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Bonaparte And The Chassid

Bonaparte And The Chassid


Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G‑d, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your G‑d... (6:4-5)

The Maggid of Mezeritch expounded on the verse "And you shall love the Lord your G‑d": how can there be a commandment to love? Love is a feeling of the heart: one who has the feeling - loves. What can a person do if, G‑d forbid, love is not imbedded in his heart? How can the Torah instruct "you shall love" as if it were a matter of choice?

But the commandment actually lies in the previous verse, "Hear O Israel." The Hebrew word Sh'mah ('hear') also means 'understand'. So the Torah is commanding a person to study, comprehend, and reflect upon the oneness of G‑d. Because of the nature of the human mind and heart, and the relationship between them, this will inevitably lead to a love of the Almighty since, in essence, the mind rules the heart. If one contemplates deeply and yet is still not exited with a love of G‑d, this is only because he has not sufficiently refined and purified himself of the things which stifle his capacity to sense and relate to the Divine. Aside from this, such contemplation by the mind will always result in a feeling of love…

- Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok of Lubavitch

Note: In his Tanya, the bible of Chabad Chassidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi states: "By its very nature, the mind rules the heart." This axiom, known as the 'Aleph of Chassidus', forms the cornerstone of the Chabad-chassidic approach to life.

The renowned chassid Rabbi Moshe Meisel of Vilna, youngest of Rabbi Schneur Zalman's disciples, once told Rabbi Eisel of Homel: "The Alef of chassidus saved me from a certain death."

Rabbi Moshe Meisel, an extremely learned man, was fluent in German, Russian, Polish and French. During Napoleon's war on Russia he served as a translator for the French High Command. Rabbi Schneur Zalman had charged him to associate with the French military officials, to attain a position in their service, and to convey all that he learned to the commanders of the Russian army.1 Within a short while Rabbi Moshe had succeeded in gaining the favor of the chief commanders of Napoleon's army and was privy to their most secret plans.

It was he, Reb Moshe, who saved the Russian arms arsenal in Vilna from the fate which befell the arsenal in Schvintzian. He alerted the Russian commander in charge, and those who tried to blow up the arsenal were caught in the act.

"The High Command of the French army was meeting" related Reb Moshe "and hotly debating the maneuvers and the arrangement of the flanks for the upcoming battle. The maps were spread on the floor, and the generals were examining the roads and trails, unable to reach a decision. Time is short. Tomorrow, or, at the very latest, the day after, the battle on the environs of Vilna must begin.

"They were still debating when the door flew open with a crash. The guard stationed inside the door was greatly alarmed and drew his revolver. So great was the commotion, that everyone thought that the enemy had burst in in an attempt to capture General Shtaub…

"But it was Napoleon himself who appeared in the doorway. The Emperor's face was dark with fury. He stormed into the room and raged: "Has the battle been planned? Have the orders to form the flanks been issued?"

" 'And who is this stranger?!' he continued, pointing to me. In a flash he was at my side. 'You are a spy for Russia,' he thundered, and placed his hand upon my chest to feel the pounding heart of a man exposed. At that moment, the Aleph of chassidus stood me by. My mind commanded my heart to beat not an increment faster. In an unwavering voice I said: 'The commanders of His Highness the Emperor have taken me as their interpreter, as I am knowledgeable in the languages crucial to the carrying out of their duties…' "


Rabbi Schneur Zalman actively supported the czar against Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars, both on the celestial level, intervening on high for a Russian victory, and by 'down to earth' methods such as the chassidic spy of our story. Rabbi Schneur Zalman was of the opinion that while Napoleon's plans of 'emancipating' the Jewish community may bring respite from the harsh czarist decrees and improved material conditions, this is but the glittering veneer of forced assimilation and spiritual genocide.The Rebbe's contribution to Russia's victory was recognized by the czar, who awarded Rabbi Schneur Zalman and his posterity the status of 'An Honorable Citizen For All Generations.' Five generations of Chabad Rebbes were to make use of this special standing in their work on behalf of the Jews of Russia.

Yanki Tauber served as editor of
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Rabbi Shmary Brownstein August 5, 2012

Re: The Long Range Picture In truth, it is impossible to even speculate "what if" regarding how history might have turned out. This is especially true of the Holocaust. It is easy to have 20/20 hindsight about how it could have been avoided, but the facts are that at the time, nobody had a good answer, even though there were many smart people around then too. However, some things we might think about are: What were the effects of emancipation on the Jews of Germany and France during the 100 years after Napoleon? How did those 100 years serve to strengthen Judaism through the Chassidic movement's expansion, as one example? How does this affect Judaism today? How did France itself fare during the Nazi invasion? And had not Russia already been liberalized for 20 years under Communism by the time the Nazis invaded? Reply

Anonymous Seattle, WA August 2, 2012

The long-range picture may be very different... The long-range effects of the Alter Rebbe's decision to support the czar may have been precisely the opposite of what he intended. Whatever the rebbe's intent, the collapse of Napoleon's campaign strengthened a highly repressive, immoral and tyrannical government. Thus Russia, which might well have been opened to the spiritual as well as scientifical and political winds of change that swept across Europe in the succeeding decades, remained closed. The result was the Russian Revolution that ultimately brought Lenin to power more than a century later. Further, a stronger and more liberalized Russia at an earlier date might well have been better prepared to withstand the Nazi onslaught in World War II, preserving countless lives that were lost in the Holocaust. No question, a spiritual Holocaust would be a horror, but the physical Holocaust must surely be accounted much worse. Reply

Shais Evenhazair ben Yisroel Shapiro Saratoga SPrings, NY July 30, 2009

Napoleon This story answers many questions I have had for years. Thank you for publishing it. Reply