In the same village lived a number of Lubavitcher chassidim, who often tried to persuade Yaakov to accompany them to their Rebbe. Yaakov, who was not from a chassidic home, always refused. "What do I need a Rebbe for?" he would say. "Even when I have a difficulty understanding some complexity in Gemarra, I just work on it a little harder and I am able to get the answer, by myself."
Nevertheless, one time Yaakov yielded to the urging of the chassidim, and agreed to accompany them to Lubavitch, to the Rebbe Rashab. Arriving there on Friday, they passed the Shabbat in an exalted atmosphere that was unfamiliar but attractive to Yaakov.
Saturday night, the travelling chassidim lined up to part from the Rebbe. Yaakov, according to the custom explained to him, also wrote a kvittel, a personal note, to present to the Rebbe during his private audience. As his turn approached, he surprised himself by how excited with anticipation he was.
Yaakov entered and saw the Rebbe sitting at his desk, concentrating in a book. The Rebbe didn't even glance up at him. Yaakov, unsure of what to do, tiptoed up to the desk and placed his note on it. The Rebbe's eyes never left his book, as if he didn't notice a thing.
Suddenly the Rebbe stood up and started pacing back and forth. To Yaakov's surprise he heard the Rebbe muttering, as if he were talking to himself, but in Russian. "Ohn!" ("It is him"). "Nyeh ohn!" ("It's not him"). "It is him." It's not him." "It..." The Rebbe was silent for a moment, and then pronounced in a firm, decisive voice, "Nyeh ohn-it's not him." Then the Rebbe sat back down and resumed his book, still not acknowledging Yaakov's presence.
Yaakov backed out of the room, totally confused. Not only had the Rebbe completely ignored him, but what was the significance of the Russian litany the Rebbe had muttered? It was a strange riddle, and he had no clue as to its meaning.
Time passed. One day Yaakov noticed in the newspaper an intricate mathematical problem, presented by the university in Petersberg. They were offering a three hundred ruble prize for whoever could solve it. The young talmudic scholar took it as a personal challenge and devoted a serious effort to figuring it out. Finally he got it! He mailed in his answer to the university.
Shortly thereafter he received a notification that his solution was correct and that he would be awarded the stipulated prize. The envelope also contained an invitation to meet with the chairman of the Mathematics Department in Petersberg, together with a train ticket for the journey.
Yaakov went. The department chairman and the other representatives of the university were astonished to see that the mathematical wizard of their correspondence was a young religious Jew, wearing traditional garb. However, they were quickly captivated by his incisive intelligence. After they presented him the three hundred ruble prize, they invited him to remain at the university and complete a degree in mathematics, under a full scholarship.
Impressed by the generosity of the proposal, Yaakov accepted. He enrolled as a student at the university in Petersberg, and launched into the studies.
At first Yaakov was steadfast in maintaining his Jewish appearance and ways. He even managed to maintain a daily session of Torah. As he progressed in his secular studies, however, and as his academic and social status rose, he gradually fell away from his Torah lifestyle.
The first to go were the external signs: his distinctive clothing, his beard and so forth. Next he gave up learning Torah. Eventually, he ceased observing mitzvos too.
After several more years, Yaakov was offered a full professorship in the mathematics department. There was only one hitch; in order to gain the position he would have to convert. Well, he wasn't going to let that one little detail hold him back from such a prestigious appointment....
As time went by, Yaakov's conscience began to plague him. How could he have done such a deed? He heartily regretted it. Nevertheless, he found himself unable to commit himself to rectify the situation. Not only were there the obvious social and economic penalties, but in that era in Russia if a Jew who converted to Christianity were to convert back (or if a gentile converted to Judaism) it was considered a capital crime, liable to immediate execution.
Lately Yaakov found himself going hunting much more often. He enjoyed this activity he had learned in the high scoiety circles of Petersberg. Now it served to relax him, and provide brief respite from the anguish of his soul. One day, while he was in the saddle, his horse suddenly started to gallop wildly. Yaakov lost all control as the horse galloped even faster and more recklessly. He felt that unless a miracle happened this would be his end. At that moment, he made a firm promise to himself that if he were to be saved, he would return to being Jewish and do complete tshuvah.
Amazingly, as soon as he made this resolution, the horse became calm and slowed down to a canter.
That very night Yaakov gathered some money and a bundle of his possessions, walked out on his non-Jewish wife, and departed for parts unknown. He wandered incognito from town to town and from village to village, nervously reacting to every falling leaf. He knew that with his return to Judaism he had endangered his life, but he had made his decision and he had no intention of going back.
One day, when he was taking a meal in an out-of-the-way inn, several policemen suddenly burst in and began checking everyone's personal documents. Since Yaakov had no identity papers, he was arrested and taken to interrogation.
Opposite him in the small room a cruel-faced investigator sat at his table. He stared at Yaakov, looked down at the picture in his hand, and then at Yaakov's face again. Out of the corner of his eye, Yaakov was able to see that it was a photograph of him as he looked when he was a professor at the university: clean-shaven, modern hairdo and nattily dressed. He looked quite different now, but still...
The investigator hesitated. Yaakov felt his fate closing upon him.
Suddenly, the investigator began a dialogue with himself. "Ohn!" "Nyeh ohn!" "It is him." It's not him." "It is him." It's not him." "It is him." Yaakov remembered well where he had first heard those words, when, and from whom. They rang in his head like a bell. He held his breath. Back and forth the investigator repeated: "It is him." "It's not him." "It is him." Finally he decided: "Nyeh ohn!"- "It's not him" and ordered the Jew's release.
Yaakov could barely believe it. He was saved! Within a short time he set off for Lubavitch, and once there, he never departed.
[Translated and retold by Yrachmiel Tilles (and first published in Kfar Chabad Magazine - English) from Sichat HaShavua #567#, based on Rabboseinu Nasienu by R. Yosef Yitzchak Kamenetzky. You may distribute this e-mail as long as full attribution is given, including Ascent's email and internet addresses, as in the heading.]
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.