In 1798, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi was imprisoned on charges, put forth by the opponents of Chassidism, that his teachings undermined the imperial authority of the czar. For fifty-two days he was held in the Peter-Paul Fortress in Petersburg.
Among the Rebbe’s interrogators was a government minister who possessed broad knowledge of the Bible and Jewish studies. On one occasion, he asked the Rebbe to explain the verse (Genesis 3:9), “And G‑d called out to the man and said to him: ‘Where are you?’” Did G‑d not know where Adam was?
Rabbi Schneur Zalman presented the explanation offered by several of the commentaries: the question “Where are you?” was merely a “conversation opener” on the part of G‑d, who did not wish to unnerve Adam by immediately confronting him with his wrongdoing.
“What Rashi says, I know,” said the minister. “I wish to hear how the Rebbe understands the verse.”
“Do you believe that the Torah is eternal?” asked the Rebbe. “Do you believe that its every word applies to every individual, under all conditions, at all times?”
“Yes,” replied the minister.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman was extremely gratified to hear this. The czar’s minister had affirmed a principle which lies at the basis of the teachings of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the very teachings and ideology for which he was standing trial!
“‘Where are you?’” explained the Rebbe, “is G‑d’s perpetual call to every man. Where are you in the world? What have you accomplished? You have been allotted a certain number of days, hours, and minutes in which to fulfill your mission in life. You have lived so many years and so many days,”—here Rabbi Schneur Zalman spelled out the exact age of the minister—“Where are you? What have you achieved?”
Told by the Lubavitcher Rebbe on 19 Kislev, 5718 (December 12, 1957), on the occasion of the 159th anniversary of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s release from prison.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman Boruchovitch of Liadi, also known as the “Alter Rebbe” and “The Rav,” was born in Liozna, White Russia, in 1745. In 1764 he became a disciple of Rabbi DovBer of Mezeritch, the second leader of the chassidic movement after the Baal Shem Tov. In 1772, Rabbi Schneur Zalman established the “Chabad” branch of Chassidism. For twenty years he labored on his Tanya, which, published in 1796, became the “bible” of Chabad Chassidism, upon which hundreds of works and thousands of discourses by seven generations of Chabad rebbes and their disciples are based. The nineteenth of Kislev, the day on which he was released from czarist imprisonment in 1798, is celebrated to this day as the “New Year for Chassidism,” for that event marked the start of a new period of expansion for the movement. Rabbi Schneur Zalman passed away while fleeing from Napoleon’s armies in December 1812.