Tales For The Soul
A famous novelist retells classic stories with passion and spirit
By Yair Weinstock
Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
FROM THE DAY THAT THE LAW OF CONSCRIPTION CAME INTO effect in Poland, there was no rest for the holy Rebbe, R Yehudah Aryeh Leib, the Sefas Emes of Gur.
Poland had for some years lain under the hobnailed boots of the Russian Czar, and had already shuddered beneath his heavy tread. There had been many difficult decrees, but this last was the worst.
There were several reasons that it was so terrible. The conscription was long, lasting for four full years in the Czars army. The draftees were sent to forlorn places all over Russia. It was very difficult to observe the mitzvos while in the army, particularly the laws of kashrus. Frequently, soldiers faced the terrible choice of eating tereifah food or starving to death.
This decree was just the beginning of an even worse calamity: the Russo-Japanese War. The best of the countrys youth were taken to battle; the cries of widows and women whose husbands had disappeared shattered the Rebbes heart into bits. Ultimately, in the shadow of such troubles, the Sefas Emes fell ill with the last sickness that was to afflict him.
Day after day hundreds of 21-year-old men -- draft age -- came to the Rebbes room, all sharing the same request: Bless me, Rebbe, that I be exempt.
The Rebbe would give a loving look to the young people, men who should have been putting all their energies into their beloved Gemaras, being led like sheep to the slaughter. But their identical request would receive many different replies.
Take the burden of Torah upon you, he would sometimes say. We have learned that all who take the burden of Torah upon themselves are exempt from the burden of the State.
That was his answer to those average young men whose fate was in doubt. Whoever got that reply knew that he must work hard, pray and cry, accept the burden of Torah without wavering, serve his Creator, put in as much effort as he would had he been a soldier. And then perhaps, perhaps he would get his exemption -- and perhaps not.
Then there were the lucky ones who heard the Rebbes promise, swift and certain: You have nothing to worry about. You wont have to go to the army.
There were three types of cards issued to those of draft age: a green card for conscripts, a white card for those exempt, and a blue card for yeshivah students who were given a one-year deferment.
For those fortunate enough to have received the Rebbes blessing, the meeting before the draft board and subsequent exemption were nothing more than a symbolic act, making the Rebbes decree official with the issuance of a white card.
* * *
Chaim Shlomo, a young Torah scholar, was one of the young chassidim who received the invitation to appear before the draft board. He was certain that the Rebbe would give him a blessing, ensuring his exemption. But it seemed that the Rebbe had accepted the decree. Its as if he was waiting to hear my news, the thought flitted through Chaim Shlomos head as he stood, trembling, before the holy man. The Rebbe confirmed his fears. There was no talk of exemptions. Instead, he told him tranquilly, If you want to listen to me, you will become a mohel.
What did the Rebbe tell you? Chaim Shlomos worried friends asked him when he had left the Rebbes room, his face ashen.
It seems Im to get a green card, he said brokenly. Im to be drafted.
Why do you think such a terrible thing?
The Rebbe commanded me to learn to be a mohel. The tears came of their own accord now. Isnt that a clear hint?
Chaim Shlomos friends tried to calm him down and comfort him. The Rebbe just meant to give you a means of supporting yourself. But Chaim Shlomos heart understood the bitter tidings: Theyll be sending me to battle soon.
His friends realized that their words of comfort were pointless. The courtyard echoed with the grim words: Chaim Shlomo is to be drafted.
The object of all the attention approached several expert mohalim and, with his quick and nimble hands, it wasnt long before he had learned the art of circumcision and was practicing like a veteran.
* * *
The trains wheels chugged along; The blast of the steam horn echoed through the air, clearing the way for the train racing from Warsaw on its way to Russia.
The railroad cars were jammed with hundreds of recruits in sparkling uniforms just out of the factory. Their crisp newness made a pleasant sound in the soldiers ears. The air was lightly scented with the smell of fear mixed with burning steam from the powerful engine.
In the midst of this sea of humanity sat one figure completely different from the rest. A thick-bearded soldier leaned his head back upon his pack, which contained all of his possessions, and he gave a muffled sigh. He would have happily forgone the doubtful pleasure of being the lone Jewish soldier among this jumble of thousands of Russian and Polish recruits.
Twenty years of forging his soul within the flames of the Gerrer furnace marked him among the noisy flood, the sea of coarse faces. Strangers looked him up and down, scrutinized his every move with curious and taunting eyes, until he felt he would soon lose his wits. He longed to scream out, Stupid gentiles, what are you staring at? Im a Jew, a Jew!
He could see images of the past days flit swiftly before him with feverish intensity: the draft order, the Rebbes melancholy command to become a mohel, his appearance before the committee --
The words of the army physician still seared him like a flame. Mr. Solomon, he said tauntingly, Im happy to tell you that youve been found fit to serve in His Majestys army.
And then everything passed like a bad dream: the hastily packed luggage, a tearful farewell to the Rebbe, the chassidim, and to his family.
Oh no! Chaim Shlomo put his head in his hands. My instruments! Could he have actually left his precious instruments behind?
His hand feverishly sought through his pack. He gave a sigh of relief: Here was the knife, the bandages neatly rolled up in a small package, the metal container with its powders and medications --
The trains whistle announced an upcoming station.
Where are we? the passengers asked, their eyes still heavy with sleep.
Everyone off immediately! the officers shouted. Youve reached Paradise. One of these days youre going to long for this black hole!
Black? the recruits wondered. Theres nothing here but white snow!
But theyre right, one of the soldiers explained nastily. When youre 2,000 miles from home, everything is black.
Deep in the icy wasteland, thousands of miles from civilization, the soldiers descended, trembling from the cold that seemed to cut their flesh like swords. They were settled within a huge army camp. No one had the slightest idea of what he was to do in this forgotten place: Officers muttered something about continuing the journey to the borders of Manchuria, near China, to the battlefields of the Russo-Japanese War, but it seemed that even they were not certain of anything.
They stayed in the camp awaiting orders.
The group was sitting in the dining room eating their tasteless army meal. A tall figure that entered the room caught the attention of the listless diners. The officer in charge jumped up respectfully and fearfully to greet the general, whose uniform glistened with medals.
The general motioned lightly with his finger. The officer quickly walked with him to a corner of the room. After a moment he returned to the soldiers, his face a mask of confusion.
Is there a Jewish soldier here? he asked hesitantly.
Hundreds of eyes turned towards Chaim Shlomo.
The officer took his arm with distinctly unmilitary gentleness. Our esteemed guest, General Nikolai Fyodorov, wishes to speak with you.
Chaim Shlomo followed the general, who gestured to him to join him outside. A short and swift walk brought them to the edge of the camp. They stopped near the generals quarters.
I have something confidential to tell you, the general said sternly. But if you reveal a word of it -- The words he did not articulate could be clearly heard ripping threateningly through the frigid air.
I am a believing Jew. You can have full faith in me, Chaim Shlomo declared ceremoniously.
Okay, then, the general began, looking suspiciously around him.
* * *
The sound of wailing pierced the icy vastness. You have a little boy, the army physician told General Fyodorov, the happy father.
The Jewish wife of the top officer shared his joy for only seven days. Her deceased father, who had been a G-d-fearing Jew in his life, had allowed his heavenly rest to be disturbed and had descended into her dreams. Know, my daughter, that this son born to you is a Jew. You must circumcise him!
The dream recurred night after night for several months. The generals wife almost lost her mind. How many times, after all, could a person see her dead father and remain sane? She beseeched her husband again and again, You are a gentile but your son is a Jew. He must be circumcised!
And where am I to find a Jew in this frozen desert? he would protest.
The argument began anew each day until today, when the wife had warned him, If you cant find a Jew, dont bother coming back home!
And now that Ive found you, do you know what to do? The general pressed his fingers together, until the tips turned white.
Chaim Shlomo could hardly speak; his heart beat wildly inside. One moments illumination, and suddenly everything was magically clear. All the shadows and the darkness, all the suffering and torture, all were destined just for this moment. To bring a child into the covenant of Avraham Avinu, here, at the very end of the earth --
I am a professional mohel, the broken whisper, trembling with joy, barely came out of his dry throat.
* * *
The infants cry of pain there in frozen Russia was obscured by the ecstatic weeping of the mother, who had finally merited to see her son circumcised. Remarkably, it even brought a sigh of pleasure to the gentile who was his father.
What can I do to reward you? the general asked, clearly moved.
I dont need anything. I have but one request: Exempt me from the army, Chaim Shlomo answered. I cannot keep my Torah in the army.
General Fyodorov was an important figure, and he used all his many connections for Chaim Shlomos sake. After a short time the young chassid was free.
There are times when a person must travel to the ends of the earth to help a Jewish soul, his rebbe, the Sefas Emes, explained after Chaim Shlomo had happily returned to the chassidim with his story of Jewish sacrifice. Now youve done your duty as a soldier.