Today, the first day of the Hebrew month of Iyar, marks the anniversary of the passing of one of the unsung heroes of the Jewish people's return to the Land of Israel in the modern era.
Over a century before what is commonly known as the First Aliya commenced in 1882, which brought an influx of brave and largely secular Zionist pioneers from Russia and elsewhere, the hassidic master Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk led one of the first organized group of Jewish immigrants to reach the Holy Land. As the nation prepares to celebrate Independence Day next week, it is worth recalling this towering figure, if only to underline the fact that credit for the subsequent reestablishment of the Jewish state belongs to all sectors of Israeli society.
The year was 1777 and Rabbi Menachem Mendel was among the leaders of the burgeoning hassidic movement that was sweeping through large segments of eastern European Jewry. A student of the great Rabbi Dov Ber, known as the Maggid of Mezritch, he was widely regarded as the heir to the mantle of Hassidism's leadership, which was entering its third generation on the Jewish scene and winning a growing numbers of adherents. Nonetheless, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, who harbored a deep love for the Land of Israel and the Jewish People, left it all behind to make the arduous and hazardous journey to the land of his ancestors.
Of course, there was no El Al at the time, nor any Jewish Agency emissaries or Absorption Ministry officials to assist the would-be arrivals. Undertaking such a trek entailed unfathomable risks and hence required unquenchable faith.
Together with Rabbi Avraham of Kalisk and Rabbi Yisrael of Polotsk, two other leaders of the hassidic movement, Rabbi Menachem Mendel nonetheless set out on the voyage from Belarus, joined by a group of 300 students and followers.
Living in an age when we can idle our time in a Boeing 777 watching films on an iPad while being served a hot meal, it is impossible for us to conceive of the hardships they faced or the sacrifices they made. The trip, which began in the spring and took five months, required them to traverse perilous roads and evade hostile strangers. Some 30 Jews died en route when the ship carrying them went down at sea.
The immigrants reached Israel's shores in the autumn of 1777, arriving at the port of Acre. They went to live in Safed, which was known as a center of Jewish mysticism and spirituality, but after three years of persecution by local Arabs and Turks, as well as hostility from anti-hassidic elements in the Jewish community, the group settled in Tiberias.
Interestingly, the Yiddish-speaking immigrants were warmly welcomed by the city's Sephardic community, so much so that Rabbi Menachem Mendel arranged for his son to marry a woman from a Sephardic family, which was virtually unheard of at the time. In so doing, he set a powerful example of Jewish unity, one that we would all do well to learn from.
As Rabbi Eliezer Melamed of the Har Bracha Yeshiva noted in an article about Rabbi Menachem Mendel, he sought to unify the nation of Israel through settling the Land, and "in his last will and testament, he advises against scrutinizing or quarreling with the Sephardic Jews whether on issues of religious practice of any other matter."
Two centuries later, many religious Jews in the modern State of Israel would do well to recall that directive.
Despite facing immense economic, political and other challenges, Rabbi Menachem Mendel's followers struggled mightily to build new lives in Israel. Their courageous dedication and self-sacrifice set the stage for countless Jews who followed in their footsteps and surely served as a clarion call to others.
Sadly, Rabbi Menachem Mendel passed away in 1788 at the age of 57, barely a decade after he had helped to launch the modern wave of aliya that continues until today. Fittingly, he left behind a legacy that denounced fraternal hatred among Jews, warning his followers to refrain from looking down upon their non-religious brethren. "Do not mock others lest you be struck by hardships, Heaven forbid," he wrote, adding, "more specifically, do not mock those who have abandoned the Torah.... Don't the Sages teach that Jews are considered God's children no matter what?"
One who scorns secular Jews, he declared, "in effect separates himself from the collective community of Israel."
At a time when tensions between religious and secular Israelis are once again on the rise, we can all learn an important lesson or two from Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk.
To those who belittle what hassidim contribute to Israeli society, take a look back at the history books and remember that it was a hassidic rebbe who pioneered mass aliya.
And to observant Jews who disparage our secular brethren, recall Rabbi Menachem Mendel's perceptive words: "It is quite obvious and clear to me that mocking those who have abandoned the way of the Torah is the cause of decline and destruction."
On this day, Rabbi Menachem Mendel's yahrzeit, may we all learn from his example.