#158 (s5761-05 / 26 Tishrei 5761)
The high-ranking gentile official was very impressed by his prisoner, Rabbi Shneur Zalman.





When the Alter Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, was arrested in his home in Liozna, White Russia, on the night following Simchat Torah in 5559 (1798) and brought to Petersburg, he was incarcerated in one of the secret cells of the Fortress of Petropavlovsk. He was detained there for exactly fifty-four days [which Chassidim point out corresponds to the number of chapters in Tanya (including the Introduction), his classic work of Chassidic doctrine published two years previously]. The first three weeks he was kept under strict surveillance in a cell designated for traitors. This was because the principal charge against him, treason against the Russian Empire for allegedly sending money to the Sultan of Turkey (meaning the funds he annually collected and sent for the poor of the Holy Land, which was under Turkish rule at the time). Afterwards he was moved to a more comfortable place, in the same fortress.

About that time, a deputy minister of the police was assigned to interrogate him. This high-ranking gentile official, who was a learned man and knowledgeable in the Scriptures, was very impressed by the prisoner, who was obviously was no ordinary rebel. Interrupting his list of official questions, he said to the Rebbe, "I have a question on the text of the Bible and would be pleased if you could give me a satisfactory answer."

"Ask whatever you like," the Rebbe told him, "and with G-d's help I hope to be able to solve your problem."

"What is the meaning of the verse 'G-d called to Adam and said: Where are you?'" the official queried. "How is it possible that omniscient G-d did not know where Adam was?"

The Rebbe answered with the basic explanation that it was G-d's intention to inaugurate the conversation with a question not related to the sin, so as to not overwhelm the man who was in dread fear of punishment

The official, however, was not satisfied by this solution, surprisingly saying, "I am aware of the basic rabbinical interpretations and the allegory offered by Rashi. I had hoped for a deeper answer. Don't you have a more profound explanation?"

The Rebbe responded to him with a question of his own. "Do you believe that the Torah is forever relevant and true, in every generation and to every individual?"

"Yes, I sincerely believe that," replied the deputy minister.

The Rebbe was very pleased to hear this affirmation of faith. If such a high-ranking official was a believer in the Torah, perhaps the trial would be less of an ordeal.

"Since you believe," said the Rebbe, "I will give you a deeper explanation. Actually, the verse does not state 'G-d called to Adam,' for what is written is, 'G-d called to Ha'adam,' to 'the man.' This means that at all times G-d is calling to every individual and asks him 'where are you', meaning 'where do you stand in this world.' G-d allots to each person a certain amount of days and years, each of which is to be utilized for the doing of good in relation to G-d and in relation to mankind. Therefore, think and contemplate: how many years have you lived already and how much good have you done and accomplished during that time, You, for instance, have lived already xx years, (the Rebbe stated the exact age of his questioner!); how have you used this time? Did you accomplish something good? Have you benefited others?"

The official was thoroughly amazed and thrilled by the fact that the Rebbe 'guessed' his right age. He put his hand on the prisoner's shoulder, exclaiming: "Bravo!" Afterwards he continued his formal interrogation of the Rebbe, who showed profound wisdom in his precise answers to every question, impressing the interrogator even more.

As further events unfolded, the admiration of the government minister for the Rebbe turned out to be a significant factor. But that part of the story is for another occasion.

The sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe (1880-1950) related that the Alter Rebbe's response saved him from kalos hanefesh, the soul's ecstatic and blissful expiration and flight from the body. This was because the Alter Rebbe was in a state of great joy and ecstasy for having merited to be imprisoned and to suffer martyrdom for propagating the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, and his own master, the Maggid of Mezritch. But when he considered that G-d asks each one of us, "Where are you? Have you accomplished your mission - as a soul within a body - for which you were placed on earth?" this kept the Alter Rebbe from kalos hanefesh. For it impressed upon him that he must remain in this world and complete the purpose for which his soul had descended here below.


[Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from Beis Rebbe and other written and oral sources.]

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.

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.

back to Top   back to Index   Stories home page
Redesign and implementation - By WEB-ACTION