Year after year, little Menachem Mendel watched his father, a devoted chassid, undertake the long journey from Vitebsk, Belarus, to visit the Baal Shem Tov in Mezibuz. At 9 years old he was deemed strong enough to accompany his father, and the young boy finally met the holy Baal Shem Tov about whom he had heard so much.

Years passed and the boy grew into a capable young man, now able to travel to Mezibuz alone. He arrived on Friday at noon and checked into the local inn with ample time to prepare for Shabbat.

The Baal Shem Tov’s custom was to begin Shabbat early, while the sun was still high above the treetops. That week, however, he seemed to be waiting for something. By the time the visitor quietly slipped into the prayer hall, prompting the Baal Shem Tov to turn around and begin the introductory Shabbat prayers, the other congregants had been waiting a full hour. It was clear that the Baal Shem Tov delayed the service just so the young visitor could finish his pre-Shabbat arrangements and join them.

Throughout Shabbat, the Baal Shem Tov didn’t utter a word to the young visitor. Following the conclusion of Shabbat, however, he invited two of his best students, Rabbi Dovber and Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, along with young Menachem Mendel, into his study. Behind closed doors, the Baal Shem Tov told a curious story. He weaved in details, obscure references, and profound metaphors. His students understood this was no ordinary story. It concerned the young visitor standing beside them; the story of his life, from his birth to the day of his death.

Before they left the room, the Baal Shem Tov gestured Rabbi Dovber closer and whispered in his ear: “The boy isn’t at all what he seems. Don’t be fooled by superficiality. His smart outfit implies a preoccupation with looking good, but know that inside he is truly humble. His sharp appearance serves to disguise his holy character and his absolute subservience before G‑d.”

Outside the study, the three men discussed the story. Rabbi Dovber said he understood everything, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef understood only half, and the young visitor only understood a small part—everything until that very Shabbat. Whatever the future would portend remained a mystery to him.

In time, this young man came to be the great Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, author of the book Peri Haaretz. After the passing of the Maggid of Mezeritch he was considered one of the greatest Chassidic leaders, with many students of his own.

Tragically, Rabbi Menachem Mendel was stricken with a serious illness and he deteriorated so severely that the case was deemed hopeless. Pale and unconscious, he lay in bed, surrounded by students and family holding prayer books, and pleading with G‑d through tears from the depths of their hearts.

Sudden movement from the bed shocked the crowd into confused silence as Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s eyes fluttered open and scanned the glistening faces. “There’s nothing to fear,” he said softly. “Based on the Baal Shem Tov’s story, I know I have to go to the Land of Israel, so it is clear that my time has not yet come.”

Indeed, he recovered from his brush with death and led a group of devoted followers to Israel in 5537 (1777).

Before embarking on the arduous voyage, he stopped in Polana, hometown of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef. He waited outside his house, dressed in a flowing silk robe, a smoldering pipe hanging from his lips. And contrary to Chassidic custom, he wore no belt. This did not pass unnoticed by the chassidim, and they tried to turn him away, warning that Rabbi Yaakov Yosef didn’t take kindly to those entering without the appropriate garb. Rabbi Menachem Mendel paid them no heed, entered the house, and walked right into Rabbi Yaakov Yosef’s study.

At the sight of his friend from his Mezibuz days, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef rose and embraced him with enthusiasm. Then he pulled back and stared into Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s face.

“Now do you understand the Baal Shem Tov’s story?”

“I understand the entire story.”

“Did you know that on your way to the Land of Israel you were to visit me?”

“Indeed, hence I am here.”

“And where in the story are you currently holding?”

This question prompted a small sigh from Rabbi Menachem Mendel. “It seems I am halfway through.”

The two spoke for quite a while and when it was time to part, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef accompanied him all the way to his inn. Upon his return, his chassidim approached him, curious to learn more about the mysterious visitor who dressed so opulently.

“It’s like when the king decides to bury his most valuable jewel, but first he needs to find the most unexpected place. Where does he eventually hide it? In the garbage, where no one would ever think to look!” explained Rabbi Yaakov Yosef.

“This is how Rabbi Menachem Mendel conducts himself. Humility is a trait he holds dear and he wishes to safeguard it from his evil inclination. So he hides it in behavior the evil inclination would never suspect—a feigned display of arrogance and condescension. But know that these are just attempts to mask his true modesty and unassuming nature.”

Adapted from Sichat HaShavua #1339