Chassidic Story #165

(s5761-12 /16 Kislev 5761)
When the armed policeman reappeared on the day after Simchat Torah, the Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, did not hide.


[This story is for the Chassidic Yud-Tes Kislev festival. This amazing story of the first 24 hours of the Rebbe's arrest in 1798, (the story in the footnote) and the commentary that follows it, are assembled from several published sources.]

During Chol HaMoed Sukkos 5558 (1798), an armed officer arrived in Liozna to arrest Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad movement. Deciding that it would be advisable at this point to take the biblical advice "Hide yourself for a brief moment" (Isaiah 26:20), the Rebbe slipped out of a side door. The officer returned to his headquarters empty-handed.

Back in the house, the Rebbe decided that if the agent were to return, he would allow himself to be arrested. Some say that he decided this only after consultation with Rabbi Shmuel Munkes, one of his close chassidim, who happened to be in the Rebbe's home at the time. R. Shmuel reputedly gave an extraordinary reply to the Rebbe: "If you are a true Rebbe, you have nothing to fear by being arrested. If you are not, you deserve whatever they will do to you (!), for what right did you have to deprive thousands of Chassidim from enjoying the pleasures of this world?"**

When the officer appeared on the day after Simchat Torah, which fell on Thursday that year, the Rebbe did not hide. Within a few hours he was already seated in the infamous "Black Mary," the carriage which was reserved by the Czarist regime for rebels who were under capital sentence. Covered on all sides with heavy black metal panels, and with no windows whatever, it was designed to cast dread on all those who saw it. Guarded by heavily armed soldiers, the ironclad black carriage pulled out of Liozna on Thursday night and clanked its fearsome way down the highway to St. Petersburg, via Vitebsk and Nevel.

At half past ten the next morning, some six hours before candle-lighting time, the Rebbe asked that they stop where they were until after Shabbat. The officer in charge ignored his request. A moment later the axles of the carriage broke. No sooner had they repaired them, than one of the horses collapsed and died. Fresh horses were brought, but they could not move the carriage from its place. By this time the gendarmes gathered that it would be impossible to press on with their journey against the Rebbe's will, so they asked their prisoner if they could detour to a nearby village, and spend the next day there. The Rebbe refused, but did agree that the carriage be moved off the highway to an adjacent field.

The spot at which the Alter Rebbe spent that Shabbat is about three miles from the village of Seliba-Rudnia, which is near the town of Nevel. An old chassid who survived into the twentieth century - Reb Michael of Nevel - used to relate that he knew chassidim who were able to point out the exact spot at which the Rebbe had spent that lonely Shabbat. He himself had gone there to see it with his own eyes. All the way there he had seen old and drooping trees on both sides of the road, but that memorable spot was marked by a tall tree with luxuriant foliage.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Rebbe of Lubavitch, records that when this old man from Nevel used to recall that moment and describe the spot in full detail, he would do so with inspired excitement and awe. And the Rebbe adds that the sight of the tree did more for arousing the soul of this chassid of a bygone age than Torah-study or prayer does to certain chassidim today!

** According to one version, Reb Shmuel preceded his opinion with this story:

Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Horodok had a Jewish wagon-driver whom he frequently employed. At one point, however, Rebbe Menachem Mendel did not travel for many months. The wagon-driver and his family suffered from this lack of income. Finally, the wagon driver sold his horse and carriage and bought a dairy cow with the money. With the proceeds from the sale of the milk, the former wagon-driver was able to eke out a living.

Time passed and Rebbe Menachem Mendel suddenly called the man. "I would like you to take me on a journey," he requested.

"I'm truly sorry, Rebbe," the man explained, "but I sold my horse and carriage and have bought a milking cow in order to provide for my family."

"Sell your cow and purchase a horse and carriage," Rebbe Menachem Mendel instructed him. "I need to set out as soon as possible."

Without any hesitation, the man did as the Rebbe requested. As they traveled, the Rebbe pressed the driver, "I am in a hurry, let us go faster."

The driver whipped the horses and the carriage sped onwards. Soon, they were going downhill very quickly, with the driver barely able to control the galloping horses. To his horror, he saw they were heading straight toward a palatial house at the bottom of the hill. His efforts to slow the horses were unsuccessful and the carriage went right through the yard and stopped only after it broke a window of the house.

The poritz who owned the mansion was enraged and stormed out toward the carriage, pointing his rifle at the driver. "You did this!" he shouted.

"No, no! Not me!" cried the terrified man. "It's not my fault, but his!" he said, pointing to Rebbe Menachem Mendel who was sitting behind him meditating, oblivious to the entire incident.

The poritz aimed his rifle at the Rebbe. As he was about to fire, he suddenly froze, unable to move a limb in his body. The other members of the household had also come running outside. When they saw the poritz paralyzed, they begged the Rebbe for forgiveness and asked him to remove his curse.

"If he will promise never to harm a Jew, he will be cured," answered the Rebbe.

The poritz indicated his consent by nodding his head slightly, and his ability to move was restored. Later, as they continued their journey, Rebbe Menachem Mendel turned to the driver and asked, "How could you do this! Why did you put the blame on me? The poritz almost killed me!"

"Rebbe," replied the driver in all sincerity and with utmost respect, "when you didn't travel for months, I accepted it. Then, when you instructed me to sell my cow, I immediately did so. Though my family was left without an income, I trusted that you were a Rebbe and had reasons for making the request. When you told me to go more quickly I did so, though no wagon-driver allows his horses to run downhill.

"So, when the poritz came out, I figured, if you are truly a Rebbe, he will not be able to harm you. And if you are not, then you would have deserved everything you would have gotten. For, how could you have left an entire family going hungry for bread?"

Commentary (from Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Rebbe of Chabad):

"The story of the Alter Rebbe's journey to Petersburg gives tangible testimony to the statement that whatever happens to a tzaddik - and especially to a tzaddik who is a leader of Jewry - takes place only with his consent. Indeed not only the Alter Rebbe, but every tzaddik likewise rules over all material matters. What the Torah has to say about the created universe is decisive: all temporal matters are subject to the dominion of the Torah.

When the Alter Rebbe did not want to travel further, the wagon came to a halt, and it came to a halt where and when the Alter Rebbe so desired. Had the wagon stood still at candle-lighting time this would have been not at all remarkable. For such things we find concerning even an unwitting reaction, as it is written 'No evil shall befall the righteous...'. But that the wagon should stand still at ten-thirty on Friday morning, and not budge, - this is a palpable wonder of G-d, like an overt miracle.

From all of the above it should be abundantly clear that one whose word carried weight over material things, as was the case with the Alter Rebbe, had the option of not being imprisoned at all; and of not hiding, even for a solitary hour. If he did go nevertheless, this was for the sake of a profound purpose involving the service of G-d.

The patriarch Avraham opened the channel of self-sacrifice for the sanctification of the Divine Name, and the Alter Rebbe opened the channel of self-sacrifice for the service of G-d according to the teachings of Chassidus. From all of this one can gather that the whole episode of the Alter Rebbe's imprisonment was only a garment worn by choice, in order to avoid making use of supernatural means.

Truth to tell, this subject warrants a detailed explanation, especially since this would provide at least an inkling of an appreciation of the Alter Rebbe's quintessential inner love for Jews in general - for he wanted every individual to start living with zest in his Torah study, and in his divine service according to the teachings of Chassidism - and his love for chassidim in particular. And this love the Alter Rebbe planted in the Rebbes who succeeded him. Such a deep-seated and quintessential love is everlasting, throughout all the generations until the coming of Mashiach, when it will be granted us, at the time of the Resurrection of the Dead, to gaze directly upon the living and luminous countenances of the Rebbes."


[adapted from Likkutei Dibburim, vol. I, pp. 89, 91-92]

Biographical note:
Rabbi Shnuer Zalman
[18 Elul 1745-24 Tevet 1812], one of the main disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch, is the founder of the Chabad-Chassidic movement. He is the author of Shulchan Aruch HaRav and Tanya as well as many other major works in both Jewish law and the mystical teachings.








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