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Thursday
Jul182019

A Serendipitous Tramway Encounter

 – PART I –

It was during the time that the Rebbe Rayatz was in prison; the summer of 5687/1927. These were dark days for the Jews of the Soviet Union. The evil communist empire did all it could to eradicate Judaism. With an iron fist, they stamped out any attempt to regenerate Jewish life in the country. Through a process that was ongoing, hundreds of thousands of Jews were forced to abandon their traditions. Their children were born, raised and educated like gentiles.

One of the Rebbe’s soldiers was the Chacham of Kutais in far-off Georgia who taught the children. Although he was an outstanding Torah scholar, he did not feel it was beneath his dignity to go from house to house, family to family, and teach the children Torah.

The government watched him and one day, he was arrested. The long arm of the GPU extracted the Chacham from his house and brought him to the terrifying interrogation room. Just mentioning this room was enough to make a person freeze in terror.

Surprisingly, the interrogators were jolly. They chatted about this and that and gave the person being interrogated the feeling that they were friends. A conversation like this would lull the person into a dangerous complacency.

This was precisely the moment the interrogators were waiting for. This was the trap that they laid. During the pleasant conversation, they would slip in a perplexing question at a time when all alarm bells in the person’s head were turned off and he fell into the trap.

The Chacham, who was a wise man, realized that a trap had been laid for him but he continued talking with them and exchanging smiles. At the same time, he did not allow his mental suspicion to fall asleep. When the incriminating question finally came, as if out of nowhere, he was ready for it.

“Who pays you for teaching your students?” the interrogator asked.

He did not lose his calm. “What students? From where should I have students?”, “Who would give me his children for me to teach?” he said, proclaiming innocence.

The smile instantly disappeared from the interrogator’s face. All the wickedness in his heart burst forth and spread over his evil face. He began enumerating all of the Chacham’s recent activities, every visit and every family; it was all meticulously documented. The bitter realization struck him full force, “They know everything about you!”

Anyone else would have lost his wits and given himself away out of sheer terror, but our Chacham was made of different stuff.  As someone educated to “the mind rules the heart” in Chabad, he remained calm.

With a smile, he replied, “Visits to homes? What connection is there between that and teaching?” He lowered his voice as though imparting a secret. “I am an expert in incantations. I have incantations for the evil eye and other illnesses and whoever is stricken by the evil eye or another problem has me come to his house to remove the evil eye and heal the illness!”

The interrogators were unsure whether to be angry or to laugh, whether to believe him or not. In a voice with anger and laughter mixed, they asked him, “Does the incantation work? Does the evil eye go away?”

The Chacham shrugged innocently. “I don’t know. It certainly helps me … I make money from it.”

The GPU agents burst out laughing.  Deep in their hearts they could not help acknowledging that they were dealing with a real character.  The Chacham joined their laughter and for many minutes, the light atmosphere dispelled the normal bleakness of the interrogation chamber of Kutais.

“Go outside,” they ordered. “Go to the room next door.”

The Chacham did not let the mask of innocence on his face slip even for an instant.  He said goodbye and left the room. With confident steps he walked to the main door, nodded at the guard, and left the building.

“Where are you going?” demanded the guard.

“They told me to go home,” he said.

His easygoing gait gave not the slightest indication that he was an escaped prisoner. The guard was certain that this man had been dismissed. The Chacham disappeared from view and then he immediately ran to the home of someone he knew. He could not return home, of course.

The interrogators finished discussing the case and sent for him. To their astonishment, there was nobody in the other room.

“Where is the Chacham?” they yelled at the unfortunate guard who tried to defend himself.

“He told me that you released him!” he said.

The policemen who went to the Chacham’s house did not find him. His family had no idea where he was.

 – PART II –

The Rebbe Rayatz was in exile in Kostrama at this time. The Chacham wasted no time. He rushed to the train station and began the long journey in the direction of Kostroma. He arrived there close to Shabbos. He soon arrived at where the Rebbe was staying, to the affright of the Rebbe’s household. The last thing they expected at this sensitive time was a pilgrimage of Chassidim to Kostrama, which could endanger the Rebbe.

The Chacham did not explain why he had come. Allowing an escaped prisoner into the home of the Rebbe, who had just been saved from a death sentence, would definitely not be viewed favorably. He again played the innocent and said he had come to the area on business. He would spend Shabbos with the Rebbe since there wasn’t enough time to return home. During Shabbos, the Rebbe was greatly mekarev him.

After Shabbos, he spoke privately with the Rebbe and told him what happened. The Rebbe listened closely to his loyal soldier who was in trouble.

Said the Rebbe, “Take my advice. Go to a place where legal business is conducted and ask the merchants to write out some bills of sale as though you are the buyer. Then go home and go directly to the GPU office and tell them, ‘I listened to you. Since you said it isn’t good to be a Chacham, I became a businessman and here are the receipts.’”

Going to the GPU office in Kutais meant entering the lion’s den! But that was only for someone who did not know what it truly means to have faith in tzaddikim.

 – PART III –

The Chacham wanted to leave but the Rebbe Rayatz took out a small note with his writing on it and held it out.

“When you get to Moscow, hand over this note to R’ Boruch Sholom Cohen or to my son-in-law (the Rebbe MH”M) and they should burn it immediately. They can copy what it says, but the note with my handwriting should be burned.

The extreme caution was quite understandable.  The Chacham parted from the Rebbe and set out for Moscow.

What message did the Rebbe need to send from his place of exile to the capital? The halacha is that when a Jew has business to do with a non-Jew, he should postpone it until after Tisha B’Av. Since it was Tammuz, and the “Three Weeks” were coming up, the Rebbe wanted to remind them that, despite the danger, efforts to rescue him and get him out of Russia should be done after Tisha B’Av.

 – PART IV –

Every Soviet citizen, even a neighbor or friend, might be an informer to the government unless proven otherwise. Therefore, the Chacham was very fearful when he went to Moscow. Who should he turn to? Who should he speak to when he did not know anyone? Who was Boruch Sholom? That’s all he needed … to start talking with someone in Russian with a Georgian accent and have the person start asking him unnecessary questions.

Having no choice, he boarded a tram going into the city in the hopes of finding someone he knew.

***

R’ Boruch Sholom of Moscow was a distinguished Chassid. That day, he woke up early, as usual, and prepared for his morning divine service.  Like the “early Chassidim” mentioned in the Mishna, he would devote an hour and even more to his preparations, studying Chassidus and preparing his heart for proper tefilla.

Obviously, he did not busy himself with other things before davening; he certainly did not go on the tram, bustling with people, even when he had a real need to do so. But for some reason, that morning, R’ Boruch Sholom felt that his mind was completely unsettled.  He was unable to concentrate on the small print and the words of the maamarim seemed to dance in front of his eyes. He tried to delve into other things and saw he was unable to concentrate at all.

Some mystical force drew him to get up and take the tram in order to daven in a certain shul far away from where he lived. R’ Boruch Sholom immersed his mind into his Chassidishe thoughts but it was as though hidden ropes drew him to the tramway stop.  In the end, he did not resist and he went there, bought a ticket and sat down in one of the cars.

Opposite him sat a Georgian Jew whom he suspected was religious. R’ Boruch Sholom wanted to talk to him but in the Soviet Union could you rely on someone’s appearance? Quite a few had been sent to Siberia because of the informing done by those with long beards.

The Chacham also sat and checked out the person opposite him and his thoughts raced back and forth; is he one of us or the opposite? Who is he and where is he going?  The fugitive Chacham sat and looked at the gray-bearded face and deliberated: Can I talk to him or not?

R’ Boruch Sholom finally broke the silence with roundabout questions. “Where are you from?”

“Kostrama,” said the Chacham, with a glint in his eye that only another Chassid would be able to read.

“Kostrama?” The name of the place rang in his ears like bells. In his universe that was now the center of the world! That’s where the Rebbe was. If this man had come from there, that meant, he was one of Anash.

A broad smile spread over his face and the Chacham got the message that he was with a friend.

“And what is your name?” asked the Chacham in an undertone.

“Boruch Sholom Cohen,” he replied in a whisper.

“Boruch Sholom Cohen! That’s you?!” The Chacham’s eyes opened wide in surprise. Hashem was guiding him in the Rebbe’s shlichus step by step.

“I have a shlichus for you from there, a note in his holy handwriting,” said the Chacham, “but here there is fear of the evil eye. Let’s go home and I’ll show it to you there.”

R’ Boruch Sholom took the Chacham to his house and brought him to an inner room, and only then did he take out the note. Obviously, the message was immediately forwarded to the Rebbe’s son-in-law.

***

As the two sat and spoke, R’ Boruch Sholom told his guest what had led him to being on board the tram. He never went anywhere before davening but that day at dawn, he felt he couldn’t accomplish anything, not even daven. Some mysterious force drew him to the tramway stop without his knowing why.

 – PART V –

A day went by. The Chacham, feeling a certain optimism in the air as well as seeing the faces that seemed to be trying hard not to smile, realized that something exciting was about to happen.  He was trusted enough that they shared with him the top-secret information that “The entire matter of the Rebbe’s exile is about to be resolved.  Despite the concern of the Rebbe that we not begin to deal with his situation until after Tisha B’Av, we had already begun, and it seems like it will come to an end even before the beginning of the ‘Three Weeks.’”

Since he had merited to be the one to bring the note, he was invited to the farbrengen that was held to celebrate the good news, in which only a small number of people took part because of the ever watchful eyes of the wicked government.

It was only a day or two later that the entire Jewish world celebrated the wonderful news:

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Reb Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson, was set completely free from his exile and was granted permission to return to his home.

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