#516 (s5768-05 / 28 Tishrei 5768)

Five Years on an Artic Icebreaker

The holy rebbe Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin encouraged the journey to India.

Five Years on an Artic Icebreaker


Rabbi Nechemia Liss, an early resident of Kfar Chabad (near Tel Aviv), liked to recount how he became connected to Lubavitch:

I was born into a religious family, but I joined the Czar's army before WWI, served valiantly as a tank commander, and even earned several medals for bravery. When I finished the army I was considered a loyal citizen. But then came the Communist Revolution and turned everything upside down.

It wasn't long before I received a summons to the "Peoples Court." Innocently believing that my combat record and medals would prove my loyalty, I confidently strode into the courtroom, only to be rudely introduced to the "New Order."

After a ten-minute trial, I was sentenced to fifteen years of "Correctional Hard Labor in Siberia" for the crime of "Maintaining Loyalty to the Old Regime." I was led completely bewildered from the courtroom, directly to prison, and waited there for several weeks to be shipped off to a Labor camp.

But then came unexpected "better" news. The government needed volunteers for an icebreaker ship that was going to forge its way into some obscure sub-zero artic territory in Siberia to build an army camp.

The food was supposed to be much better, the hours of work shorter, and as an additional incentive, each year would count as three years of my sentence. So I jumped at the opportunity. After five years, most of the crew died from disease or cold, the project had to be abandoned, and those who were left returned home. Miraculously I was one of the lucky survivors.

I should have been grateful...but something was bothering me; I couldn't accept the fact that absolutely nothing resulted from all my work. I kept thinking to myself, there must be some reason. I was sure of it! But I couldn't figure what it was. At first I kept it to myself, but little by little it became an obsession.

Then, late one night, I was walking down a street and I heard singing coming from a shul. A group of Lubavticher chasidim were sitting together, singing. I ducked in to see and they motioned to me to sit and join them. When they stopped singing, they raised their small vodka glasses to toast "l'chaim," and one of them began speaking:

"Once there was an old, wealthy Polish Baron who had an eccentric idea. He wanted a statue of himself made from a certain rare type of semi-precious marble found only in the Far East and he wanted it placed as a gravestone on his grave after he died.

"He found a Jewish dealer in precious stones whom he trusted and gave him an unusually large sum of money to accomplish the task. He was to travel to India, buy a large block of this stone, and accompany it back to Poland where the Baron would commission a sculptor to do the job.

"This Jew, being a chasid of the Holy Rebbe Yisrael of Ruzhin, first traveled to his Rebbe, who warmly blessed him and encouraged the journey, and then sailed to India, certain of success. A month later he arrived in India, bought the stone, had it loaded on the ship and began his return voyage to Poland.

"Then one night in the middle of the journey, he was asleep in his cabin when a loud crash awakened him. By the time he got up on the deck, he realized that the ship was sinking!

"He didn't see anyone on board, nor did he see any lifeboats. He reasoned that everyone must have abandoned ship. After a few minutes he saw a rowboat adrift with no one in it and he pulled himself up over its side. He yelled out a few times, and when he didn't hear anyone he curled up on its floor and went to sleep.

"After a day or two he spotted an island in the distance. He rowed there and got out of the boat. He was saved! What happened to the other passengers he would never know.

"He spent three years on that island. Luckily for him he had grabbed his tefilin and a small book of Psalms before leaving his cabin so he had something to do. Then one day he saw a ship in the distance. He signaled it, and in a few hours they sent a dinghy to take him from the island.

"A month later he was back in Poland, but he was in for a strange surprise. He went to the Baron's castle to tell him what had happened, but the Baron was nowhere to be found! His Castle had been sold, and then resold, and no one had any idea where he was.

"There was no money, no marble, no statue, no Baron, no trace of anything. He went again to his Rebbe to ask for an explanation.

" 'There were sparks of holiness trapped on the island,' said the Rebbe. 'No Jew had ever visited there, no Jew performed a mitzva (commandment) there. During your three years there you redeemed and purified all the sparks.' "

I had never heard such an explanation before but I sensed that this was the answer I had been looking for. I had been in Siberia raising "sparks." I didn't really understand it, but I decided to remain with the chasidim and learn more.

And that is how I became a Chabad chasid.

[Adapted by Yrachmiel Tilles from the rendition on www.lchaimweekly.org (#734), with permission.]

Biographical note:
Rabbi Yisrael Friedmann of Ruzhin [1797 - 3 Cheshvan 1850] was a great-grandson of the Maggid of Mezritch. At a young age was already a charismatic leader with a large following of chassidim. Greatly respected by the other rebbes and Jewish leaders of his generation, he was -and still is-referred to as "The Holy Ruzhiner." Six of his sons established Chassidic dynasties, several of which -Sadigora, Chortkov, etc- are still thriving today.

Yrachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and editor of Ascent Quarterly and the AscentOfSafed.com and KabbalaOnline.org websites. He has hundreds of published stories to his credit.

A 48 page soft-covered booklet containing eleven of his most popular stories may be ordered on our store site.

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