July 6, 2017 / 12 Tammuz, 5777 • Parshat Balak
Issue 463
Dedicated in loving memory of Mrs. Miriam Friedman

Shabbat In a Tavern

For many years during Czarist reign, Pyotr Stolypin served as Russian premier and minister of the interior. He was notorious for his hatred towards Jews and the harsh decrees he enacted against them. Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, once learned of an impending edict planned by Stolypin, and dispatched his son and future successor, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, in an effort to nullify the decree.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak traveled to the capital city, S. Petersburg, to discuss the matter with communal leaders. After many futile efforts, it was decided to attempt to sway Stolypin through Konstantin Pobedonostsev, whom Stolypin esteemed highly and who had exerted great influence upon him. Though this official was also anti-Semitic, he was very pious, and therefore accorded reverence to clergymen of all faiths, including rabbis.

After many efforts, an audience was arranged for a Friday evening. Since Pobedonostsev lived in a remote suburb of S. Petersburg, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak had to leave S. Petersburg early and spend the entire Shabbat in that area.

The capital and its suburbs were forbidden to Jews at that time. Despite notable exceptions in the city itself, such as affluent merchants, physicians, and others of similar social rank who could circumvent the regulations against Jewish inhabitants, in the suburban area there lived not a single Jew.

Not having access to a single home where he could possibly stay, and knowing it was impossible to walk the streets for any length of time because of the severe cold as well as the physical dangers involved, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak was compelled to seek refuge in a tavern. He waited there for a few hours until the time of his appointment. After successfully fulfilling his mission, he returned to the tavern and spent the entire Shabbat there.

It is not difficult to imagine how Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak felt in the company of drunken Russian peasants, feigning participation for a complete twenty-four hours of the sacred day of Shabbat. There was, in addition, the ever-present danger of being among people notorious for their hatred of Jews. Yet, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak was willing to endure this perilous and difficult situation even if there was only a remote possibility of revoking an evil decree against the Jewish people.

Such behavior is questionable. If, on the one hand, the heavenly court had rendered a decision that the decree should take effect, then his efforts with the official would be of no avail. If, on the other hand, the heavenly court had decided that the decree would be nullified, then no endeavor was necessary.

It is also true that one must use "normal" actions in order to achieve one's goal, but these actions are merely the external means by which Man receives divine blessings. As the Torah declares, "And G-d will bless you in all that you will do." The Torah commands that Man must "do," act in the earthly world, in order to enable the divine blessings to permeate his efforts. This does not, however, apply in a case where one's life is actually endangered, as when it was necessary to spend a Shabbat among drunkards, assume a false identity, and remain unobtrusively in their midst until able to return home.

The above reasoning is valid and has basis in Jewish Law and, as a result, one may render such a decision to others. However, when Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak was confronted with the possibility that Jews would endure anguish and oppression, it affected him profoundly, to the very core of his soul wherein there is no place for speculation and logic. He acted wholly on the basis of the possibility that perhaps he would be successful in nullifying the decree.

When as Rebbe, he recounted this incident, it was not to indulge in nostalgic reminiscences, he did so with specific intention of indicating spiritual pathways for those who follow in his ways and adhere to his teachings:

When one is informed of the pain and anguishof a fellow Jew, whether physical distress or most surely spiritual suffering--that his fellow is enmeshed in vain and futile worldly endeavors and is remote from G-d and His Torah--out of authentic Ahavat Yisrael (love for a fellow Jew) this pain should affect the very essence of one's soul. And it is obvious that this empathy will impel a Jew to do all that he is capable of, without hesitation or reflection, even on the remotest possibility that he can help another Jew.

--Excerpted From Chasidic Perspectives:

Discourses by the Lubavitcher Rebbe

Adapted by Rabbi Alter B. Metzger