Reb Elimelech M’Lizhensk was considered one of the finest students of the Baal Shem Tov’s successor, the Maggid MiMezretch. When the Maggid passed away, his disciples gathered for the funeral and then had to decide who would succeed their master. The consensus was that there was a need for a leader that was robust and energetic, articulate and charismatic, who would know how to watch over his flock and even, if necessary, to engage in battle. Once these guidelines were established, the question of succession would become a mute one.
Unanimously the disciples elected to crown Reb Elimelech, and they chanted in unison, “Yechi adoneinu v’rabbeinu – Long live our master and teacher, Reb Elimelech!” From Mezeritch the group of chassidim departed to Lezhensk, with Reb Elimelech at the head of the procession. The group continued until evening descended, and it was necessary to lodge for the night. They entered an inn along the way and requested a single room for their newly appointed master.
To the great astonishment of the chassidim Reb Elimelech requested pillows and covers from the innkeeper – as if he were planning to retire for the entire night. Several hours later the chassidim were, well, appalled that their new master was still sleeping like a commoner.
The Maggid who had preceded him had never allowed himself more than a few hours of sleep. Without anyone saying a word, there was a profound sense of regret over their choice of leader. Still, no one had the temerity to arouse Reb Elimelech. But when several more hours passed and Reb Elimelech remained sleeping, they knew they had to do something. They summoned Reb Zusha, who was with them at the inn, to awaken his brother.
“Waking Rebbe Elimelech is the simplest thing in the world,” he commented, as if he was just asked by the trembling chassidim to tie a shoe. And with that he entered the room where his brother was sleeping and placed his hand over the mezuzah in the room. At that instant Reb Elimelech jumped out of bed.
The confounded chassidim asked Reb Zusha to explain what they had just beheld. “As you know,” Reb Zusha began, “man must envision the name of God before his eyes at all times. But what is one to do when he slumbers? The answer is that he relies on the ineffable name inscribed in the mezuzah.
“Thus, when I covered over the mezuzah, my brother no longer had anything to rely on, and he was therefore compelled to awake and envision the Almighty before his eyes.” All of the chassidim released a pent-up collective sigh of relief.
With Reb Elimelech at the helm, Lezhensk became the Jerusalem of the chassidic world. Like Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Elimelech could establish instant rapport with both scholars and the masses.
Similarly, when he detected the need, he would take up the wanderer’s staff and visit far off villages and distant hamlets. In this way he came to understand the economic struggles, as well as the spiritual needs, of his people.
In the course of 13 years, Rabbi Elimelech armed his followers with weapons that enabled them to survive the onslaughts of the misnagdim. These weapons were prayer, kindness and compassion. Not undeservedly was he called not only Rebbe Elimelech, but also “the Second Baal Shem Tov.”
Because Reb Elimelech devoted all of his time and energy to serving the Lord, he didn’t have the means to support his family. There was never enough to eat, and the most modest and essential needs were barely met.
There was one businessman who davened in the same minyan as Reb Elimelech and he could not fail to notice the plight of the young man who spent his entire day immersed in Torah study. Therefore, every day he would discreetly place a coin into the tallis bag of Reb Elimelech. After awhile the businessman realized that his financial dealings were improving and his profit was increasing.
It didn’t take long before it became manifestly clear that his support of the poor scholar was a source of untold blessing. Hence he began to up his donations, and the increase in his personal income was commensurate to his contributions. In no time he had become a wealthy man.
One day Reb Elimelech was absent from shul. The businessman nervously inquired about the whereabouts of his goldmine and was informed that Reb Elimelech had departed to visit his rebbe, the Maggid of Mezeritch. The man made a quick calculation. If he had done so well by contributing to a student, then he would surely gain by donating to the master! Accordingly, he set off for Mezeritch and handed the Maggid a handsome donation. The man returned home confident that he had made the greatest investment of his lifetime.