Chassidic Story #225

(s5762-# 21 / 24 Shvat 5762)
The Jews of Vitebsk were never known to be generous donators of money to charitable causes. (A story of the Tsemech Tsedek)


The Jews of Vitebsk, if you want to know the truth, were never known to be generous donators of money to charitable causes. Although they could always be counted on to provide food for the needy, it was not simple to extract hard currency out of them without applying a good deal of pressure. On the other hand, the Talmud concludes that giving ready-to-eat food is greater than giving money because it provides immediate relief, while the benefit of money is indirect.

Once a chassid from Vitebsk came to see the Tsemech Tsedek, He told him how his only son was about to be drafted into the Russian army. Previously, only-sons were exempted automatically, but this year there was a new, tough policy and their precious only son was in danger. "Please, Rebbe," he entreated, "help us, save us."

The Tsemech Tsedek replied: "I'm sorry, I cannot help you in this matter."

The chassid pleaded and cajoled every way he could think of, but the Rebbe's answer remained the same, "I cannot help you."

This chassid happened to be close with the Tsemech Tsedek's youngest son, known as the Maharash, the only one of the Rebbe's six sons who still lived in Lubavitch. When he left the Rebbe's room, he hurried directly to call on the Maharash and told him his problem. The Maharash said he would do his best to influence his father, but when he went to him and spoke on the chassid's behalf, he too was told, "I cannot help him at all."

Two days before the draft was to take place, the chassid sent a representative to plead his case with the Rebbe once more, but again the Rebbe insisted there was absolutely nothing he could do.

Shortly after, the Tsemech Tsedek called in his son, the Maharash, and told him to bring him a Midrash Tanchuma. The Rebbe leafed through it to this week's reading of Mishpatim, and showed his son section 15 there, concerning the verse, "If money you will lend" (Ex. 22:24).

"Says the Holy One, blessed be He: 'A poor person was struggling for his life, to escape starvation, and you gave him a coin and saved his life. I promise that I will pay you back 'a life for a life': If tomorrow your son or daughter will be seriously ill or in any life-threatening situation, I will remember the good deed that you did...and I will pay you back 'a life for a life.' "

The Maharash was perplexed. What did his father have in mind that he wanted to show him this passage?

In the following days, the news reached Lubavitch that the chassid's son had been released, and for no apparent reason. The Tsemech Tsedek was visibly delighted by the report.

The Maharash was very curious to find out the course of events that had transpired, especially since the Tsemech Tsedek had told the boy's father that he couldn't help him. The next time he had to be in Vitebsk, to see Dr. Hiebenthal, he told his driver to detour to the house of that chassid.

The chassid was happy and honored to invite him in. The Maharash asked him to describe what had happened on that day his son was supposed to have been drafted.

"Nothing special," answered the chassid.

The Maharash requested that he ask his wife the same question, and she too said she didn't remember that anything unusual had taken place.

"Wait a moment!" she then exclaimed. "I do remember something! I'll tell you.

"That very day a poor person came to the house and asked us to give him something to eat. At first we told him that we were so worried about our son who was going to be drafted that day that we really couldn't deal with him. But then he pleaded with us: it had a long time since he had eaten anything at all and he was starving, and how could it be that a Jew did not have time or food for another Jew that was so hungry! We realized our mistake and served him a huge meal, from what we had prepared to be a special farewell meal for our son. None of us had the appetite to eat because we were so upset. Then..."

The Maharash interrupted her. "Thank you. I heard enough. Everything is clear now."


[Translated-adapted by Yrachmiel Tilles (and first published in Kfar Chabad Magazine - English) from Peninei HaKeser vol. II, pp. 91-92.] You may pass on this email rendition to whomever you wish as long as you give full credit, including Ascent's email and internet addresses.]

Editor's note:
The grandson of the Maharash, the Rebbe HaRayatz, from whom we know this story (Sefer HaSichos 5703/1943), concluded his narrative: "From this episode we see that every good deed has a great effect, and especially an actual physical good deed."

Biographical notes:
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn [29 Elul 1789-13 Nissan 1866], the Third Rebbe of Chabad, was known as the Tsemech Tzedek, after his books of Halachic responsa and Talmudic commentary called by that name. He was renowned not only as a Rebbe, but also as a leading scholar in his generation in both the revealed and hidden aspects of Torah.

Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn (1834-1882), the fourth Lubavitch Rebbe, known as "the Rebbe Maharash," was the sixth and youngest son of his predecessor, "the Tsemach Tsedek".


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