Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Tenth Man

Stories about Rabbi Meir Simcha Hakohen of Dvinsk (5603/1843-5686/1926), known as the "Or Same'ach"

Only once during the period from 1887 to 1926 did Dvinsk have but one rabbi. When World War I broke out, in 1914, the Russian Commander, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolayevitch (uncle of Czar Nikolai II) ordered the expulsion of the Jews from along the Russo-German Front. Dvinsk became dangerous for Jews, with famine and disease wreaking havoc. All who could fled the city. Even the Rogatchover was prevailed upon by his followers to escape.

But Reb Meir Simcha would not go. Neither the entreaties of his friends and students nor letters from gedolim around the world could persuade him to abandon his post. "As long as there are nine other Jews in that city, I will be the tenth for a minyan," he declared, and so infused hope and courage into his brethren. When he was reminded of the constant danger, Reb Meir Simcha declared, "Every bullet has a designated address and none will reach where there has been no Heavenly decree that it do so."9

One stormy October during this difficult period, terrifying news quickly spread through Dvinsk: "They're taking the Rav!" Everyone ran into the street and beheld the shattering sight of Reb Meir Simcha surrounded by burly Cossacks carrying drawn revolvers. Only the serene visage and calm demeanor of Reb Meir Simcha saved the horrified crowd from hysteria.

Despite the obvious dangers of doing so, thousands of Jews and Gentiles signed petitions attesting to the nobility of the Rav's character and his vital importance to the wellbeing of all members of that city. That very day, Reb Meir Simcha was freed and was never molested again.10

The Respect of the Gentiles
The above incident illustrates one of Reb Meir Simcha's more unique qualities: his relationship with the non-Jews of Dvinsk. A Gaon following the most ancient of traditions - spending virtually all of his time studying and teaching Torah - Reb Meir Simcha developed a reputation as a Holy Man among the Gentiles of the city. Indeed it is said that when Reb Meir Simcha was incarcerated by the authorities, a certain Christian tanner presented himself in the Rav's place, imploring, "Please do not harass this holy man. For the good of the city, let him go."11 Reb Meir Simcha's reputation was so widespread that even non-Jews sought him to settle their quarrels. Some say his acceptability began with the case of the Jew and the gypsy.
A Jew and a gypsy had been business partners when a major conflict of interests developed between them. Not being able to come to an agreement themselves, the gypsy suggested they go to Reb Meir Simcha for a decision. The Jewish man agreed and they presented their case to the Rav. Reb Meir Simcha listened with particularly careful attention and proceeded with his own independent investigation. After satisfying himself about the facts, Reb Meir Simcha decided in favor of the gypsy. From that day forward, the word of Reb Meir Simcha's justice and objectivity spread throughout all of Dvinsk and indeed Latvia.12
Reb Meir Simcha was known to joke about this phenomenon and with a smile would say, "A Chassidic Rebbe often has many types of Chassidim, but I draw all types of followers."13 Another aspect of the singular esteem in which Reb Meir Simcha was held was the widespread belief in his ability to literally bring about miracles. A resident of Dvinsk relates the following:
I remember when the Dvina overflowed its banks and threatened to flood the city. Gentiles and Jews alike swore by all that was holy to them that they saw Reb Meir Simcha mount the embankment, gaze at the swirling waters for a moment, murmur something very quietly and - the waters withdrew and the danger passed.14


9. Rabbi S. Y. Zevin, Ishim V'shitos, Tel Aviv, 1966, p. 159. 
10 Rabiner, p. 48. 
12. Ibid., p. 38.
13. Ibid., p. 173.
14. S. Levenberg, The Jews in Latvia, Tel Aviv, 1971, p. 266.