A great calamity had befallen the Jews of Poland.1 The government had passed a series of decrees banishing the Jews from the villages and the countryside, where many leased inns, breweries and mills from the local landholders. Thousands of refugees poured into the cities, bereft of home and livelihood.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi took to the road, visiting Jewish communities throughout Poland and Lithuania to raise the large sums needed to feed and shelter the homeless, and to bribe the government ministers to alleviate the decrees. Arriving in the town of Tulchin, he went to pay his respects to Rabbi Baruch, grandson of Chassidism’s founder, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov.

“What brings you to these parts?” asked Rabbi Baruch.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman explained the purpose of his journey.

“Fundraising for bribes?” objected Rabbi Baruch. “Surely, the matter can be dealt with without recourse to such mundane means. Could you not, instead, teach our Jews the echad of my holy grandfather? That should suffice to annihilate the decrees of our enemies!”

“On the contrary,” said Rabbi Schneur Zalman. “It is your grandfather’s echad that is causing all the trouble.

“Three hundred years ago,” Rabbi Schneur Zalman explained, “the Jewish people were driven from Spain. They wandered from port to port and from land to land, but none of the kings of Europe would allow them to settle in their domains. Among the Jews were those who had managed to salvage a considerable portion of their wealth, and they offered huge bribes to the local rulers in return for a haven to rest their exile-weary bones; but they were repeatedly turned down.

“Why did the rulers of Europe, whose appetite for silver and gold was legendary, refuse these lucrative offers? Because this was but the earthly reflection of a drama that was unfolding in the heavens. The sarim (angels) who embody the spirit of these nations wanted nothing of the Jew in their domains. ‘We know these Jews,’ said they. ‘No sooner do they settle in a new place than they erect houses of study and prayer, where they study Torah and proclaim the unity of G‑d. Soon the cry, Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad (“Hear O Israel, the L‑rd is our G‑d, the L‑rd is one!”) will resound throughout our lands. And what will become of us? We shall disintegrate, as darkness gives way to light and folly is banished by wisdom. No, we’ll do without Jews.’

“But the angel of Poland had a different reaction. ‘I have nothing to fear from the Jews,’ said he. ‘On the contrary, I shall only profit from their presence in my domain. Yes, they’ll build study halls and study Torah, but they’ll do so for their self-aggrandizement. Yes, they’ll build synagogues and cry echad! but it will be their own piety that they are proclaiming, not the unity of G‑d. The flow of spiritual vitality that G‑d bestows upon His people will drain right out of their flawed vessels and into my own coffers.’

“The soul of Poland having acquiesced, events on earth followed suit. The king of Poland had his tallest knight mount his steed and hold his lance aloft, and the Jews amassed a pile of gold and silver that topped the tip of the raised lance. Thus, the Jews were permitted to settle in Poland.

“So passed close to three hundred years. Then your grandfather came along and taught the true meaning of echad, and the angel of Poland began to have second thoughts. ‘I agreed to accept the Jews of the old echad, not the new!’

“Well,” concluded Rabbi Schneur Zalman, “since we’re not about to give up the echad your grandfather has taught us, we need to throw some more silver on the pile.”