In 1812 Napoleon’s Grande Armée invaded Russia, with the self-proclaimed “liberator’s” aim to bring the whole of Europe under his hegemony.

Around that time, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi wrote to one of his disciples:

If B[ona]p[arte] will be victorious, Jewish wealth will increase, and the prestige of the Jewish people will be raised; but their hearts will disintegrate and be distanced from their Father in Heaven. But if A[lexander] will be victorious, although Israel’s poverty will increase and their prestige will be lowered, their hearts will be joined, bound and unified with their Father in Heaven. And this shall be your sign: in the near time, the apple of your eyes will be taken from you . . .1

The chassid to whom this letter was addressed, Rabbi Moshe Maizlish of Vilna, was no mere bystander to these events. At Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s behest, Reb Moshe served as a spy for the Russians, passing on information he picked up in the French general command, where he worked as an interpreter, to the czar’s generals.2

When Napoleon’s advancing armies approached Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s hometown of Liadi, the rebbe was forced to flee. The rebbe left Liadi with sixty wagons carrying his extended family and many of his chassidim, escorted by a troop of soldiers attached to the convoy by express order of the czar.

A few miles out of Liadi, the rebbe suddenly requested from the officers accompanying the convoy that they provide him with a light carriage, two good horses, and two armed drivers. Taking along some of his own people, the rebbe rushed back to Liadi. Upon arriving back at his own home, he instructed that a careful search be made to see if any of his personal items had been left behind. After a thorough search, a pair of worn-out slippers, a rolling pin and a kneading bowl were found in the attic. The rebbe instructed that these be taken along, and that the house be set on fire. He then blessed the inhabitants of the town, and quickly departed.

No sooner did the rebbe leave the town than the first scouts of the French army entered Liadi from the other side. Shortly thereafter, Napoleon himself, accompanied by his generals, arrived at the rebbe’s residence, only to find the house engulfed in flames. A proclamation was issued throughout the town and the surrounding villages promising a generous reward in golden coins to anyone who could produce an object belonging to the Jewish rabbi, or a coin he had received from the rebbe’s hand. But nothing was found.

For more than five months, as Napoleon advanced across Russia, took Moscow, and then embarked on his disastrous retreat, the rebbe’s entourage wandered from town to town and from village to village, only narrowly avoiding the swath of carnage cut by the French army as it moved through the country.

Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, winter of 1812–1813
Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, winter of 1812–1813

The rebbe rode in the third wagon. In the first wagon sat his grandson, Rabbi Nachum, with two military officers. Whenever they would arrive at a crossroads, the entire procession would halt while Rabbi Nachum walked to the third wagon to asked Rabbi Schneur Zalman which way to proceed. At times, the rebbe would reply without moving from his seat; other times, he would walk to the crossroads, lean on his staff, and meditate for a while before issuing his directive.

On one occasion, Rabbi Nachum erred in his understanding of the rebbe’s instruction, and the convoy took the wrong turn. When the error was revealed, Rabbi Schneur Zalman instructed that they continue along the road already taken, but said with great regret in his voice: “How fortunate it is when the grandson follows the grandfather; how unfortunate it is when the grandfather must follow the lead of the grandson.”

Many trials and tribulations followed that wrong turn in the road, culminating in their arrival in the town of P’yene.

The rebbe’s convoy arrived in P’yene in the dead of winter, on the 8th day of Tevet, 5573 (December 1812). P’yene was a good-sized town, consisting of some three hundred large houses and courtyards, many of which were empty as the men were away at war. The generous townspeople provided housing and kindling free of charge to the refugees.

Ten days later, the rebbe fell ill. On 24 Tevet, motzaei Shabbat (Saturday night) following Shabbat Parshat Shemot, at 10:30 in the evening, after reciting the havdalah prayer marking the close of the holy Shabbat, he returned his soul to its Maker.

Shortly before his passing (by one account, “after havdalah, several minutes before giving up his soul in purity to G‑d”) the rebbe penned a short discourse titled “The Humble Soul.”

“For the truly humble soul,” Rabbi Schneur Zalman wrote, “its mission in life lies in the pragmatic aspect of Torah, both in studying it for oneself and explaining it to others, and in doing acts of material kindness in lending an empathizing mind and counsel from afar regarding household concerns, though the majority, if not all, of these concern things of falsehood . . . For although the divine attribute of Truth argued that man should not be created, since he is full of lies, the divine attribute of Kindness argued that he should be created, for he is full of kindnesses . . . And the world is built upon kindness.”