making sure never to condescend or humiliate them. One way he did so was by telling stories, which contained messages directed to each individual present.
Once, Rebbe Elimelech was standing outside his house telling a story, and many people gathered to listen. Each person felt the Rebbe speaking directly to him, addressing the particular sin he needed to rectify, and tearfully resolved to do so immediately.6
Rebbe Elimelech taught, "The way of the tzaddik is to rebuke himself, always. He tells people that he has committed terrible sins. He is really listing the sins that others have done, but when he says that he committed those sins, it causes people to fear G‑d and to return to His ways."7
Once, in Nikolsburg, many people came to hear Rebbe Elimelech's speech, and he lamented before the crowd, "Elimelech, Elimelech! Remember the sin you committed on that day… And the sin you committed in that place…" This was how he told the listeners about their sins, because they were the ones who had committed those sins at those times and in those places. He didn't humiliate people, but they got the message and took it to heart.8
In his own words: "When a tzaddik wants to rebuke someone, he should speak about the sin in front of many people. In this way the person [who needs to hear these words] will hear them."9
Greatness for All
His son, Reb Elazar, wrote, "I trust everything my father, Reb Elimelech, tells me, because I know that for all the money in the world, he wouldn't tell a lie … He said that a person can easily attain ruach hakodesh (Divine revelation), as long as he's a scholar who knows Gemara with Rashi … and if he knows it with pilpul (in depth), even better."
Instead of knocking people down with harsh rebuke, he built them up, telling them that high levels of spiritual connection were in reach.
Before the Baal Shem Tov began to teach Chassidism, people regularly practiced self-affliction—excessive fasts and even rolling in the snow—as part of their Divine service. The purposes for these afflictions were: (a) to teach the body obedience, so it would agree to follow the laws of the Torah, (b) to purify the body from the blemish of sins, (c) to weaken the yetzer hara, (d) to protect oneself from needing to be punished more severely from Above.
But this was not Rebbe Elimelech's way.
"Rebbe Elimlech commanded us not to fast except for the fasts established by the rabbis," wrote his student, "because in today's day and age we don't have the strength to fast …"10
So, how can we attain the benefits which come from affliction?
One way is to undergo very minor discomforts, for example, "When a person wants to eat, but postpones the meal for an hour or less, and in the meantime he studies Torah… And when a person refrains from speaking something he wants to say…"11
However, Rebbe Elimelech, himself, fasted and afflicted his body all the time. Tzaddikim said, "From Avraham until Rebbe Elimelech, no one undertook so many afflictions."12
Rebbe Elimelech said that because of his own frequent self-affliction, from now on others can use very minor self-discomforts to reach the same spiritual level as those who used to afflict themselves immensely.
An opponent of Chassidism asked his colleague, the Alter Rebbe, "Do you know the author of Noam Elimelech? I heard he also studied under your master, the Maggid of Mezritch. I am curious about him, because I have his book in my home. I keep it under the bench, upon which I sit."
The Alter Rebbe replied, "I can tell you about him. Even if you were to place him under the bench instead of the book, he wouldn't protest, because he is so humble."13
Indeed, Rebbe Elimelech's humility was truly phenomenal. Although he prayed most of the day with all his heart and soul,14 was a giant in Torah knowledge, deeply attuned to spirituality, and served G‑d with vigor and devotion, he always felt he wasn't doing enough, and that his intentions weren't pure enough.
These quotes are just a sampling of examples that show the depth of his humility:
"They will need to create a new Gehinom for me, because the Gehinom that exists now isn't large enough to punish me, due to all my sins."15
"After my demise, when I stand before the divine court, they will ask me whether I served G‑d. I will answer that I didn't serve G‑d, not even for a moment. The court will reply, 'You speak the truth. In that merit, you can go straight to Gan Eden.' "16
"I wish my mother gave birth to a stone instead of me, because a stone doesn't anger G‑d, but I make G‑d angry."17
"I'm already 60 years old, and I haven't done one mitzvah."18
Once, he reviewed his deeds and felt like he was the worst person in the world. He was on the verge of becoming ill, because of his intense distress.
There was a bottle of wine on the table. He said, "Master of the World! I never served You before, but I will serve You now! I will bless You with all my strength."
He took a cup of wine and said the blessing with all his soul. This good deed revived him.19
Even as thousands streamed to him, requesting his prayers and blessings, he remained humble and unassuming. "They are telling me their troubles because it is my fault," he would say. "My many sins polluted the world, and that brought all these sorrows." And then Rebbe Elimelech would pray for them.
Humility is an essential virtue, but it can also cause a person to falsely assume that their efforts are not valued On High.
Therefore, "holy pride" is also needed at times.
When people asked Rebbe Elimelech to pray, he would say to himself, "I can save him with my prayers, and no one else can." He built up his belief that his prayers were essential.20
Rebbe Elimelech once said (regarding an evil government edict), "The decree was established before Elimelech was in the world. But now Elimelech is in the world, and I don't agree to it."
He knew when to be humble, and when to have holy pride.
Fear of Heaven
Tzaddikim said that Rebbe Elimelech's fear of Heaven could be compared to the fear that the angels have in heaven.21
Many Jewish prayers begin with the words baruch atah, "Blessed are You." When he said "baruch," he would be seized with such reverence that he couldn't say "atah."22
Rebbe Elimelech once fell on a nail, and he showed the wound to his wife, to ask her how deep it was.
Her first thought was to shout out in distress, because it was a very deep wound. But she learned from her husband the importance of maintaining a joyous mood. So she steeled herself and said, "Kein ayin hara, you can put an entire bale of hay in there."
Rebbe Elimelech laughed, and said that the laughter helped cure him.23
Stories of Tzaddikim
Rebbe Elimelech wrote, "It is a good sign for a person when he hears stories … of tzaddikim … and his heart is inspired to serve G‑d. This is a good omen that G‑d is with him."24
May the stories told here and the lessons gleaned accomplish this goal!
Sipurei Chassidim, Reb Shlomo Yosef Zevin, Torah #37. For a dramatized account of this story, see The Leper.
Torat Shalom, Sefer HaSichot.
Siftei Tzaddik, Piltz, Pinchas
13 Orot, Pshvorsk, vol.1, ch.7
Maor v'Shamesh, Devarim.
Noam Elimelech, Emor.
Imrei Yosef, Spinka, Kedoshim
Noam Elimelech, Ibid.
Maor V'Shamesh, haftarah, Shabbos Shuvah ???
Divrei Chaim of Tzanz, quoted by Tzanz-Klausenberg, Chumash Rashi, Tetzaveh year 5741
Beit Rebbe pg. 63.
Shomer Emunim, Tzavah, 21
Toldot Adam, Ostrava, Ekev
Kol Yaakov, Dinov, Tazria
Imrei Yosef, Spinka, introduction to Shemot
Beit Yaakov, Alexander, Likutim.
Shulchan HaTahor Bergesaz, p.170.
Ben Beiti, Reb Eliezer Tzvi of Kamarna, Tehillim 41:5.
Eish Kodesh, Piaseczno, Kedoshim.
Noam Megadim, Tarnigad, Re'eh.
Darkei Chaim v'Shalom, Munkatz, no. 220.
Noam Elimelech, Shemot.