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Wednesday, January 20, 2010


The Soldiers' Rebbe

Today was Heh [the 5th of] Shvat, and the Yahrzeit of HaRav HaKadosh Rebbe Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, better known as the Sfas Emes, the second Gerer Rebbe.
He was the son of R. Avraham Mordechai zt"l, who was the eldest son of the Chiddushei HaRim [the first Rebbe] of Ger. He was born on Erev Rosh Chodesh Iyar 5607 (1847), and as a boy of only two, he was orphaned of his mother. When he was about nine years old, his father was also niftar [passed away], and he was brought up by his holy grandfather.

Previous posts:
The Sfas Emes on Shiras HaYam
A Man of Truth Becomes a Rebbe

The Sfas Emes' concern for the plight of Jewish men liable to conscription in the Russian or Polish army, was legendary. The following is from an article on him on a Breslov website; but we have interwoven a Reb Shlomo Carlebach story which brings out the point even more strongly. So without further ado, onward march!


Throughout our long and bitter exile, the times when young Jewish men and boys were conscripted into the army of their host country was always an eis tzara [time of distress]. It denoted fear of the unknown, dread of what the future would bring and desperate efforts to bribe anyone who had a say in the government.
The days of the Sfas Emes zt"l were no different. As soon as the conscription time began, a long line would form outside his home in Ger and, like a caring shepherd, he would give each person in turn a bracha [blessing], comfort and chizuk. To the Bnei Torah he would cite the Mishna in Pirkei Avos: "He who takes upon himself the yoke of Torah will be freed from the yoke of the government."
The Chassidim used to say that one could tell from the Rebbe's advice and blessing whether the person standing before him would be sent to the army or not. Once, two young men, one who barely made a living and the other a man of considerable means, came to ask the Sfas Emes if and how much they should bribe the officials in order to avoid conscription. The rich man he advised, "It's a shame to waste your money on bribes as even a hundred rubles will be of no avail. Rather invest it so that your wife will have a good business to live on (indicating that she would have to manage on her own, as indeed it turned out)." Whereas the poor man he advised to scrape together twenty-five rubles and that will suffice to save him (as it did).
At one point, the Russian government began to suspect that the Sfas Emes was preventing people from joining the army, and sent a spy to confirm their suspicions. A Jewish meshumad [convert to Xianity] of draft age was chosen for the job. He entered the room of the holy Sfas Emes disguised as a Chassid, to request a bracha from the Rebbe and guidance in his inevitable enlistment. To the wonder of all those present, the Rebbe shrugged, "Nu, the Russian army needs soldiers; without fighters we cannot win wars." The reply that evoked such astonishment among the Chassidim was only later understood, when they heard that this "Chassid" was just a spy planted by the Russian authorities.
In his later years, war broke out between Russia and Japan, and this time, bribery and ransom were of no avail. Whoever was of age received a draft order to appear in the town square on a certain date and from there they were dispatched directly to the battlefront. Thousands of young men and boys were torn away from the beis medrash [study hall] and uprooted from their homes, leaving behind terror-stricken parents, wives and children.
All through the war, the Sfas Emes zt"l never slept on his bed at all. Instead, when the hour turned late, he would lay on the floor with only a thin garment spread underneath him. After he got up in the morning, his assistants would find the garment soaked with the tears that he had cried all night for the young Jewish soldiers on the front lines.
In addition to the pain of being far from home, the Chassidim were broken at being cut off from their spiritual world, the hallowed walls of the beis midrash and the court of their holy Rebbe. Letters full of longing arrived to him, from one Chassid describing how, having no shofar on Rosh Hashana, they just sat together discussing the shofar and its awakening power! Another Chassid wrote that during Sukkos while digging trenches, they somehow found the strength and will to set up three boards within the trench, forming a sukka so that they could each eat a kezayis [minimal amount of food] inside!
One talmid who excelled in Torah learning sent a lengthy explanation with his own chiddushim [insights] on the Rabbeinu Yona! The Rebbe was so moved that he sent a letter back which later became world-famous. Quoting the pasuk [verse] from Ha'azinu: Ha'idosi bachem eis hashamayim v'eis ha'aretz -- using ha'idosi to mean decorate as in "adi adoyim" --- the Rebbe wrote: "With heroic people like you my dear Chassidim, Hashem adorns the heaven and earth."

as told by Reb Shlomo Carlebach [slightly adapted for this blog]
Here's an unbelievable story. At the beginning of the 20th Century, 1904-5, there was a war between Russia and Japan. There were so many Jewish people who were drafted. They all came to the Heiliger [holy] Sfas Emes, the deepest of the deep, and asked him for his blessing. And he blessed everyone that a miracle should happen and they should not have to go to the War.

There was one young man, so eidel [refined], so gentle and so holy - really, he was not fit to be a soldier! And the Sfas Emes says to him, "Wait a minute." He goes into his room and comes back with a book - a little manual, how to do circumcisions [make a Bris]. And he says to him, "Here, learn how to make a Bris, and I bless you, even when you go to the army, you should come back b'Shalom (safely) - peacefully and with joy."

And he begins to cry and says, "Rebbe, please bless me that I shouldn't have to go to the War." But the Sfas Emes was already talking to somebody else.

He is drafted and he goes to basic training. And all those Russian and Polish peasants were so dirty. And this officer is so ashamed of them: they don't shine their shoes, they don't take care of their rifles. And then suddenly a general comes to look at the basic training - the new soldiers. And this officer tells him, "I'll tell you the truth, I'm not so proud of the other soldiers, but there's one Jew here - he is very clean and looks very beautiful."

So he's introduced to the general, and the general says to him, "I want to talk to you privately." He takes him into his office and takes a pistol in his hand. And he says, "Is it true that you only eat kosher food?"


The general holds his pistol to the Jew's heart and says, "Hey, you're a soldier of the Czar of Russia, and the Czar doesn't want you to be hungry! The Czar wants you to eat all the food you can get your hands on. So I order you to eat non-kosher food."

He says, "I'm sorry, I'm a servant of G-d, not of the Russian Czar."

He walks up and down in his room, then he comes up to the Jew again and says, "I heard that you keep Shabbos, is it true?"

He says, "Yes."

"Are you crazy?" he says. "You're a soldier in the army of the Czar, and you keep Shabbos?! The Czar needs you to work every day!"

And mamash this young man knew that this was the test of his life. He says, "I'm sorry, I'm a servant of G-d."

And he's holding the pistol against his heart. Suddenly he smiles and puts down the pistol, and he says to him, "Listen to me. Nobody knows, but I'm Jewish. My wife just had a baby. I need a Mohel [ritual circumcisor]. I'm not religious, but one thing I know - the Mohel has to keep Shabbos and eat kosher food. So I just wanted to test you, if your really eat kosher, and if you really keep Shabbos. But now that I see that you do, I'll tell you what I'll do for you. I'll sign you out from here, and I'll say I need to take you with me. And after you do the Bris, I will give you civilian garments and you can just run home."

Suddenly, the young man remembered that he doesn't even know how to make a Bris. Gevalt, gevalt, the Heiliger Sfas Emes! He gave him a book [about] how to do it. You know friends, those Rebbes - what eyes they had, what hearts they had! Such a privilege to know…


[Continuation of first article:]

When the war intensified, a general order was given again for those who had remained behind, to fight for the mother country. Men and their wives, mothers and their sons gathered at the entrance to the Rebbe's house, pleading with him to save them. Immediately, he instructed them to go to shul, light candles and start saying Tehillim. The Rebbe himself joined them and their tearful prayers, rising in loud cries that must surely have pierced the heavens.
Following this, the Rebbe turned to all those assembled and in a now calm tone assured them that b'ezras Hashem all would be well. A short while later news that the war had ended spread through the country, bringing home the soldiers and saving the rest from having to leave.
However, the returning hordes of barbaric Russian soldiers from the front plundered and robbed their way back home leaving a trail of havoc and sorrow in their wake. The sight of the returning Jewish soldiers, crushed in body and spirit, many of them wounded or with missing limbs, and the troubles that had been Klal Yisrael's lot in his times, broke the Sfas Emes. His pure body, unable to bear the heavy burden it was carrying, fell ill with a strange malady that no one could cure, slowly paralyzing his vital organs.
In a desperate attempt to heal him, Polish Jewry stormed the heavens, gathering all over to say Tehillim and fasting. In Ger itself, prayers were said on his behalf around the clock without a break. But as dawn broke on the 5th of Shvat, the angels won the battle over this pure soldier, taking the aron hakodesh to the heavenly spheres.
The Avnei Nezer, who arrived the day before in Ger to visit the Rebbe, did not sleep all night, keeping a constant vigil and reciting tefillos [prayers] at his bedside. At the levaya [funeral], he revealed why the Sfas Emes zt"l had to be stricken with such a rare illness. "Chazal [our Sages] tell us one who prays for his friend while he himself is in need of that yeshua [salvation] is answered first. All his life, our Rebbe the Sfas Emes bore the burden of all our illnesses, our pains and sorrows, pouring out his heart in prayer for Klal Yisrael-- that sick people be healed and the healthy not fall ill. Had he become ill with a common illness, he would immediately have been answered. So, when the Creator wanted to take him away from this world, He struck him with an unknown illness for which the Rebbe had never davened for a fellow Jew and thus took him to Gan Eden."

Zechuso yagein Aleinu - as the Sfas Emes protected the holy soldiers, may his merits protect us all!

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