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The Passing of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi

The Passing of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi


In 1812 Napoleon’s Grande Armée invaded Russia, with the self-proclaimed “liberator’s” aim to bring the whole of Europe under his hegemony.

Around that time, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi wrote to one of his disciples:

If B[ona]p[arte] will be victorious, Jewish wealth will increase, and the prestige of the Jewish people will be raised; but their hearts will disintegrate and be distanced from their Father in Heaven. But if A[lexander] will be victorious, although Israel’s poverty will increase and their prestige will be lowered, their hearts will be joined, bound and unified with their Father in Heaven. And this shall be your sign: in the near time, the apple of your eyes will be taken from you . . .1

The chassid to whom this letter was addressed, Rabbi Moshe Maizlish of Vilna, was no mere bystander to these events. At Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s behest, Reb Moshe served as a spy for the Russians, passing on information he picked up in the French general command, where he worked as an interpreter, to the czar’s generals.2

When Napoleon’s advancing armies approached Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s hometown of Liadi, the rebbe was forced to flee. The rebbe left Liadi with sixty wagons carrying his extended family and many of his chassidim, escorted by a troop of soldiers attached to the convoy by express order of the czar.

A few miles out of Liadi, the rebbe suddenly requested from the officers accompanying the convoy that they provide him with a light carriage, two good horses, and two armed drivers. Taking along some of his own people, the rebbe rushed back to Liadi. Upon arriving back at his own home, he instructed that a careful search be made to see if any of his personal items had been left behind. After a thorough search, a pair of worn-out slippers, a rolling pin and a kneading bowl were found in the attic. The rebbe instructed that these be taken along, and that the house be set on fire. He then blessed the inhabitants of the town, and quickly departed.

No sooner did the rebbe leave the town than the first scouts of the French army entered Liadi from the other side. Shortly thereafter, Napoleon himself, accompanied by his generals, arrived at the rebbe’s residence, only to find the house engulfed in flames. A proclamation was issued throughout the town and the surrounding villages promising a generous reward in golden coins to anyone who could produce an object belonging to the Jewish rabbi, or a coin he had received from the rebbe’s hand. But nothing was found.

For more than five months, as Napoleon advanced across Russia, took Moscow, and then embarked on his disastrous retreat, the rebbe’s entourage wandered from town to town and from village to village, only narrowly avoiding the swath of carnage cut by the French army as it moved through the country.

Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, winter of 1812–1813
Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, winter of 1812–1813

The rebbe rode in the third wagon. In the first wagon sat his grandson, Rabbi Nachum, with two military officers. Whenever they would arrive at a crossroads, the entire procession would halt while Rabbi Nachum walked to the third wagon to asked Rabbi Schneur Zalman which way to proceed. At times, the rebbe would reply without moving from his seat; other times, he would walk to the crossroads, lean on his staff, and meditate for a while before issuing his directive.

On one occasion, Rabbi Nachum erred in his understanding of the rebbe’s instruction, and the convoy took the wrong turn. When the error was revealed, Rabbi Schneur Zalman instructed that they continue along the road already taken, but said with great regret in his voice: “How fortunate it is when the grandson follows the grandfather; how unfortunate it is when the grandfather must follow the lead of the grandson.”

Many trials and tribulations followed that wrong turn in the road, culminating in their arrival in the town of P’yene.

The rebbe’s convoy arrived in P’yene in the dead of winter, on the 8th day of Tevet, 5573 (December 1812). P’yene was a good-sized town, consisting of some three hundred large houses and courtyards, many of which were empty as the men were away at war. The generous townspeople provided housing and kindling free of charge to the refugees.

Ten days later, the rebbe fell ill. On 24 Tevet, motzaei Shabbat (Saturday night) following Shabbat Parshat Shemot, at 10:30 in the evening, after reciting the havdalah prayer marking the close of the holy Shabbat, he returned his soul to its Maker.

Shortly before his passing (by one account, “after havdalah, several minutes before giving up his soul in purity to G‑d”) the rebbe penned a short discourse titled “The Humble Soul.”

“For the truly humble soul,” Rabbi Schneur Zalman wrote, “its mission in life lies in the pragmatic aspect of Torah, both in studying it for oneself and explaining it to others, and in doing acts of material kindness in lending an empathizing mind and counsel from afar regarding household concerns, though the majority, if not all, of these concern things of falsehood . . . For although the divine attribute of Truth argued that man should not be created, since he is full of lies, the divine attribute of Kindness argued that he should be created, for he is full of kindnesses . . . And the world is built upon kindness.”

Igrot Kodesh Admur HaZaken, letter #64. For more on Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s support of the czar against Napoleon, see Is Judaism a Theocracy?
From the writings of the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn; translation/adaptation by Yanki Tauber.
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Discussion (10)
January 6, 2013
Response (3)
As such, in short, the Alter Rebbe’s position was that no lasting salvation and betterment of the lot of the Jews will come from an atheist. While for the short term it may better their lot, for a real, lasting long term betterment of their lot, this is not the way and the road of how it will come about.
This is why he opposed Napoleon and he did all that he could to help in his downfall and bring about the victory of the Czar. Only many generations later, as discussed by the Rebbe, was the situation itself changed so that the champion of freedom in the world was not a country that championed atheism, but rather a country that champions a belief in G-d (the US), and that the Jews have been fortified and refined by all that they experienced and went through so that the blessing of freedom actually serves as an opportunity to grow, develop and further our commitment to Torah and Mitzvot.
January 6, 2013
Response (2)
Our sages say that a "mechashef" means that they deny "pamalia shel ma'ala", which means an atheist. As is well known, Napoleon was an atheist. That is why, as is discussed in many places in the notes and writings of the Previous Rebbe and conversations that the Rebbe recorded, there existed a personal enmity between the Alter Rebbe and Napoleon. As is quite understandable, the Alter Rebbe’s entire work was dedicated to bringing the realization of the absolute unity of G-d, meaning not only that there is no other G-d, and that there is no other power, even under G-d, but that in truth nothing at all exists other than G-d, meaning that he owns existence and he shares it, at will, with whatever he creates, namely that they exist only because and to the degree that he wants them to, and this every moment of their existence.

As such Napoleon stands diametrically opposed to all that the Baal Shem Tov was about, to all that Chassidus is about, and to all that the Alter Rebbe is about.
January 6, 2013
Response (1)
The questions asked above are fair and must be taken seriously, as this decision impacted the course of Jewish history for millions of Jews, and represents the largest issue faced by Chassidic masters on such a grand scale. The short of it is that , as it says in the discussions regarding this story and topic, that Napoleon was a mechashef (sorcerer), and that the reason that he wanted something that belonged to the Alter Rebbe, was not to find him by his scent (or other such nonsense), but because he wanted something of the Alter Rebbe's in his possession, as he felt, whether he could articulate it or not, that having something of the Alter Rebbe in his possession would give him a certain degree of power over him.
January 5, 2013
The Rebbe was right
Only suffering and poverty strengthen the trust in G-d being in goodness and honor is a fast way to disconnect with G-d and connect with worldly things .
Now is a long storie to explain all this I suggest you to read the Tanakh and see that non of the forefathers and prophets had a easy life , yet they were worthy of G-d s love , and is bcz even in evil days they praised the L-rd . It is pure love of a child for his father even when the father punishes him , It is a holy love .
The Rebbe was a great man he knew that goodness and honorlead to sense of superiority which leads to pride which leads to arrogance which is a snare for the soul , piety in other hand and aknowledge of the absolute divine power of G -d are the key to the eternal life
I wonder if are there any men like the Rebbe ?
July 30, 2012
When I've heard this story from a Chabad rabbi, it was explained that Napoleon knew black magic and if he had something that belonged to the Rebbe, he could divine where he was and could capture him. The Alter Rebbe was in a debate with another great rabbi about who would win. The Rebbe prayed for the Czar to win and the other rabbi for Napoleon.
Philaldelphia, Pennsylvania
January 21, 2012
...I too would like to know why the Napoleon's people would be so interested in some small a pair of slippers left from the Rabbi.
Did they use dogs to "smell them out?" Did they use articles of clothing to pronounce curses? What?
Prescott, AR/US
January 19, 2012
Beautiful Dream in a Nightmare World!
I can empathize with the Rabbi’s plea to keep worshipping G-d under the circumstances as he describes, but still cannot agree with him. My mother’s family came from Lithuania and those who stayed behind all perished as opposed to those who had left early to go to Israel, France, America and other unknown countries from us, not only they survived but they procreated, which led to more Jews able to worship G-d. I don’t think the Rabbi could foresee what was going to happen past his generation otherwise he might have changed his mind too.
Boca Raton, Florida
January 19, 2012
Napoleon was a great man!
Far from me to claim that I know better than Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi but regarding this particular episode I believe that he is wrong. Napoleon was an idealist and an emancipator. By contrast, the backward, hateful Tsarist Russia and its ruling class of feudal anti-semites signifies everything that is bad and wrong. How can you spy for and take the side of those that don't think you have the right to live? It sounds to me as utterly ridiculous as some Rabbis' call for their congregations to vote for an atheist, socialist, incompetent anti-Israel candidate in 2008 (Obama).
"Israel’s poverty will increase and their prestige will be lowered" - is not something to be wished for and it DOES NOT necessarily bring Israel closer to G-d for it is not the suffering that makes Jews cherish G-d but quite the opposite. We we are successful is when we know that have done right in the eyes of G-d.
East Brunswick, USA
January 18, 2012
It would be so interesting to find out why Rabbi Shneur Zalman took all of his belongings and why did Napoleon ask for something of the Rebbe's.
Brooklyn, New York
June 4, 2009
Does your Heart Grow Only in Poverty?
If only in poverty can man’s heart be close to G-d, how would they still be here today to worship G-d? Would they survive poverty and disease? No, I believe they would endure a slow demise and be extinct. Their imminent future was doomed. Maybe their heart belongs to G-d but is that what G-d would like for them in order to survive in this world?
Napoleon’s view for the Jews’ emancipation gave them the freedom to worship their G-d too. It was man’s choice to continue to do so, and many today have done just that, which resulted in the extermination of 6 millions Jews whose hearts had not left G-d.
Boca Raton, Florida USA
The life, teachings and works of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad.