Back to Adar 21

Back to Elimelech

Rabbi Elimelech the "Leader"

by Rabbi Dovidel of Lelow

It is said of a great leader that he is the Tzadik (righteous one) of the generation. What is the meaning of a leader? In order to lead, one must know the path. However, this is not sufficient. In order to lead the path that he knows, he must go at the head. However there is a third thing that is relevant also. He must forge together his charges into a team, and it is an entirely different matter when this team marches together with a leader at the helm, than if it were to go along as a flock without a leader. The meaning of a team is a group of people who are of common heart, and who are committed one to another. The rabbi Rebbe Elimelech was a great Tzadik and peace and harmony prevailed among his students, and not only among his students - but anyone who came in contact with him became part of the team.

Some time ago I met an old woman who served in his house even before I came to Lizhensk. I asked her what particularly stood out in her memory. She said that she did not know how to relate stories, however what she remembered in particular was: on weekdays on occasion there was strife among the staff, as happens, however on Sabbath eve, when the Rebbe said to us "Peaceful Sabbath", something passed over us, so that each of us fell upon the necks of each other and we requested one from another "please forgive me, my beloved, for all that I sinned against you during this past week".

This was the way it was. The Rebbe did not need to impose his influence upon people. They were influenced by his surroundings. His very presence strengthened his associates into one group.

Our rabbi of Lancut was chief among the students in the court of Rebbe Elimelech. Not even the greatest of the students tried to undermine his leadership. The Tzadik himself, who was reluctant, particularly during his old age, to deal with matters which could be dealt with by others, used to answer people who came to him for advice: "Go to Rabbi Yitzchakle", as our rabbi was referred to by everyone.

On one occasion, our rabbi did not come for Simchat Torah. I was not yet in Lizhensk at that time, but Rabbi Elazar, the son of the rabbi Rabbi Elimelech, related the matter. He saw how disturbed his father was and asked him why he was so troubled by the fact that one student was missing, for many others of the same caliber were present. Rabbi Elimelech answered, "Certainly you know that every year, on this day, my students assist me in erecting the Celestial Holy Temple[5], and each one of them raises a specific holy vessel of the Temple, and Rabbi Itzikel of Lancut brings in the holy ark, and if he is not here, even if I call out 'Arise Oh G-d' one hundred times, I have called it out in vain!".

And you certainly know, Yaakov Yitzchak, that a strange transformation occurred in Rebbe Elimelech about seven years prior to his passing, that is to say seven years before he filled his allotted seventy years. However you certainly cannot describe the change as it was. He, with his soul in the celestial treasury, distanced himself from matters of this world, not all of a suddenly, but very gradually. This was not only in his will and intellect alone, but in his entire physical being; his face became clear, and his gaze turned away from any thing and seemingly turned inward. In those days he only walked on his tiptoes - it appeared very strange. For he was even taller than our rabbi was - and he carried his arms, for no external reason, in a posture of repulsion. He only turned to them[6] with brief words, and his eyes always looked in wonder at such a time.

There were a group of younger people who thought in their hearts that he had, Heaven forbid, become senile: however, in truth, he was as great as he was before. However interpersonal contact had become difficult for him. They made him impatient. The Magid of Koznice said: this occurred because they all behaved with such seriousness, that is to say that they did not know how to be in the presence of the angels that were surrounding us, that were produced by his good deeds.[7]

On one occasion, our rabbi returned to Lizhensk and told one of his friends that when he went through a forest and saw two trees extraordinarily tall, one with a thick trunk and the other tall and thin. The first one did not branch out anymore at the top, but rather grew upward with all its might. The second one weakened, and sprouted branches at an equivalent height to its top. After some time, he had a long conversation with the rabbi Rebbe Elimelech, and after this conversation he went to Lancut, which was not far from Lizhensk, and related that in that discussion his rabbi granted him permission to lead his own congregation. However, I am of a different opinion, that Rabbi Elimelech only told him to go to Lancut, and the permission to lead a congregation was not given to him until a long time after this event, that is to say one year prior to the passing of Rebbe Elimelech.

A few months after that conversation Rabbi Kalman asked me if I know how great was the transparency of Elijah the prophet in the final time before he ascended to heaven in a whirlwind. When I did not answer, he said: the people of his generation could no longer conceive of the greatness of his intellect, and it was no longer possible to receive lessons on the way of life from him, therefore the Holy One Blessed Be He said to Elijah: Their intellect cannot conceive of the greatness of your glow and holiness, therefore anoint Elisha as a prophet in your stead, who is lesser than you, and people will be able to relate to him, and from him they will learn the way of life according to their intellect[8].

In any case, the rabbi Rebbe Elimelech sent several people with whom he no longer wished to deal to Lancut, however apparently he did not realize that many of his students, particularly the younger ones, went their without asking him first. I myself participated in this change of situation, not deliberately. Our rabbi at that time used to go to Lizhensk on occasion for the Sabbath accompanied by his shammas. Once I heard that he went, and I went to his guestroom in order to greet him. It was the eve of the Sabbath prior to the setting of the sun. After I greeted him I hurried to leave, for it was not an appropriate time for lingering. However the rabbi called me to return, he said in a loud voice: Rabbi Dovid, do you know at what time the Sabbath begins? I answered that I do indeed know, for my hands tell me. I showed him my hand, whose sinews began to knock at that that time. He said: If indeed you know at what time the Sabbath begins, I will tell you a story. The daughter of a captain fell in love with the son of a general, and even though this situation was not normal, this was a decree from Heaven that overruled the way of the world, and they got married. Did you hear what I related to you? I nodded my head; indeed this secret is found in the book 'Pri Eitz Chaim': how the upper and lower worlds unify together on the weekdays and bustle with life. They unify together in order to clarify the powers that have fallen, until such a point that with the commencement of the Sabbath new souls become created. The rabbi hugged me and said "The rest is near to you".

However I later heard that the rabbi Rebbe Elimelech said to him at that time when he came to great him: you have come to take my Hassidim from me, just wait and everything will fall into your lot.

The congregation grew in Lancut, and I also traveled to there on occasion until the situation became such that I was there more often than in Lizhensk. Yaakov Yitzchak, you must understand: the rabbi Rebbe Elimelech did not look at any one of us anymore. He walked among his students as a cloud on a stormy day. There is a town between Lizhensk and Lancut where a student of Rebbe Elimelech used to live, who was a teacher of young children. He also began to follow our rabbi. He once went for the Sabbath to Lancut, and rabbi Elimelech realized this, and immediately at the conclusion of the Sabbath he traveled to that village, found the home of that student and inquired about him. His wife answered that he left and would return shortly. He went to greet her husband and suggested that he give some sort of pretext, however he did not want to lie before his rabbi, and when Rebbe Elimelech asked him where he was he answered: Our rabbi dwells in the seventh heaven and no man such as myself can approach him, and in Lancut there is a ladder from which one can ascend to the skies of Lizhensk. The rabbi called out: "You wise person of the wise, desist!" It is related that that man immediately fell asleep in the second room and did not awaken again. After one week he passed away. In the meantime, Rebbe Elimelech continued on his journey to Lancut. He came to our rabbi in the middle of the night. Nobody knows what they discussed. It is told that Rebbe Elimelech turned to our rabbi with a demand, and our rabbi refused. He brought a parable from the life of Saul, where it is told that at first he did not want the kingship, and later cleaved to it for naught[9]. However, nobody at all overheard their conversation, and they certainly did not discuss it with anyone. A long time thereafter, Rabbi Elazar the son of Rabbi Elimelech told me that his father told him about the event at that time, after he returned from his journey, and uttered something that sounded like a curse. Rabbi Elazar reminded him that he himself told his student to go to Lancut. Rabbi Elimelech responded that nobody understood him, and that even his own son only supports him a little bit. He said with tears flowing from his eyes: But I wish to still live.

Nobody can believe that the explanation of this was that he desired for this world. The word 'to live' only means that he wished to rectify things in this world. Nobody can know what, however one can imagine that he had something against the ideas of our rabbi and that his actions were a stumbling block for Rebbe Elimelech.


1. The name of the son generally appears in the text as Eliezar, but here and in a few other places as Elazar. These are two distinct names. I use the form Elazar consistently, as that is the version that appears on the inscription of the monument on page 169.

2. This is the name of a book by Martin Buber. Literally 'Gog Umagog' refers to the apocalyptic battles expected to take place as a prelude to the Messianic Era.

3. This is referring to the Melave Malka meal, which is eaten after the conclusion of the Sabbath.

4. A short form for Elimelech.

5. A reference to the Jewish mystical belief that there is a Holy Temple (Beis Hamikdash) in the celestial realm that is a spiritual counterpart to the earthly one that was destroyed 2000 years ago. The holy ark is the main vessel in the Holy Temple. The phrase 'Arise Oh G-d to your dwelling, You and Your ark of glory' is a verse that is included in the Simchat Torah liturgy.

6. Unclear to whom this refers. Semantically it seems to refer to his arms, but contextually, it probably refers to his students.

7. A reference to the mystical belief that good deeds give birth to good angels.

8. A reference to the story of Elijah the prophet in the last few chapters of Kings I, where Elijah is told to anoint Elisha as a prophet in his stead, and the second chapter of Kings II, where Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. It is explained that Elijah, due to his great level of spirituality, was no longer able to relate to the Jewish people, with their common desires and drives. He expresses his deep frustration that the people keep on reverting to idolatry, even though they have seen clear proofs of G-d's existence. Therefore, G-d asks him to anoint another prophet in his stead.

9. When King Saul was anointed king of Israel, he at first tried to decline. Later, when David was anointed in his stead during Saul's lifetime, Saul cleaved to the kingship, even though it was meant to go to David. The inference here is that Rebbe Elimelech is clinging to leadership even though his effectiveness may have passed.