R’ Mendel Plotkin: A Model Chassidisher Baal Eisek

R’ Mendel Plotkin who was tragically taken from us was a regular person whom we can model. In recent years, he was a baal eisek, yet he was thoroughly committed to chassidishe values.

By Rabbi Akiva Wagner – Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Lubavitch Toronto

Although some time has passed, we are still speechless and grief-stricken over the sudden and unfathomable passing of our dear chaver, shochen tov and community member ר’ מנחם מענדל בן – יבלחט”א – ר’ מאיר יעקב שליט”א, Reb Mendel Plotkin a”h. Not because of the instruction of the Torah וידום אהרן, but, rather, because the tragedy is still so new and overwhelming, the pain so raw, that we don’t have the ability to say anything, and what is there to say?

But, the Rebbe taught us and drilled into us that in such situations there must be והחי יתן אל לבו. We don’t have the right to remain silent, because we have the important zechus and responsibility to focus on the lessons that we must learn from the life of the niftar.

But, first, a small preface: It is said that אחרי מות קדושים אמור. It becomes customary, that when one is departed, he is turned into some holy, righteous larger than life being. I think that custom is counter-productive: When we think of the departed person as of some holy tzadik, the result is merely that ‘what hope do I have of achieving what he achieved, and what connection could I have to aspiring to his level?’

So, let me emphasize, that Mendel a”h was a regular human being, with shortcomings and faults and challenges. The fact that, in a number of areas, he managed to achieve such greatness, was because he was principled and he worked on himself, and he never allowed himself to just get away with what everyone else does. His behavior, therefore, in all of these areas, is relevant, viable, reachable, and should be aimed for by each and every one of us.

There was a chosid by the name of Reb Abba Pliskin. Reb Abba was a prominent chassidishe Yid, who was active with mesirus nefesh in Russia, spreading Yiddishkeit under the existing conditions, and continued to be the example of a true chosid after arriving to the shores of America.

Once, the Rebbe instructed him to travel to outlying communities to farbreng with them. A chosid is, after all, wise, and he grabbed the opportunity to ask the Rebbe how, in fact, does one farbreng.

The Rebbe told him that he should start off with a story of a chosid.

Reb Abba found this puzzling. After all, we all know the rule, – פותחין בדבר מלכות, wouldn’t it make more sense to start off with a story (or a vort) of one of the Rebbeim?

The Rebbe explained: If you start off with a story of a Tzadik, it is easy for the listeners to tell themselves ‘well, he was a Tzadik, and incomparably greater than me. What possible connection could his story have with my day-to-day life?’ Therefore, the Rebbe concluded, you should start off with a story of a chosid, so that the listeners should realize that it is applicable to them as well!

The yetzer hora, however, as we well know, is an אומן במלאכתו, – he’s very good at what he does. So, he manages to convince us that even the eltere chosid, and even the fellow chosid who – perhaps – sat near us in shul, was really a holy Tzadik and how can we even dream of reaching his level etc.

So, let’s be sure not to fall into his trap. It is incumbent on each and every one of us to focus on Mendel’s life and on the way he lived so that we can learn from him and emulate him, and fulfil, in a very real way, the והחי יתן אל לבו.

Mendel a”h spent a number of years in the position of a בעל עסק, with all of the trials and tribulations that accompany every business endeavor, and with all of the challenges that are naturally associated with the involvement in worldly matters.

Yet, always, he saw himself first and foremost as a shliach. It wasn’t about a label, or just a manner of speaking. For him, this was as real as can be. Besides the fact that, amongst the dates on which he would invariably travel to the Rebbe, I think he would never miss participating in the kinus hashluchim (and he was definitely more committed to it than some of the “official” shluchim in town), Mendel actively lived with the mindset that shlichus was first and business was secondary. He never missed a chance to share a vort or a thought, every meeting or interaction was to him another opportunity for hafotzas hamaayonos chutza.

And he was tremendously successful in this. With him there were no barriers, no divisions. All groups, misnagdim, Polishe, modern, were given a vort from Torah, a maaseh, each person what was fitting for them. And, he earned the respect of all of them in a way that I haven’t seen with anyone else. He was never apologetic, never trying o hide a chassidisher vort or a vort from the Rebbe. Yet they were all ready to hear it from him. Somehow his sincerity and his נעים הליכות won them over, and their opposition melted away (as Chazal say מדת אמת ראה וכו’).

I think that he really was a living example of what Chazal teach us ואהבת את ה’ אלקיך, שיהא שם שמים מתאהב על ידך. With his refined and eidel manner, his sincerity, and his unwavering conviction to his principles and ideals, his entire being was a continuous kidush Hashem.

What was most remarkable to me, was that even when he was starting out, and could have seen himself as dependent on others, he never had that attitude. When it came to matters of Torah or chassidus, he was filled with the גאון יעקב, never hesitant to share the truth.

והחי יתן אל לבו. We all need to work on this, and are able to improve in this. Regardless of what our “official” job or preoccupation is, we need to remember that our primary occupation is אני לא נבראתי אלא לשמש את קוני, and no other consideration could ever override that.

Davening with him Shabbos, another thing that sticks out was his participation in farbrengens. As we get older (and even when we’re younger…), some of us become a bit lax in that. Balebatim will be more prone to join a farbrengen if there’s a good spread, some mouth-watering platters. Bochurim often don’t like to farbreng unless it’s their friends, their group and their crowd. Otherwise, they’ll often choose to pass. And, of course, there are those who – mainly – join the farbrengens only when they are the guest speaker, they enjoy most the sound of their own voice.

Mendel, a”h, I don’t think ever missed a farbrengen, definitely not on a day when there was supposed to be one (and if there wasn’t one arranged when there was supposed to be, he addressed that behind the scenes). It wasn’t his “crowd”, he was often the only one of the balebatim there by the farbrengen of bochurim. And the spread could probably have been improved upon… And, you can be sure he never spoke, no matter how many times I asked him (he would share with me his comments afterwards, but he was הצנע לכת, and never would agree to farbreng himself). He had a home a family to go to no less than the other balebatim. And after all, no one is always in the mood of a farbrengen.  

But with Mendel a”h there were no kuntzen. He could be a balebus, a successful businessman or anything else, and he could find all of the same excuses as anyone else. But what was demanded and expected of a chosid was his first and primary consideration. If it’s a yoma d’pagra, if it’s a day designated for a farbrengen, then – to him – that was where he belonged. Never mind that it was Yeshiva and geared to bochurim. He sat there – on the side – unassumingly, for an hour or two, eating herring and egg-plant salad (by the “big” farbrengens). And not just for a few minutes to be yoitzeh, but for a significant amount of time.

Another area that was very sacred to him was learning Likutei Torah Shabbos morning. He didn’t make excuses or put it off. Every Shabbos before davening he spent time learning the weekly Likutei Torah. What was demanded and expected from a chosid was – to him – not theoretical or abstract, but practical and actual.

והחי יתן אל לבו. It is up to each and every one of us to apply this approach to our own lives. Whatever we may do, we are first and foremost chassidim, shluchim, and what we have to expect from ourselves and demand from ourselves is everything that is expected of a chosid. We have to take it all literal and make it all practical. Not just the things that we may enjoy or be inclined towards. We have to constantly evaluate ourselves, every area of our lives, and make sure that we are living like a chosid is meant to live, and try to figure out how we can improve in these areas.

There is much more to be said, but for now – המעשה הוא העיקר, let us each find a way to translate the lessons into action and into our personal lives. And may Hashem conclude that we already endured enough of golus, and bring about, speedily and immediately, the הקיצו ורננו שוכני עפר and ומחה ה”א דמעה מעל כל פנים, when all will be good and positive in an open and revealed way, and we will be able to say sincerely and joyously אודך ה’ כי אנפת בי.

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