(1812) Napoleon’s Grande Armée invades Russia

(1812) As Napoleon’s armies approach, R. Schneur Zalman flees Liadi

As the French army advanced, R. Schneur Zalman declared his intention to flee rather than become subject to the rule of Napoleon. On Friday, the 29th of Av, he left Liadi together with his family and close followers. They met the Russian army at Krasnyi, where the general in command, General Dmitry Neverovsky, issued them a document that granted them right of passage and commanded all Russian troops and authorities to aid them in every possible way. On that very day General Neverovsky’s troops were attacked by a superior French force, and R. Schneur Zalman's party fled in the direction of Smolensk. They spent that Friday night in the woods, and arrived in the city on Shabbat morning. So began a period of wandering that dragged on for nearly five months.

(1812) Rosh Hashanah: the battle of Borodino is fought

In the days before Rosh Hashanah, R. Schneur Zalman circled to the north of Moscow, and arrived in Troitse-Sergiyeva. A few days earlier they had been in Mozajsk, when the great battle of Borodino was fought on the very day of Rosh Hashanah. A year later, Rabbi DovBer wrote in a private letter, “On the day of Rosh Hashanah he [R. Schneur Zalman] spoke to us words of joy and comfort, saying these words: ‘I saw in my prayer that good change has occurred to our benefit, and our side will be victorious. Also [I saw] that they will take Moscow, but they will not have permanence, and salvation shall stand by us . . .’” The battle took a terrible toll on both sides, but ultimately was inconclusive. While the way was left open for the French to occupy Moscow, their army had been dealt a very heavy blow.

(1812) Passing of R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi

After months of wandering, R. Schneur Zalman and his party arrived, by way of Kursk, in a small village called Piyena. Greatly weakened from the difficult journey in the midst of the bitter Russian winter, he took ill on the 19th of Tevet. In those last days in Piyena Rabbi Schneur Zalman wrote one of the most profound essays to issue from his pen—a lengthy treatise later published as section 20 of Iggeret HaKodesh (part 4 of the Tanya). Another manuscript preserved from those days begins with the words “The soul that is truly humble . . . ,” and was written very shortly before his passing. You can find out more about the content of these manuscripts by watching the following video, or by reading this article.

Following the conclusion of Shabbat Parshat Shemot, the 24th of Tevet 5573 (1812), Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Chassidism, passed away. He was laid to rest in the Jewish cemetery of nearby Haditch.

“The life of a righteous man, a tzaddik,” wrote Rabbi Schneur Zalman, “is not a physical life but a spiritual life, consisting of faith, awe and love.” These three attributes, he explained, have no demise, and extend the tangible influence of the tzaddik long after he is no longer bodily present. Indeed, the moment when a tzaddik passes is considered a moment of divine grace, for it signifies that his mission on earth has been successfully completed. Now, the true spirit of the tzaddik is freed from bodily limitation, and all those who study his teachings and walk in his ways perpetuate his presence in the physical domain. (See Iggeret HaKodesh 27 and 28, and Siddur Im Dach 304b and 307b.)

Two hundred years later, the faith, love and awe which Rabbi Schneur Zalman disseminated during his sixty-eight years of physical life have certainly not expired. Today the Chabad movement he established has spread across the entire globe, and hundreds of thousands study his teachings and strive to live by them every single day. Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s tangible influence is only growing; but it is our responsibility to ensure that “the works, teachings and devotion to which he dedicated his entire life” continue to transform this world. Rabbi Schneur Zalman taught that our purpose is to make this world into a bright and beautiful place, where the harmonious splendor of divinity can be most manifest. It is up to us to make his vision a reality.

For more on the passing of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, see:

The Ascent of the Tzaddik—A Poem

The Passing of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi

The Physical World: Teachings from Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s Last Days