Dov Ber of Mezritch
(Dow Ber z Miedzyrzecza) (ca. 1704-1772)
Dov Ber of Mezritch was born in Lukacz in Volhynia to a poor-but respected-family. Since childhood, he had shown signs of his various talents and a keen intelligence. As a result, he was taken on as a pupil by the local rabbi, despite the fact that his father could not afford to pay for his children's education.
With time, Dov Ber became the best student in Lukacz. Because his talents quickly surpassed those of his fellow students, he was sent to study at the yeshiva in Lwow, where he studied several years. He then became a village teacher and devoted himself to the study of mysticism and contemplation of nature. He also engaged in ascetic types of behavior, such as fasting for many days. He eventually became an itinerant preacher, a magid in Hebrew. His eloquence won the admiration of his audiences, as did the colorful, evocative parables used in his sermons.
Because of his exhausting lifestyle, Dov Ber's health deteriorated. He went to Baal Shem Tov to be healed by the teacher, who was famous for working miracles. Dov Ber soon became Baal's loyal follower and said that it was the Besht (as Baal Shem Tov was also known) who "showed me the language of the birds and trees, the secrets of the holy and inspired words, he showed me the writings of the angels and explained the meaning of the alphabet."
He succeeded his master after his death, leaving Miedzybor, the hometown of Baal Shem Tov; he chose Miedzyrzec as his seat instead. Although he was regarded as the leader of the Chasidic movement, thus giving it a more formal character, he did not merely imitate his master the Besht passively. He stopped his travels throughout the countryside, sending others to spread his teachings instead.
Dov Ber had a large number of pupils - although there were said to be more than three hundred, the names of only thirty-one are known. They were prepared to leave their homes behind and spend the rest of their lives listening to his revelations. Crowds would come to Miedzyrzec, and Dov Ber's fame grew. His weak health did not allow him to work intensively. He admitted the faithful only on the Sabbath, spending the rest of the week alone with his students.
The views Dov Ber expressed towards the end of his life were met with criticism. He was accused of pantheism and a departure from the traditional rabbinical school, and of adopting Sephardic prayers.
According to Dov Ber, God filled everything, and it was man's task to penetrate through the material world to the world of the spirit and to perceive the spiritual dimension of the material world. Man should always be joyful and should be above his daily worries by keeping close to God and by giving oneself over to ecstatic joy. The highest level of spiritual bliss can only be attained by the tzaddikim-the true Chasidic leaders whose function is to be an intermediary between man and God.
Dov Ber did not leave any writings; the only written traces of his life to remain are notes of his teachings taken down by his pupils. It is clearly thanks to his great intellect that Chasidism became a true movement, although after his death it no longer remained a unified one. (asw/cm)
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