My Memories of an Extraordinary Mashpia

In honor of the fourth yahrtzeit of Reb Meilech Zwiebel a”h, Rabbi Chaim Chazan, shares his memories of a mashpia who was a genius in all areas of Torah and completely removed from worldly matters, yet had a keen understanding of each bochur’s challenges.

By Rabbi Chaim Chazan, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Chabad Dnieper, Ukraine

In honor of Reb Meilech’s fourth yahrtzeit, I have jotted down some memories from when I learned in the yeshiva in Morristown. Although I was in the shiur learning Yoreh Deiah (“semicha”) and was not officially his student, I sometimes attended his shiurim, joined his farbrengens, asked him questions in learning and talked to him about various topics.

When the Frierdiker Rebbe sat shiva for the Rebbe Rashab in Rostov, someone came to be menachem avel and began listing various qualities of the Rebbe Rashab. The Frierdiker Rebbe told him, “You’re not talking about my father; you’re talking about yourself.”

That means that this person had some difficulty in avodas Hashem, and when he saw that the Rebbe Rashab didn’t have this difficulty, this for him became a virtue of the Rebbe Rashab. He didn’t recognize the Rebbe Rashab’s true madreiga, he only understood the Rebbe Rashab as it related to himself.

Likewise, whatever I remember of Reb Meilech obviously isn’t his full greatness, but simply what I observed and connected to.

***

It’s told how one chassidic Rebbe said about another tzadik that he’s one of the thirty-six hidden tzadikim. His chassidim challenged, “But he’s famous and renowned?” To which the chassidic Rebbe answered, “What you see isn’t his true greatness. His real madreiga is hidden and therefore he is ‘tzadik nistar.’”

The same could be said about Reb Meilech. While everyone recognized that he was great, it seems as if many did not appreciate the extent of his greatness.

Rabbi Chaim Schapiro, who for many years taught Yoreh Deiah in the Morristown Yeshiva and knew the material thoroughly, shared with us chidushim that Reb Meilech taught him in those areas. Although this was his main area of learning, Reb Meilech still had things to be mechadesh to him. “He is the best kept secret in Lubavitch,” Rabbi Schapiro would say. 

Aside from having a fluent knowledge in all areas of Torah – nigla, Chassidus and halacha – he remembered many sayings and stories that he had heard from elder chassidim of previous generations. As a bochur, in Eretz Yisroel and in America, he spent much time listening to chassidim. At every shiur and even more so at farbrengens, he repeated anecdotes and vertlach that you would not hear anywhere else. They were not written anywhere, he just pulled them out from his memory.

By nature, Reb Meilech was hatzneia leches, private and introverted. But he also had a sense of humor. [A worker once left a ladder leaning against a wall in the yeshiva. A bochur having fun stuck a paper with an arrow pointing up saying Atzilus and an arrow pointing left saying Atik. Reb Meilech walked by and commented “Doesn’t it say in Zohar ‘lies smala behai atika (there is no ‘left’ in Atik)”?] 

Most mashpiim have a set of specific topics that they speak about at farbrengens. It is usually something that matches their personality or avoda, issues they struggled with and overcame, or what they “koch” in (their zahir tfei). They are then mashpia on their talmidim to excel in these areas.

As the Maggid explained, “chacham ma hu – omer,” a chacham speaks what he is. In other words, what his pnimiyus is, that’s what he talks about.

Reb Meilech, being such a multifaceted person, was unique that he would farbreng about a wide range of topics. He had a shleimus in so many areas so he could farbreng about many different things. Each farbrengen was another topic, and he farbrenged with the same koch that a regular mashpia farbrengs about his favorite topic.

During a farbrengen, when he shared story or sayings of elder chassidim, he spoke of them as if he knew them. He could describe them in great detail and bring out their maalos and what was unique about each chossid. Even with regards to chassidim who passed away before he was born, he had heard so much about them from other chassidim, it was as if he had met them. His interest in their lives and admiration for them knew no bounds. 

I recall a farbrengen where Reb Meilech was talking about the mashpia of the yeshiva in Lubavitch Reb Shilem Kuratin. No doubt that for Reb Meilech, he was a prime role model as an architype mashpia. At that particular farbrengen, Reb Meilech’s affinity and esteem for Reb Shilem just gushed over, so much so that after a while he said, “Yeah yeah yeah, Reb Shilem is oichet geven a nivra – Reb Shilem was also human,” as if to say after all he also had his failings and he went on to relate some mistake Reb Shilem made. He was so enthralled by Reb Shilem’s personality and avoda, he had to put things in perspective and remind himself Reb Shilem was also human.

The above also describes another aspect that I felt when spending time in the presence of Reb Meilech. One couldn’t fail to notice the spiritual distance between him and the people around him. One expression of this was the abovementioned farbrengen. It seemed to me that he sometimes overestimated the familiarity of the crowd with the ideas or people he would talk about. He could caution a misunderstanding that no one at all had entertained. 

Conversely, as a result of being awe inspired in his presence and not being able miss his towering stature, talking to him aroused a feeling of kiruv – an appreciation that he is now giving of his precious time. 

Not being a talmid in yeshiva, I was not one of the bochurim that he tried to influence, he never called me to his private office in yeshiva. But I knew that he was involved in the little details of bochurim’s lives. He could take a bochur and guide him in very detailed manner how and what he should learn and what he should work on. Despite being steeped in his world of Chassidus and nigla, he would come down into the world of a young bochur, because he saw that as his shlichus.

His aura and hadras ponim was one of serenity and purity. One of the legends in Morristown involved a new baal teshuva starting out at Tiferes Bochurim. On his first evening, he was smoking outside the building when he suddenly saw Reb Meilech walking up the long winding path of the yeshiva. Reb Meilech’s unique gait was as if he has no worries in the world. This bochur from Tiferes, never having met Reb Meilech, imagined that he was having giluy Eliyahu

Indeed, after Reb Meilech was niftar, a few stories came out how non-frum people were niskarev to Yiddishkeit by seeing him in an airport or seeing him on mivtzoyim and responding to him because of his angelic appearance. 

Reb Meilech’s mastery of all parts of Torah can serve as an example to broaden one’s awareness of what’s possible when one set one’s mind to it. Obviously, Reb Meilech possessed Divinely gifted intellect and memory, coupled with a unique capacity for hasmada. Still, he didn’t know what he knew without investing toil and effort.

The first time I ever spoke to Reb Meilech, I asked a question about something. He right away pulled out a volume of Likutei Sichos and showed me a haoro on a sicha that addresses the issue. I had heard that he knew Shas and Shulchan Aruch and Chassidus, but it was still a shock to witness it myself. Later I learned that he was part of the team that prepared Likutei Sichos for publication. 

At one farbrengen towards the beginning of the year, he made everyone take a hachlata to take on something new to learn. He also took a hachlata, that he’s going to chazer the whole Hemshech Samach Vov and the whole Ayin Beis. From then on, every morning during seder Chassidus he would learn Samach Vov. I watched how he turned pages and after not long the right side of the sefer that he already learned became bigger than the left side. Throughout the first half of the year he finished Samach Vov and started the first volume Ayin Beis. By the end of the year, he was almost done that volume too. He just cruised through hundreds of pages of Chassidus during the year I was there, based on his hachlata of that farbrengen.

There’s an organization called AARTS that accredits yeshivos for federal grants. The year I was in Morristown, the yeshiva was visited by the Bobover rosh yeshiva Rav Chaim Yaakov Tauber, son-in-law of Reb Shlomo of Bobov and a great lamdan. The yeshiva was then learning perek beis of Kidushin and he was invited to deliver a shiur while visiting. 

Reb Meilech obviously had no interest in showing off his lomdus. On the other hand, he wanted to make a favorable impression to the visiting delegation that there is real learning in Lubavitch. Apparently, the cause of making an impression for Lubavitch outweighed his desire to hide his learning.

While the rosh yeshiva was talking, Reb Meilech raised his hand and says, “According to what you’re saying, you can answer Reb Akiva Eiger’s kashya in Bava Metzia! On daf so and so [in middle of Bava Metzia somewhere, not in the dapim that are learned l’iyun in yeshiva], Tosfos talks about x, and Reb Akiva Eiger asks a question. And what you said could answer that question.”

The Bobover Rosh yeshiva stopped and verbally went through the entire cheshbon – the Gemara, Tosfos’ question and answer, Rebbi Akiva Eiger’s question and how what had been said would answer his question – and conceded that Reb Meilech was right.

For Reb Meilech to take what the Bobover Rosh Yeshiva said in order to answer a different question in a different masechta, was impossible for him to have prepared in advance, and is not only a display of bekius but also incredible charifus.

Reb Meilech was completely removed from and disinterested in worldly affairs, even within Chabad.

For example: I witnessed the following at the Ohel on a well-attended Shabbos around either Gimmel Tamuz or Yud Shevat while Reb Meilech was farbrenging. When he would farbreng, the yungeliet and bochurim would gather around, and there was not enough space to hear him, so they would climb on benches and tables and it was like bleachers around his farbrengen.

During the farbrengen, Rabbi Berel Lazar of Moscow wanted to hear Reb Meilech and was standing listening on the side. The bochurim opened up a path for him to move closer and closer until he was standing behind Reb Meilech. The bochur that was sitting next to Reb Meilech saw Rabbi Lazar and stood up and allowed him to sit down near Reb Meilech. As he was settling in, Reb Meilech turned and saw him getting in to sit next to him, and he said, “Sholom aleichem, vi heist a yungerman? (What’s your name?)” This was after Rabbi Lazar had already become famous. Everyone knew who Rabbi Lazar is, but Reb Meilech had no clue. It was a funny and inspiring sight.

Despite the fact that Reb Meilech was definitely in his own world and was completely above Olam Hazeh, I was surprised once to see how he also had his feet on the ground. The bochurim who were learning semicha in Morristown used to learn with bochurim from the zal during seder Chassidus at night. I had been set up with a bochur and I didn’t feel I was getting through to him. He seemed to have warped hashkafos and was estranged from chassidishkeit. 

I went over to Reb Meilech to ask his advice. Reb Meilech told me the issue is very simple, “He’s in a relationship with a girl and that is mixing him up. B’etzem he’s a good boy that is a keili, it’s just now his mind is elsewhere.” I was taken aback how he had his finger on the pulse where this bochur is holding, and also by his empathy and the lack of judgementalism. I didn’t see any righteous indignation in Reb Meilech.

Aside from displaying understanding towards where the bochur was holding this episode is an example of another unique aspect about Reb Meilech: his judgement and shikul hadaas. Everything was measured, organized, thought through and he was calm, cool, and collected.

He witnessed different changes in Lubavitch and he had reasons that he could be upset about the direction certain things were taking. From several things that he said over the years I think that the way he retained his equilibrium was through strong unwavering emunah. He really believed that everything happens is exactly the way it’s supposed to happen. There’s a Boss of this world and there’s nothing to get nervous about, or to feel depressed about. Lubavitch is going to go exactly the way the Eibershter wants, and it’s not going to get any better than the Eibershter wants, nor will it get any worse than the Eibershter wants. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do and what happens is not your concern. 

I watched how he spoke or farbrenged with really Americanized bochurim. He could have been frustrated at the generation gap and lack of common ground, or by his own talents being under-utilized. But it never seemed to bother him. It just seemed that he accepted that this was his shlichus now and that’s that.

After I was already married for some time, I was once speaking to him about a solution to some general problem facing Anash. I don’t recall the exact details of the discussion, but he tried giving me perspective on the issue. He explained that this problem has been going on for a long time, perhaps not in the same form, but the same nekuda manifest in a different way.

He shared that in the late Lameds (1970’s) there was a meeting of mashpiim. It was the time of year when many chassidim had come, like for Tishrei perhaps or Yud Shvat, so there were a fair number of mashpiim from around the world in attendance.

One of the mashpiim brought up that he feels that there is a lapse among Anash with regards to regular davening. There are those who daven ba’arichus and pay attention to davening, but there are supposed to be many more people who just daven ehrlich, like regular balei batim, word for word and looking in the siddur. The middle ground of just regular davening with basic kavana was missing.

Among those present was Reb Nissan Nemenov who said, “I noticed this too, and I studied the problem (“ich hob shtudirt der inyan”). I concluded that since the Rebbeim demanded from chassidim to daven ba’arichus, as a result, from Heaven they took away the help and empowerment, to have a normal davening (oder gor oder gornisht).”

One need not accept what Reb Nissan said, but it displays an approach that nothing happens by itself. If you see a phenomenon, even if it’s negative, it also comes milmala – from on High. Another point, which Reb Meilech was trying to bring out with that story, is that certain problems are old and merely have different symptoms. 

I saw that nafsho yatza bedabro, his mind really worked that way. 

One of the facets of Reb Meilech that, at least for me, drew me to him was you genuinely saw a person that is enjoying and in love with Yiddishkeit. When he sat by a farbrengen it felt it felt as if he was enjoying every minute. If I had to describe “lehisaneg al Havaye,” what it means for a person to be having a taanug ruchni, spiritual pleasure, I would think of Reb Meilech.

There’s a chassidisher vort, on what we say in davening ‘vehaosher vahakovod milfonecha’. The simple meaning is that all wealth and all honor comes from Hashem. But the chassidishe interpretation is that the greatest wealth and the greatest honor is to be milfonecha, to be in the presence of Hashem. 

Imagine that the Zalman Kleinman painting on your wall suddenly became alive and the chossid walked out from it and you could hear what he’s saying: that would be a farbrengen of Reb Meilech. He just radiated the pleasure of being a Yid, the pleasure of being a chossid, the pleasure of having a shaychus to the Rebbe, the zechus to learn Torah, the zechus to do a mitzva. When you were in his presence you felt that he feels like he’s the luckiest person in the world.

Reb Hillel Paritcher said that if the baalei taivos would know the geshmak of davening they would leave all their taivos and they would come and daven. That is a saying of Reb Hillel Paritcher, but to see someone that really had the same geshmak in a farbrengen or in a maamar, if not more, than a baal taiveh is very encouraging. 

Many people lose much of their drive after they’ve worked in education for many years. When I was in Morristown, Reb Meilech was in his early sixties. You still felt a certain freshness that Chassidus was alive and applicable and contains the same unchanging message. I’m sure he was much more active when he was younger, but he retained his optimism and idealism. 

Once, after relentless requests, Reb Meilech agreed to farbreng for yungeleit in Crown Heights, and I had the honor to drive him there and back. After the farbrengen, as we were about to leave, a yungerman asked Reb Meilech what he thought of the two-volume biography of the mashpia Reb Shlomo Chaim Kesselman that had just been published. Since Reb Meilech had learned in Lod in by Reb Shlomo Chaim, the yungerman said, “As a mushpa and mekabel of Reb Shlomo Chaim, what is your opinion of the book?”

Reb Meilech, who was after many l’chaims, replied: “A mushpa of Reb Shlomo Chaim?! We were by the Rebbe from 5722! Shraga betihara mai ahani?! What’s a candle in front of the sun?!”

For decades, he came from Morristown to 770 for the Rebbe’s farbrengens every Shabbos mevorchim and yoma depagra. Reb Meilech would often share special memories of the Rebbe’s farbrengens, including not only what the Rebbe said, but also the atmosphere and background.

Reb Meilech truly stood out in his excellence in so many different areas, coupled by unassuming humility. Yehi zichro boruch.

More articles on Reb Meilech:

A Master of All Trades

Reb Meilech’s Advice for Better Davening

Teshura Sheds Light on Mashpia’s Younger Years

Listen: Reb Meilech’s Farbrengen in English

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