Every so often the czar would dress up as an ordinary Russian citizen. In this disguise he socialized with the public, and received an unbiased and candid report about what transpired in his kingdom.

On one of these undercover ventures, the czar decided to visit a local inn. The inn was crowded with soldiers sitting around tables and drinking, their laughter hanging in the air like thick smoke.

Sitting among his friends was a Jewish soldier who, other than his own identity as a Jew, knew nothing about his heritage. He was a cantonist, kidnapped from his family as a young boy, and forced into 25 years of service in the czar’s army.

Noticing the man who had walked into the inn, the Jewish soldier approached him and offered to share a drink.

Unable to refuse such an invitation, the czar agreed. They both sat down at a worn table, and the Jewish soldier procured two cups and a bottle of Russia’s finest vodka. The czar thanked him and guzzled the vodka down, placing the cup on the table as he smacked his lips. Without warning, the Jewish soldier reached over and slapped the czar’s cheek, leaving the confused czar with an expression of shock on his face.

“Why?” the czar blurted out, unable to utter anything else.

The Jewish soldier glowered at him. “Don’t you know the drinker’s rule? You were supposed to fill my glass before putting yours down.”

Aware of his ignorance of local customs, the czar apologized and filled the soldier’s cup to the brim. The pair continued drinking together, each one responsible for his friend’s cup, until they finally finished the bottle. Still thirsty, the Jewish soldier fruitlessly rummaged through his pockets for some kopeks before turning to the czar.

“I’ll be right back,” he breathed tipsily.

Under the czar’s attentive gaze, the Jewish soldier lumbered over to the innkeeper and spoke to him for a few minutes, occasionally gesturing to his side while the innkeeper nodded his head.

Triumphantly, and to the czar’s horror, the soldier tugged his curved sword out from its sheath and presented it to the innkeeper, who produced a bottle of vodka from underneath the bar and swapped it for the sword.

Seething at the sheer audacity of this soldier, who was willing to forsake his sword even temporarily for a bottle of vodka, the czar quickly made a note of the soldier’s battalion before he could return to the table.

When the czar returned home, he ordered his officers to notify a certain military camp that he himself would conduct an inspection there. He planned to catch the soldier red-handed without his weapon.

Having received notification of the czar’s visit, the military camp underwent rigorous preparations so that it would please the critical eye of the czar. Soldiers darted around the camp as though it were a colony of ants, their tension palpable as they performed their given tasks with extra alacrity.

In the middle of all the frenzied excitement, the Jewish soldier sat on his cot, slowly fashioning a sword out of a block of wood. To appear for an inspection without one’s sword was to appear for one’s death sentence. Masterfully, he managed to produce an exact replica, from the hilt down to the curved blade. Pleased with his handiwork, the soldier sheathed the sword and began preparing for the czar’s visit.

On schedule, a loud call heralded the arrival of the czar, and all the soldiers assembled in the camp’s center in symmetrical rows, their faces expressionless. Only the chirping of some birds interrupted the silence. The czar sprang from his horse and landed neatly in his glossy boots, scanning the faces for the one he remembered from the day before. The soldiers stiffened and held their breaths as the czar strode by aloofly, his hands clasped behind his back.

Finally he spotted the soldier standing in the ranks, and was surprised to see the hilt of a sword jutting out from the sheath at the soldier’s side. The soldier could have fooled him under different circumstances, but now he knew the truth: the real sword was at an inn on the side of some road, exchanged for a bottle of vodka. The czar suppressed a smile. An idea had already formed in his mind.

Turning to the Jewish soldier’s neighbor, the czar breathed in and eyed the soldier with a feigned disgust, a convincing frown playing on his lips. “Since when did soldiers dare to appear before me dressed like this?” the czar challenged loudly, looking around. The soldier bowed his head in terrified shame, shrinking in his uniform.

The czar knew there was nothing wrong with the soldier’s uniform, but he needed a justification for what he was going to do next.

“Forgive me, Your Majesty,” the soldier pleaded, his voice nearly carried away in the breeze.

But the czar would hear none of it. “Have you no shame in appearing like this before me? You!” the czar bellowed and pointed to the Jewish soldier, whose hair bristled at the czar’s words. “I want you to take out your sword and behead him immediately!”

With the czar’s order still ringing in his ears, the Jewish soldier hesitated, mindful of the fact that he was not capable of carrying out the czar’s wish because his sword was made out of wood.

Quickly gathering his courage, the Jewish soldier spoke up. “Your Majesty! Here I am, eager and willing to fulfill your command. I have no right to dispute your words, but forgive me, Your Majesty, my belief is that this man is innocent. But who am I to challenge you and your orders? I stand by, ready to carry them out. G‑d Almighty, however, is the One who judges all of mankind, and if He does not agree with your sentence, let Him transform a sword of steel into one of wood!”

And with those words the Jewish soldier pulled his sword out of its sheath and held it up high in the air in front of hundreds of stunned pairs of eyes. Indeed his sword had “changed” into wood.

The czar was impressed by the Jewish soldier’s courage and ingenuity. Leaning in closely to the Jewish soldier so that no one could overhear, the czar whispered softly, “You may not know this, but I know the truth, and in light of your courage, I promote you to a higher rank.”

Over time, bolstered to the upper echelons of Russian society by a series of steady promotions in the military, the Jewish soldier became a very close acquaintance of the czar and his family. He never mentioned his religion, and the czar never thought to inquire. But because of the Jewish soldier’s high-ranking position, the czar was finally forced to ask.

“I’m Jewish,” declared the soldier truthfully.

The czar could not believe his ears. “All this time,” asserted the czar angrily, “I’ve helped you rise to prominence and treated you like one of my own. Yet you kept this dark secret behind my back. Renounce your faith, as it will not benefit you in your pursuit of glory. If not, the consequence of misleading me is death. If you do accept our faith, the queen and I will support you like parents. There is practically no greater honor than us ushering you towards your noble assimilation.”

And slowly the czar tempted the Jewish soldier’s heart with illusions of grandeur, waving off any hesitancies, and eventually getting the soldier to agree to his proposal.

The ceremony was set to take place in a cathedral in the city of Kiev under the guidance of the archbishop of Ukraine. True to the czar’s word, a large and ostentatious procession of soldiers accompanied the royal carriage, which slowly rolled its way through the city.

Sitting between the czar and his queen, the soldier was suddenly overtaken by a powerful arousal of his Jewish soul, and he was cast into deep spiritual turmoil. A relentless storm of thoughts gave him no rest and scoured him raw from inside. What have I done? The Jewish soldier stole a glance at the czar. Am I willing to give up my faith for this? Never!

The Jewish soldier’s mind was filled with this resolute thought just as they were passing over a bridge. He asked for the carriage to be stopped, explaining that he needed to attend the call of nature.

Standing by the raging river, the Jewish soldier looked heavenward and cried out, Shema Yisrael . . . Echad!” (“Hear O Israel: G‑d is our L‑rd, G‑d is One”). Then he jumped and disappeared beneath the dark waters.

The czar was still sitting in the carriage when the news of the Jewish soldier’s drowning reached him. After mulling it over in silence for moment, the czar remarked, “What a fool.”

And as the soldier’s body descended toward the murky depths, the brave soldier’s soul ascended ever higher.

“There are some,” say the sages of the Talmud, “who acquire their portion of the world to come in but one moment.” And such was surely the case of this soldier, torn from his heritage as a young boy, yet willing to give his life rather than renounce his identity.

(Adapted from Shemuot Vesippurim, vol. 1, p. 284)