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An Alternative Route

An Alternative Route

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A number of Jewish servicemen were based at a Russian army camp located near the city of Lubavitch. This location enabled them to maintain a reasonable level of Jewish practice, obtain kosher food, and pray with a quorum on Shabbat from time to time.

Much to their dismay, they learned that their unit would be transferred. To add to their distress, the transfer would take place in direct proximity to the Passover holidays. According to their commanding officer’s plan, during Passover they would be in the midst of a march deep in the Russian mainland, far away from any Jewish community.

Distraught, the soldiers decided to seek the advice of the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, and one of them was dispatched as a messenger to Lubavitch. He explained their plight to the Rebbe, emphasizing in particular the difficulties they would have observing the Passover laws during their journey.

“I suggest you approach your captain with an alternative route for the journey,” said the rebbe. “Explain that the route he has planned has many disadvantages. Since the cities on his itinerary are more than a single day’s journey apart, the unit will be compelled to camp out at night in the wilderness.

“Suggest an alternative route—to pass through White Russia, stopping at Orsha, Shklov, Kopust, and Mohilev. The shorter distances between these towns will make the journey far more convenient for everyone. And you, of course, will gain access to the Jewish communities there.

“I also have a personal request. Most probably, you will be in Shklov on the first two days of the festival. When you go to synagogue on the eve of Passover, you will be invited home by one of the people. Accept his invitation for the Passover festive meals. However, if he invites you to sleep over, excuse yourself and spend the night in the synagogue known as the ‘Green Synagogue.’

“On the last days of Pesach you will be in Mohilev. There too, accept any invitation for the festival meals, but insist on sleeping in the communal guesthouse.”

The rebbe concluded his instructions and gave the soldier a parting blessing. Returning to his base, the soldier related the rebbe’s advice to his comrades.

One soldier’s response expressed the feelings of the entire group: “It is very sound advice, but how can we dare suggest it? The captain will be deeply offended if we so much as hint that his plan is less than perfect.”

The soldiers discussed the matter for days. They hesitated to approach their short-tempered captain until the imminence of their departure date finally compelled them to act. Hoping that the rebbe’s blessing would guard them, they presented the alternative plan to the captain.

Surprisingly, he was both impressed and willing. “Your suggestion is very good. How did simple soldiers like you come up with such an idea?” he asked in disbelief.

“To tell you the truth, sir, it was not our own idea, but rather the advice of a great scholar, Rabbi Menachem Mendel,” they answered.

Following the new plan, the troop indeed found itself in Shklov on the eve of Passover. The Jewish soldiers were given the next two days off, and hurried to the local synagogue to seek arrangements for the holiday. They were all graciously invited to different homes and went off with their hosts.

After the Passover meal, the soldier who had been given instructions by Rabbi Menachem Mendel prepared to leave. Despite the protests of his generous host, he excused himself and made his way to the Green Synagogue where he settled himself in a cozy corner to sleep. As he dozed off, he was suddenly awakened by sighs and moans coming from the far end of the synagogue. Only then did he notice an elderly man hunched over the table in obvious distress. The soldier approached him and gently asked, “Why are you so upset? Can I help you?”

“How can you help me?” the man answered bitterly. “Go back to sleep and just ignore me.”

The soldier backed away, respecting the man’s desire for privacy. When, however, the older man’s anguished groaning continued and prevented the soldier from sleeping, he approached him again. “Please share your troubles with me,” he said sympathetically. “Perhaps I can ease your sorrow.”

The man was touched by the soldier’s sincerity and told his story: “I am a widower who married a woman much younger than myself. What I thought would be a peaceful marriage turned out to be a nightmare. We had been married only a few weeks when a traveling orchestra came to town. One of the musicians became friendly with my wife, and before I knew it, the two stole all my money and ran away.

“I have no income, no home, and am at a total loss as to what to do. This is why I sleep here in the synagogue,” the man concluded.

“One never knows,” the soldier said in an attempt to console him. “Maybe I can be of help to you. Our troop is on a long trek into the inland reaches of Russia, and we will be passing through many towns and villages. Describe your wife and the musician to me; perhaps I will come across them while we’re on the road. I promise to do my best to help you.”

The man readily described the two, and, calmed by the soldier's compassionate interest, he finally fell asleep.

The soldiers continued their journey during the next week, and, just as Rabbi Menachem Mendel had foreseen, they arrived in the town of Mohilev on the eve of the latter days of the holiday. Again, the Jewish soldiers were given leave and they accepted invitations to the local people’s homes.

Once again, the soldier excused himself for the night and went to sleep in the communal guesthouse as instructed. During the night, a loud commotion roused him from his sleep. He got up and saw that a band of people had arrived to spend the night there. Much to his surprise, one of the men and a woman fit precisely the description he had been given by the old man in the town of Shklov.

Early the next morning, before the latecomers had arisen, the soldier hurried to the house of the local rabbi and pounded on the door. “I am so sorry to disturb you, Rabbi, but there is an urgent matter which I must discuss.”

He quickly related the sorry plight of the man from Shklov. “I believe that I have found his runaway wife and her friend,” he suggested.

The rabbi immediately contacted the authorities and the two were arrested. The stolen money and valuables were traced, and after the holiday, the Rabbi arranged for a divorce.

Adapted by Rabbi Yrachmiel Tilles from From My Father’s Shabbos Table, Eliyahu Touger’s excellent selection and translation from Rabbi Yehudah Chitrik’s Reshimos Devarim.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Joe California April 20, 2017

Knowing that the stories of R' Chitrik are very accurate in the details mentioned, I will mention one thing which really stood out for me in this story and which I think can be learned out:

The Rebbe asked the soldier to do him a personal favor. And of course, a word of the Rebbe isn't a word wasted, weighing heavily of its own significance.
You can see what a Rebbe is, from how doing a selfless favor to another Jew who may never even hear about the Tzemach Tzedek, is still considered to the Rebbe as a personal favor... Reply

Samuel Bucaramanga March 24, 2017

Thank you for your wonderful story! Reply