Chassidic Story #213

(s5762-213 /posted 27 MarChesvan 5762)
The Russian colonel asked Rabbi Shneur Zalman, "Are you by chance the son or grandson of the Jewish holy man known as the Baal Shem Tov?"


Once in his travels, Rabbi Shneur Zalman stopped in a certain city. While he was there, a house caught on fire. The Rebbe asked to be taken to the neighborhood where the fire was. When he arrived at the scene, a group of Russian soldiers from the local garrison where trying in vain to extinguish it. The Rebbe stood in front of the blazing home and leaned on his cane. He remained utterly still for a few moments. Suddenly the fire died down.

The exhausted soldiers could barely believe the evidence of their eyes. They ran to report the astonishing turn of events to their commanding officer. He listened calmly, them sent a delegation of soldiers to ask the Rebbe to come to see him. When the Rebbe arrived, the officer asked him, "Are you by chance the son or grandson of the Jewish holy man known as the Baal Shem Tov?"

The Rebbe told him that he is not actually a blood relative, but he considers himself his spiritual grandson because he was a disciple of the main disciple and successor of the Baal Shem Tov. "If so," remarked the officer, "I am no longer amazed at what you did today. Come, sit down, and I will tell you a story about my deceased father and the Baal Shem Tov.

"My father carried the rank of general. Once he came with his troops to the village of Mezibuz shortly before your holiday of Passover. My father then was deeply troubled because several weeks had passed since he had not received a letter or any message at all from his pregnant wife. Brooding, with his imagination running wild, he confided his distress to a few local residents whom he was friendly with. They immediately suggested that perhaps he should seek the advice of the holy Jew who lived in their town, who was a wonder maker and revealer of secrets.

"My father sent a soldier to the Baal Shem Tov to request an appointment. Much to his surprise, the Baal Shem Tov refused to see the soldier. He sent another soldier, but still the Baal Shem Tov refused. Well, my father was annoyed, but he knew about you Jews and your holidays. He sent another delegation, this time with the threat that if he does not grant the general an interview, he would billet his troops in the Jewish community, causing loads of bread and other chametz food to be brought into the home of every Jew in the village during the days of preparing for Passover!

"The threat worked. The Baal Shem Tov sent back a message inviting the the general, my father, to his home. He went there right away, bringing with him one of his subordinates.

"Upon entering the front room, they right away saw through the open doorway that the Baal Shem Tov was sitting in the second room, totally absorbed in the book in front of him (which my father subsequently found out was called Zohar). However, before he could enter or even knock on the door, my father's attention was caught by a large mirror on the wall in the front room.

"He went over to it, having decided to comb his hair before going in to greet the Rabbi. He glanced at the mirror, and to his astonishment, instead of himself he saw in it scenery that resembled the outskirts of his home town. Upon closer examination, he saw the paved road that led right to his own house. Totally startled, he shouted to his staff officer to come quickly and see.

"The two of them stared. Suddenly they could see inside the house, where the general's wife was sitting at a table, writing a letter to her husband! They were even able to see the letter clearly enough to read it. In it, she had apologized for the long break in communication, and that it was due to her earlier than expected delivery to a baby boy. Both mother and son were doing well.

"My father was overwhelmed by the vision in the mirror. He thanked the Baal Shem Tov profusely. A while after, he received a letter in the mail from his wife, identical to what he had seen in the mirror. At that point, my father wrote down the whole story in detail in his personal diary.

"I," concluded the commanding officer to the Rabbi Shneur Zalman, "am the son whose birth was referred to in that letter! Also, the journal in which my father recorded this event is in my possession. If you will stay a bit longer, I will be happy to show it to you."

And he did.


[Freely adapted by Yrachmiel Tilles from the rendition in A Treasury of Chassidic Tales (Artscroll).]

Biographical Notes:
Rabbi Yisrael, the Baal Shem Tov ["master of the good Name"], a unique and seminal figure in Jewish history, revealed the Chassidic movement and his own identity as an exceptionally holy person, on his 36th birthday, 18 Elul 1734. He passed away on the festival of Shavuot in 1760. He wrote no books, although many claim to contain his teachings. One available in English is the excellent annotated translation of Tzava'at Harivash, published by Kehos.

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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