The Jews of Vitebsk, if you want to know the truth, at the time were known not to be generous givers to charity. When money needed to be raised for a worthy cause, it was no simple matter to extract hard currency out of them without applying a good deal of pressure. To their credit, however, it must be said that the Vitebskers could always be counted on to provide food for the hungry; indeed, the Talmud states that giving ready-to-eat food is greater than giving money to charity because it provides immediate relief, while the benefit of money is indirect.
One day a chassid from Vitebsk came to see Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (the third Chabad rebbe, 1789–1866). He told the rebbe that 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 child was in danger. “Please, Rebbe,” he entreated, “help us, save us.”
Rabbi Menachem Mendel shook his head sadly: “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 rebbe’s youngest son (and eventual successor) Rabbi Shmuel (1834–1882; known as the Maharash)—the only one of the rebbe’s seven sons who still lived in Lubavitch. When he left the rebbe’s room, he hurried directly to call on Rabbi Shmuel and told him his problem. Rabbi Shmuel promised that he would do his best to influence his father, but when he went to the rebbe 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 thereafter, Rabbi Menachem Mendel summoned his son to his study and asked him to bring a Midrash Tanchuma. The rebbe leafed through it to the week’s reading of Mishpatim, and showed his son section 15 there, concerning the verse, “If money you will lend” (Exodus 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 repay you ‘a life for a life.’”
Rabbi Shmuel was perplexed. What did his father have in mind in showing him this passage?
A few days later, the news reached Lubavitch that the chassid’s son had been released, and for no apparent reason. The rebbe was visibly delighted by the report.
The rebbe’s son was very curious to find out the course of events that had transpired, especially since his father had repeatedly said that he couldn’t do anything about the matter. The next time he had to be in Vitebsk, Rabbi Shmuel told his driver to detour to the house of that chassid.
The chassid was happy and honored to invite him in. Rabbi Shmuel asked him to describe what had happened on the day his son was supposed to have been drafted.
“Nothing special,” answered the chassid.
Rabbi Shmuel 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 been 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 who 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 anyway, because we were so upset. Then . . .”
At this point Rabbi Shmuel interjected, “Thank you, I heard enough. Everything is clear now.”