The Prisoner Who Refused to be Intimidated

In Likkutei Dibburim,1 the Previous Rebbe — Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of Lubavitch — describes the details of his imprisonment in 1927 by the Soviet authorities for his efforts to spread Judaism and Chassidism among his fellow Jews. These recollections are significant not only as a histori­cal record, but also because they reveal the inner spiritual dynamic of his imprisonment and redemption.

From the beginning of his imprisonment, the Previous Rebbe resolved that he would not be affected by the authori­ties who had imprisoned him.2 This resolution had implica­tions beyond his commitment not to compromise in Torah observance. The Previous Rebbe did not perceive the Soviet authorities as having any power at all. In his eyes, they were “utter nothingness and void.” He refused to cooperate under interrogation and responded to them with pride and integrity. Despite the physical discomfort and the blows he suffered at their hands, he was not intimidated, nor did he allow them to break his spirit.

“Who Will Teach Whom”

On Rosh Chodesh Tammuz,3guards entered his cell and ordered him to stand. He refused. The guards explained that they had information for him and that the prison rules re­quired that he stand to receive it. He again refused. They threatened to beat him, and when he did not obey them, they carried out their threat.

This scenario was repeated three times. Before the last blows were administered, one of the exasperated guards told the Rebbe, “We’ll teach you a lesson!” The Rebbe responded, “The question is, who will teach whom....”

Realizing that their attempts to intimidate him were inef­fective, the Soviet authorities invited him into an office and informed him of his sentence — three years’ exile in Kostro­ma. (On the desk before him, the Previous Rebbe noticed his file. He saw that his sentence had actually been commuted. He had at first been condemned to execution; the second sentence suggested was twelve years’ hard labor; and only the final ruling, three years of exile, was delivered.)

The date was Thursday, the first day of Rosh Chodesh Tammuz. He was informed that he would be granted several hours at home and then he would depart by train to Kostro­ma. He asked the prison authorities when he was scheduled to arrive in Kostroma and was told that he would arrive on Shabbos.

He refused to go. One of the officials warned that if he did not comply with their orders, he would not be granted another opportunity to leave prison. He replied that he was prepared to stay in prison for as long as necessary; he would not travel on Shabbos.4

Shocked by the Rebbe’s defiance, the authorities paused for consultation with leading government officials. After some hours, they agreed to detain him in prison over Shabbos and allow him to travel on Sunday, the Third of Tammuz.

“Our Souls Were Never Sent Into Exile”

In preparation for his arrival, the Previous Rebbe dis­patched R. Michoel Dvorkin to Kostroma.5There, this trusted elder chassid promptly collected the local Jewish children and established a cheder. He also inspected the local mikveh and made it halachically faultless. Ironically, the very activi­ties for which the Previous Rebbe had been arrested were now being carried out with the knowledge and consent of the Soviet authorities.

Before setting out for Kostroma, the Previous Rebbe briefly took leave of his chassidim, urging them to continue their efforts to spread the practice of Judaism:6

It must be made known to all the nations on the face of the earth that our bodies alone were banished into exile and subjugated to the dominion of the nations. Our souls were never exiled, nor were they subju­gated to the nations.

It must be publicly declared that no one can exert any influence whatever on our faith, on the Torah, on its mitzvos, and on Jewish custom.

A Positive Spiral of Activity Gathers Momentum

This message, its impact heightened by the circumstances under which it was delivered, made a profound impression on the chassidim. Shortly afterward, on the Twelfth and Thirteenth of Tammuz respectively, the Previous Rebbe was notified of his impending release and in fact released from exile entirely. As he himself later pointed out,7 this series of events indicated that the Soviet government had consented to his efforts to spread Torah observance.

The Previous Rebbe’s imprisonment thus bore rich fruit, inspiring further efforts to spread our Jewish heritage. The positive effects of these events continue and are enhanced from year to year, as the commemoration of Yud-Beis Tam­muz encourages others to continue along the paths opened by the Previous Rebbe.

The lesson of the Previous Rebbe’s redemption is relevant in all situations. When a person resolves that all the obstacles to spreading Torah have no substance, and he perseveres in his commitment in the face of all difficulties, the truth of his resolution will be revealed to him. He will come to under­stand that “the Torah, its mitzvos, and the Jewish people are eternal,”8 and that all the forces which appear to oppose them are temporary challenges. When one persists in one’s efforts to spread Judaism, these obstacles will disappear. Moreover, even the opposing forces themselves will be transformed into influences which contribute to the dissemination of Torah.

One Redemption Leading to Another

The Previous Rebbe’s redemption on Yud-Beis Tammuz led to his coming to the United States, a change in location that had two effects. On the one hand, being in America en­abled him to disseminate Judaism and Chassidism without all the difficulties encountered in Europe. However, the Ameri­can environment also confronted chassidim with a challenge — that of maintaining the intensity of commitment aroused by a threat to one’s existence when that threat no longer existed.

The Previous Rebbe withstood this challenge as well, in­itiating trailblazing activities which ultimately established America as a major Torah center for our people. With untir­ing optimism and perseverance, he opened up new frontiers in his efforts to disseminate the observance of Torah.

His redemption on Yud-Beis Tammuz was thus not a per­sonal matter; it affected our entire people.9 As the positive effects brought about by this redemption continue and grow, we are able to see openly, and not only appreciate on a spiri­tual plane, that his redemption served as a preparation for the ultimate Redemption which we will experience with the coming of Mashiach. May this take place in the immediate future.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IV, Yud-Beis Tammuz; Vol. XXVIII, Gimmel Tammuz