It was a dark cold night in Russia, some two hundred and fifty years ago. The great Chassidic master Rabbi Yehoshua Heshel of Apta was sitting in his study learning Torah when he heard a knock at his door.

It was three in the morning. The rebbe almost never slept, but it was very unusual that anyone would knock at this hour unless it truly was an emergency.

An obviously distraught man was let in. His clothes were in disarray as though he hadn't slept in days and he looked almost insane with anxiety.

"Rebbe!" He pleaded with eyes red from weeping and exhaustion, "My wife has been in labor for the last three days, but the baby just won't come out. The doctors say they will have to operate but they are worried. Please, Rebbe, do something! Tell me what to do!"

The Rebbe folded his hands on the table before him and then lowered his head on his hands, as though in deep contemplation or prayer.

He remained that way for several minutes while the poor man stood there, bewildered, not knowing what to do. Should he leave? Should he say something?

The Rebbe finally lifted his head and said solemnly: "You can go home. You have a new son. Your wife just gave birth to a baby boy. Mazal Tov."

He couldn't believe his ears. But why was the Rebbe so serious? He clasped the Rebbe's hand between his and said, "Thank you Rebbe, thank you!" about ten times in a row, backed out of the room almost falling over his own feet and ran home as fast as possible.

As soon as he opened the door he heard the thin cries of his baby, and there was his wife, exhausted but alive and even faintly smiling. He burst into tears of grateful joy. It was a miracle!

The next day he returned to the Rebbe to apologize for barging in the previous night and to thank him again. But the Rebbe's Chassidim stopped him before he entered and insisted of him that he ask the Rebbe what happened — what was the Rebbe doing during those minutes when he was in a trance-like state with his head cradled in his arms?

At first the fellow would have no part of it. But finally he agreed and as he was about to leave the Rebbe's room he humbly requested an explanation for his son's miraculous birth. The Rebbe replied with the utmost seriousness:

"Your son has a very lofty soul. It did not want to leave the pure spiritual truth of heaven to enter this world of falsehood and tribulation.

"So I spoke with the soul. I promised it that when it descends to the world it will be given special powers that are not available even in the highest spiritual realms. And these special powers will enable it to serve G‑d above all limitations.

"Only them did your child's soul agree to come into the world."

When the Chassidim heard what their Rebbe had said they took great interest in this child; who knows what a great person he would turn out to be! They decided to keep track of him.

A year after he was born his mother passed away. Seven years later his father also departed this world, leaving the boy a complete orphan.

He was moved from one relative to another and, while the Chassidim did what they could to help, in those terrible days of persecution and poverty under the Czar Nicholas (of cursed memory) there was not much that could be done.

When the boy was only ten years old he was snatched into the army with another boy. (These were the days of the dreaded "cantonist" decrees, when, by order of the czar, Jewish children were forcefully inducted into the army as a means of achieving their conversion to Christianity.) From then on the only connection the Chassidim had with him was by mail. They would write to him once a week and the boy would reply when he could.

His rare letters told about how they were torturing and punishing him and his friends for not eating pork and for trying to keep the Shabbat, but that he was resolved to never be separated from the G‑d of Israel.

Then the letters stopped.

A half a year later, they received a letter from the boy's friend saying that the boy had died from a beating he received while refusing to convert.