When the Rebbe was brought to Petersburg, he was incarcerated in one of the secret cells of the Fortress of Petropavlovsk. He was detained there fifty-two days. The first three weeks he was kept in a strictly surveilled cell used for traitors. This was in accordance with one of the principal charges against him, namely treason against the Russian Empire, for sending funds to--as it was alleged--the Sultan of Turkey (meaning the funds sent for the poor of the Holy Land which was under Turkish rule at the time). Afterwards he was moved to a more comfortable place in the same fortress.
The Rebbe was curious to know whether prisoners were ever freed from that prison. Discreetly he asked one of the guards for information about his position, how long he was already employed as a guard, the amount of salary, and similar queries. The non-suspecting guard answered everything frankly. Then the Rebbe asked: "Does it ever happen that you receive presents from former prisoners after they are freed?"
"Yes," answered the guard, "it happens quite often that a liberated prisoner sends me something."
This reply quite clearly told the Rebbe that there is yet hope to be freed from that prison, and he found comfort in this knowledge.
About that time a high official came to record various details. This official, a learned man and familiar with the Scriptures, was very impressed by the Rebbe's personality and said to him:
"I have a question on the text of the Bible and would be most grateful to you if you could give me an adequate answer."
"Ask whatever you like," the Rebbe told him, "and with G-d's help I hope to be able to solve your problem."
Prompted by this encouragement, the official asked: "What is the meaning of the verse in Genesis 'and G-d called to Adam and said: Where are you?'; how is it possible that Omniscient G-d did not know where Adam was? I am aware of the various interpretations and the allegory offered by Rashi, but I would like to know the simple, straightforward meaning of G-d's question 'Where are you?'"
"Do you believe," the Rebbe asked, "that the Torah is timeless and forever relevant, in any time, to every generation and to every individual?"
"I sincerely believe that," was the reply of the official. "The Torah is eternal."
The Rebbe was very pleased to hear this affirmation of faith. For indeed, this principle is one of the important foundations of the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, for which he is now on trial. If the officials believe in that principle, surely the trial will be so much easier.
"If you believe in that," said the Rebbe, "I will give you an explanation for this verse:
It is written in that verse: 'And G-d called to 'Ha'adam,' to 'the man.' This means that at all times G-d calls every individual and asks him 'where are you'--'where do you stand in this world?' G-d allotted to each a certain amount of days and years, each of which is to be utilized for the doing of good in relation to G-d and in relation to mankind. Therefore, think and contemplate: how many years have you lived already and how much good have you done and accomplished during that time. You, for instance, have lived already ... years (and here the Rebbe mentioned the exact age of his questioner); how did you use this time? Did you accomplish something good?"
The official was deeply amazed and thrilled by the fact that the Rebbe "guessed' his right age and put his hand on the prisoner's shoulder, explaining: "Bravo!"
Afterwards he continued his formal interrogation of the Rebbe, who showed profound wisdom in his exact answers to every question. When dealing with matters touching upon the Jewish faith, the Rebbe made frequent references to the Talmud. The wise sayings of the Sages impressed the interrogator very much, and greatly moved he exclaimed: "This is truly divine!"
This official, and the other interrogators, had occasion to note the Rebbe's great wisdom also in other matters not related to the trial. Once, for instance, the Rebbe was put into a room which was as dark during the day as it was at night. A small lamp was the only source of light. One day, about two hours after noon, the Rebbe was told that the time is already past midnight and he should go to sleep.
"Right now," retorted the Rebbe, "the time is two hours and five minutes past noon."
When asked how he could possibly know such a thing, the Rebbe explained:
"Every day is illuminated by the twelve forms of the letters of the Ineffable Name (Tetragrammaton), while the night is illuminated by the twelve forms of the Name denoting G-d's Lordship. By experiencing these various forms I know to distinguish between day and night, and between one hour and the other."
The Chief of Police praised the Alter Rebbe before the Czar (Paul I), and spoke very highly of his wisdom and saintliness. He added that in his opinion, the rabbi appears to be innocent and is the victim of false charges based on jealousy and hate. Curious to meet such an extraordinary person, and intent on forming his own judgment, the Czar disguised himself as a clerk of the courts and went to see the Rebbe. But as soon as he entered the cell, the Rebbe rose and honored him as befitting royalty.
"Why do you give such honor befitting a king to so simple a clerk as myself?" asked the surprised visitor in disguise.
"For truly you must be the Czar!" answered the prisoner. "Our Sages teach us that 'sovereignty on earth, is similar to the sovereignty of the Heavens.' As the fear before G-d is great, so too did I feel an unusual awe when you entered. Such a feeling I never experienced with any of the officials that have come here. Therefore I conclude that you must be the Czar."
The Czar left, convinced that surely this man must be a saint.
From The Arrest & Liberation
of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi