When Jewry in Soviet Russia was threatened with spiritual extinction, the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, with incredible mesirus nefesh, kept the flame of Judaism burning. In the following years, spent in Poland and finally in the U.S.A., the Rebbe displayed the same mesirus nefesh to spread Judaism and Chassidus.

The twelfth and thirteenth days of the month of Tammuz mark the days when the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe was freed from Russian imprisonment. It was the year 5687 (1927), and Soviet Russia was a land of oppression and terror. Unrelenting war was viciously waged, war against religion and the religious. Judaism and Jews were especially targeted, with the aim of leaving no vestige of a once flourishing Torah community. Yeshivah after yeshivah was closed down, mikvahs shut, kosher food made all but impossible to obtain, and Jewish printing presses banned. A Torah lifestyle became perilous to maintain and most of all, Jewish religious leaders were hounded and persecuted.

The bitterest opponent of Jewish religion life was the Yevsektzia, the Jewish section of the Communist party. Considering it their sacred duty to “purify” Soviet Russia of everything considered inimical to Communism — with Judaism their top priority — they set about methodically eliminating anyone in their way. The members of the Yevsektzia were the worst enemies of their fellow Jews.1

Rebbe keeps Torah alive

One man defied them. One man was absolutely determined that Jewish life would continue in Russia, that the Torah would not be forgotten. The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, sixth leader of Chabad, resisted the furious onslaught and kept alight the flame of Judaism in Russia.

At a time when other Jewish leaders and Torah greats, considering the situation hopeless, had left the country, the Previous Rebbe increased his efforts in the dissemination of Torah and mitzvos. A place needed a Rabbi or shochet? The Rebbe sent one. Students wanted to learn Torah? The Rebbe founded yeshivahs and cheders, underground if need be. A mikvah was necessary? The Rebbe had it built. No facet of Jewish life escaped his notice and attention.

His efforts brought down upon him the wrath of the Yevsektzia and the authorities. Harassed and threatened, the Rebbe still did not desist. He continued his work in secrecy.

The storm broke.2 On the fifteenth of Sivan, 5687, the Rebbe was arrested and incarcerated in the infamous Spalerno prison in Leningrad. His captors subjected the Rebbe to beatings and interrogations and kept him locked up in squalid filth, trying to break the one person who thwarted their designs.3

They were fanatical in their hatred of Torah and the man who held high its banner. It was not illegal to keep the Jewish faith. The Soviet Constitution explicitly allows for freedom of religion. But a Torah lifestyle was anathema to the men of the Yevsektzia, some of whom were descendants of religious and even Chassidic Jews. They would do anything, even break their own laws, to remove this man who was a bone sticking in their throats.

The Rebbe was no stranger to imprisonment. Six times he had been imprisoned for his activities on behalf of Jews, but none were as severe and for as long a duration as this, the seventh. And never before had he been sentenced to death.

His chassidim, those staunch disciples who resolutely carried out his directives, they too suffered. Many were imprisoned, many sent to Siberia. And many would not be heard of again. Their mesirus nefesh, self-sacrifice, came from the Rebbe. He imbued them with the incredible strength needed to continue the task of keeping Russian Jewry alive. His flame was their flame, his burning urgency their command.

His captors were desperate, enraged. They became more cruel, more violent. But the Rebbe did not yield, refused to acknowledge them or their beatings. Brute force was of no avail against this man of the spirit.

International pressure mounted, with protests from the highest circles in Western governments. The original death sentence was commuted to ten years in Siberia, then, on the third of Tammuz, to three years exile in the remote city of Kostrama.4 Finally, on the twelfth of Tammuz, the Rebbe was informed that he was completely free.

Beginning of Liberation

Although the Previous Rebbe was fully liberated only on the twelfth and thirteenth of Tammuz, the third of Tammuz, when the Rebbe was released from prison, is also a festive occasion. While it marked the beginning of exile — a severe punishment, in some respects worse than death5 — it was simultaneously the beginning of the process of liberation. At the time, it seemed like one more step in suffering, possibly even a ruse by the authorities to be rid of the great international pressure exerted for the Previous Rebbe’s release from incarceration.6 With hindsight, however, we see that leaving prison was the first step in the liberation which would be fully completed on the twelfth and thirteenth of Tammuz. Ever since, the third of Tammuz has been celebrated accordingly.7

When the Rebbe departed for exile in Kostrama on the third of Tammuz, a crowd of Jews gathered at the train station to farewell him. In his parting blessings the Rebbe said:8 “It was not by our will that we were exiled from Eretz Yisroel, and it is not with our strength that we will return there. Our Father, our King, blessed be He, sent us into exile, and He will redeem us, gather our dispersed from the four corners of the earth, and lead us upright to our holy land through our righteous Moshiach, speedily in our days.

“But all the peoples of the earth should know that only our bodies were delivered into exile and servitude, not our souls. We must openly declare that concerning our religion, Torah, mitzvos, and Jewish customs, no one can tell us what to do, and no coercion is allowed.

“We must declare with all the firmness of our Jewish stubbornness, with the Jewish self-sacrifice of thousands of years — ‘Do not touch My anointed ones and do not do evil to My prophets.’”

Thus spoke the Previous Rebbe as he was about to depart into exile. The exile must not, cannot, affect our behavior as Jews, our commitment to Torah and mitzvos. For, as the Alter Rebbe writes,9 “the basis and root of the entire Torah is to raise and exalt the soul high above the body.” The soul is primary, the body secondary. Because “only our bodies were delivered into exile, not our souls” the primary component of a Jew remains free, and exile only affects that which is secondary. Therefore, “concerning our religion, Torah, mitzvos, and Jewish customs, no one can tell us what to do.”

Mesirus Nefesh for Judaism

The Rebbe himself was the supreme example of just such an attitude, and it is from him we draw the strength and inspiration to follow suit. The Previous Rebbe exhibited incredible mesirus nefesh, for the sake of Torah, both before his arrest and during his imprisonment.

There are two general levels of mesirus nefesh: The first is willingness to sacrifice — but within definite parameters, defined by Jewish Law which is quite specific about situations in which a Jew is obliged to act with mesirus nefesh. This level of mesirus nefesh will be displayed only if Torah instructs that a situation demands it.

The second level is mesirus nefesh which knows no boundaries, and is in force even when it may not be obligatory. This level derives from the essence of a Jewish soul, which is loftier even than Torah. Because a Jew’s bond with G‑d is higher than Torah,10 his mesirus nefesh to fulfill G‑d’s will is not limited by any parameters, even those defined by Torah.

Highest level of Mesirus Nefesh

The mesirus nefesh of the Previous Rebbe was of the second level. He was not obligated to put his life in jeopardy by spreading Torah and Judaism. Jewish law, for example, demands that a Jew sacrifice his life only for three things: not to murder, commit adultery or serve idols.11 Yet the Previous Rebbe daily put himself at risk for the entire Torah.12

Moreover, the principal thrust of the Rebbe’s work was the education of young children.13 It was precisely this area which the authorities objected to most vehemently, against which they fought most strongly, and which eventually was the main reason for his arrest. But ignoring all danger, the Rebbe threw himself into this work with a special enthusiasm and immensely broadened its scope.

This required the greatest measure of mesirus nefesh. It would have been perfectly reasonable, even logically compelling, to confine his work to those areas where opposition was not so fierce. Why not invest efforts where success was more assured, and thereby also avoid jeopardizing all the other work of disseminating Torah?

But because the Rebbe’s mesirus nefesh transcended all limitations he did not make any such “logical” reckonings. He was not just any individual; he was the leader of Jewry who had to worry about the existence of Jewry in general. Without the younger generation learning Torah, the future would have been bleak indeed.14 That is why he invested most effort, most self-sacrifice, in providing young children with a Torah education.

Thus, in addition to mesirus nefesh of the body, the Previous Rebbe exhibited mesirus nefesh of the spirit. He jeopardized his other accomplishments to ensure that the flame of Judaism would not die out in that country. He did not stop to consider that his work could not possibly endure, could not be successful. Mesirus nefesh which stems from the soul’s essence does not juggle accounts. The work must be done; whether it will be successful is G‑d’s business.15

History shows that it was this approach which kept the flame of Judaism burning in that country — and its effect remains even now.

The Rebbe’s attitude in prison

Mesirus nefesh, the absolute belief that “concerning our religion...no one can tell us what to do, and no coercion is allowed,” pervaded the Rebbe’s conduct also during his incarceration in prison.

As soon as he was imprisoned, he firmly resolved that he would remain in control and he would in no way allow himself to be affected by his jailors. Not only would he not reckon with them in matters of Judaism, but for him they would not even exist.

He maintained this attitude even after he was severely punished for not answering their questions. He was locked for twenty four hours in a filth-filled dungeon crawling with rats and vermin, so narrow that there was no room to move. But even after such treatment his resolution remained the same — he would ignore his captors, they would be as naught.

Thursday morning, Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, the Rebbe’s jailors entered his cell and ordered him to stand — for to show that prisoners were totally under their authority, prisoners were required to stand when receiving any type of communiqué. The Rebbe, not wishing to acknowledge their authority, refused.

On three separate occasion the Rebbe refused, and three times he was beaten. Yet he remained undaunted and in the end his jailors admitted defeat.

That same day, Thursday, the Rebbe was informed that he had been sentenced to three years exile in Kostrama. Originally the sentence had been death, then it was commuted to ten years in Siberia, and finally to three years exile.

The Rebbe was told he would be given six hours to spend with his family and that he must leave by train to Kostrama that night. Upon discovering that he would arrive in Kostrama on Shabbos, the Rebbe categorically refused to travel. “Thank G‑d,” concluded the Rebbe when he later related this story, “I did not end up travelling on Shabbos. I stayed in prison until Sunday.” Because he did not want to leave on Thursday, and the authorities were unwilling that he should remain in his home for such a long time (until Sunday), he elected to stay in prison until Sunday, the third of Tammuz.

The Previous Rebbe did not have to refuse to acknowledge his captors, refuse to answer their questions, or refuse to stand up for them. Jewish law does not require it. It is not obligatory to suffer beatings and worse for such ideals.

His refusal to travel on Shabbos also was not mandated by Jewish law. There were many reasons to justify making the journey. First, it was quite possible that his refusal would jeopardize his release from prison, for the Soviets could easily have changed their minds in the interval between Thursday and Sunday. Second, he could have acquiesced and gone home, and once there attempt to remain on Shabbos, pleading poor health. Third, even if forced to begin the journey, he could have tried to obtain a temporary halt over Shabbos. Fourth, even if that would have failed, he would not have been responsible for he would have been classified as an onus, one compelled by force (especially since he began the journey before Shabbos). Fifth, not only was he risking his freedom by remaining in prison those extra days, but he was also severely curtailing his ability to carry out certain mitzvos during that period.16 Yet, because of his deep-seated mesirus nefesh for Shabbos, he chose to remain in prison.

There was another factor in the Rebbe’s decision not to leave Thursday night. The Rebbe had been arrested for his steadfast adherence to Judaism. His captors, defied at every turn by the Rebbe and denied any major triumph (the death sentence or exile to Siberia), were desperate for a victory. They did not know that by Jewish law he would have been permitted to travel on Shabbos. They deliberately released him on Thursday to force him to desecrate the Shabbos, a fact they would have gleefully publicized. It was for this reason the Rebbe chose to prolong his stay in prison.

Judaism triumphs

On the twelfth-thirteenth of Tammuz the Rebbe was completely freed. Tragedy had been transformed into joy, adversity into triumph. The Rebbe emerged stronger than ever, his cause completely vindicated even in the eyes of the gentiles. The same Yevsektzia who had imprisoned him were the ones who were now forced to release him.

So came into being the festival of liberation of the twelfth and thirteenth of Tammuz.17 It was not just a personal redemption belonging to the Rebbe alone. In his own words:18 “G‑d did not redeem me alone on the twelfth of Tammuz, but also all who cherish our sacred Torah, who observe its mitzvos, and all those who are but a Jew in name. Today, the twelfth of Tammuz, is the festival of liberation for Israel, who are involved in the dissemination of Torah. It was publicly made known on this day that the immense work which I have performed in spreading Torah and strengthening our faith is permitted by the laws of this state, which gives the adherents of a faith the same privileges granted to its other citizens.”

The Previous Rebbe was the leader of his generation. He had no personal existence, for his entire being, physical and spiritual, was dedicated to the Jewish people. The Rebbe’s arrest was a blow to the entire body of Jewry, to all Jews, great and small alike. His liberation was equally a redemption for all Jews. Now the Rebbe could continue his work unhampered, broaden and expand it; and his liberation was an immediate source of encouragement for his followers and all those involved in similar activities.

Mesirus Nefesh in all eras

The Rebbe’s mesirus nefesh and commitment to working for the good of all Jews was not limited to his years in Russia. The thirty years of the Rebbe’s leadership can be divided into three distinct eras, each of approximately ten years duration.

The first years were spent in disseminating Torah and Judaism in Soviet Russia, where his very life was in jeopardy.

After the Rebbe left Russia he moved to Poland (with some years in Latvia), where the large numbers of Jews and more tolerant atmosphere were conducive to spreading Chassidus in the broadest fashion. But this, too, required mesirus nefesh. The opposition this time came not from the government but from religious circles, some of whom resented and were jealous of Lubavitch’s distinctive path of service to G‑d.

With the outbreak of World War II, the Rebbe was forced to leave Europe and he lived his last ten years in the United States of America. The feeling at that time was that “America is different,” that total observance of Judaism was impossible. The Rebbe placed himself squarely against this almost universal attitude and with mesirus nefesh succeeded in planting Torah and Chassidus in this previously inhospitable soil.

In all three eras the Rebbe displayed unbounded mesirus nefesh. Yet each era demanded a different type of mesirus nefesh. In the first era, the Rebbe put his very life at risk, mesirus nefesh in the literal sense. Moreover, not only did the Rebbe put his own life in jeopardy, he accepted the awesome responsibility of placing his envoys, sent by him to spread Torah throughout Russia, in a similarly precarious situation.19 It required a much greater and deeper measure of mesirus nefesh to place others in danger than to place himself.

On the other hand, opposition which comes from one’s own brethren, as happened in the second era, is harder to battle than opposition from avowed enemies.

His work in the United States in the last ten years elicited yet another type of mesirus nefesh, this time to fight against the almost universal cry of “America is different,”20 to ignore the scoffers. The Rebbe threw himself into the work of transforming the land into a Torah bastion.21

The Rebbe was able to exhibit the same incredibly high level of mesirus nefesh in all three eras because it came from the essence of his soul, it permeated his entire being — and therefore it made no difference in what area his mesirus nefesh was necessary.

The lesson from the third and twelfth of Tammuz is clear: The Previous Rebbe, the supreme example of one who refused to allow his soul to be enslaved, who would allow no power on earth to dictate to him concerning Torah and mitzvos, has blazed the path for us who follow. When a Jew adamantly resolves to treat as void anything which seeks to oppress his G‑dly soul or to deter the dissemination of Judaism, then he will see success in his endeavors22 — miraculously if need be. When we consider the extent of the Rebbe’s mesirus nefesh for spreading Torah and Judaism, even under a brutal, repressive regime, we, who live in a country where we are free to openly practice our religion, can do no less.

Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IV, pp. 1061-1066; Vol. XVIII, pp. 301-305, 319-321