Note: The birthdays of both the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, and Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the Baal HaTanya, fall on the 18th of Elul, widely observed by many chassidim.

Once in his travels, Rabbi Shneur Zalman stopped in a certain city. While he was there, a house caught on fire. The rebbe asked to be taken to the neighborhood where the fire was. When he arrived at the scene, a group of Russian soldiers from the local garrison were trying in vain to extinguish it. The rebbe stood in front of the blazing home and leaned on his cane. He remained utterly still for a few moments. Suddenly, the fire died down.

The exhausted soldiers could barely believe their eyes. They ran to report the astonishing turn of events to their commanding officer. He listened calmly, then sent a delegation of soldiers to ask the rebbe to come to see him.

When the rebbe arrived, the officer asked him, “Are you by chance the son or grandson of the Jewish holy man known as the Baal Shem Tov?” My father sent a soldier to the Baal Shem Tov to request an appointment . . .

The rebbe told him that he was not actually a blood relative, but he considered himself his spiritual grandson because he was a disciple of the main disciple and successor of the Baal Shem Tov. “If so,” remarked the officer, “I am no longer amazed at what you did today. Come, sit down, and I will tell you a story about my deceased father and the Baal Shem Tov.

“My father carried the rank of general. Once he came with his troops to the village of Mezhibuzh shortly before your holiday of Passover. My father then was deeply troubled, because many weeks had passed since he had received a letter, or any message at all, from his wife. Brooding, with his imagination running wild, he confided his distress to a few local residents with whom he was friendly. They immediately suggested that perhaps he should seek the advice of the holy Jew who lived in their town, who was a wonder-maker and revealer of secrets.

“My father sent a soldier to the Baal Shem Tov to request an appointment. Much to his surprise, the Baal Shem Tov refused to see the soldier. My father sent another soldier, but still the Baal Shem Tov refused. My father was annoyed, but he knew about you Jews and your holidays. He sent another delegation, this time with the threat that if the Baal Shem Tov would not grant the general an interview, he would billet his troops in the Jewish community, causing loads of bread and other chametz food to be brought into the home of every Jew in the village during the days of preparing for Passover!

“The threat worked. The Baal Shem Tov sent back a message inviting the general, my father, to his home. He went there right away, bringing with him one of his subordinates.

“Upon entering the front room, they right away saw through the open doorway that the Baal Shem Tov was sitting in the second room, totally absorbed in the book in front of him (which my father subsequently found out was the Zohar). However, before he could enter or even knock on the door, my father’s attention was caught by a large mirror on the wall in the front room. My father was overwhelmed by the vision in the mirror . . .

“He went over to it, having decided to comb his hair before going in to greet the rebbe. He glanced at the mirror, and to his astonishment, instead of himself, he saw in it scenery that resembled the outskirts of his hometown. Upon closer examination, he saw the paved road that led right to his own house. Totally startled, he shouted to his staff officer to come quickly and see.

“The two of them stared. Suddenly, they could see inside the house, where the general’s wife was sitting at a table, writing a letter to her husband! They were even able to see the letter clearly enough to read it. In it she apologized for the long break in communication, and that it was due to her pregnancy and delivery of a baby boy. Both mother and son were doing well.

“My father was overwhelmed by the vision in the mirror. He thanked the Baal Shem Tov profusely. After a while, he received a letter in the mail from his wife—identical to what he had seen in the mirror! At that point, my father wrote down the whole story in detail in his personal diary.”

The commanding officer concluded, “I am the son whose birth was referred to in that letter. Also, the journal in which my father recorded this event is in my possession. If you will stay a bit longer, I will be happy to show it to you.”

And he did.

Freely adapted from the rendition in A Treasury of Chassidic Tales (Artscroll).

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