by Rabbi Sholom D. Avtzon
Being that this week was Chai Elul the birthday of the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe, I am presenting a story connected to the Alter Rebbe, that I heard in the name of my uncle Reb Eli Chaim Roitblatt a”h.
A young nobleman came to a Jew whom we will call Yaakov, and asked him if he can lend him one thousand rubles for a year. I promise you that at the end of the year, I will repay you the entire amount, plus an additional five hundred rubles.
Yaakov didn’t know if he can trust him and especially as he didn’t have that amount of money, so he replied, You know I am a poor person and I don’t even own an extra ten rubles, how do you expect me to lend you a thousand rubles? Where can I get such a large amount of money from?
The nobleman answered, I know you Jews, one helps another. Tell your neighbors and friends that you have a golden opportunity to get into a successful business and you need to borrow some money for a year and they will definitely help you. Then in a year you will pay them back in full and you would earn 500 rubles; that is almost your earnings of ten years! Why would you give up such an opportunity?
Yaakov didn’t know what to do, after all the saying goes if it is too good to be true, it probably is not true. However, on the other hand, if he can earn this enormous sum, he can establish a large business and be set for life. Not knowing what he should do, he decided to ask the Alter Rebbe.
To his happiness, the Alter Rebbe replied in affirmative, “Do it and Hashem shall continue to bless you.”
Hearing these words, Yaakov immediately began knocking on the doors of all of his friends and acquaintances and told them he received the Rebbe’s brocha to enter into a certain business and needs a loan for one year. In one year, I will pay up in full.
Yaakov spoke confidently and persuasively and everyone was happy that he finally found a business to work in and they all lent him money. A few wealthy people lent him twenty-five rubles, but most of the people lent him between one and five rubles.
It took a tremendous amount of effort but by the end of the second week, he successfully raised the entire amount needed. That night when the nobleman came to pick it up, Yaakov balked, I want it to be recorded properly he stated. I need witnesses etc.
Of course, replied the nobleman, and therefore I brought this document which clearly spells out our agreement. Before I sign my name to the document, please read it over carefully and inform me if anything is missing. Yaakov carefully read every word, and indeed it was written exactly as they agreed. So he gave the nobleman the money, and the nobleman gave him the signed document and everyone was happy.
The people were all interested in knowing, what type of business is Yaakov opening, but as the weeks and indeed months passed by, they saw no activity. He continued sitting in his house and doing little jobs here and there, just like before. The only thing he would say was that it is going extremely well and everyone will be paid up at the end of the year, just as he promised.
A month before the year was over, the people reminded him once again that in four weeks he committed himself to pay them back in full, and once again he confidently replied, Don’t worry everything is under control, you all will get paid on time.
Two weeks before the deadline, he travelled to Petersburg as that is where this nobleman moved to. Arriving at his palatial residence, he asked to see the nobleman, who was now an assistant to a minister. The doorman asked him, “What are you coming to discuss with him”?
Yaakov replied, it is something personal, which the nobleman is aware of and he instructed me to come to him and discuss it.
After a moments wait, the doorman returned and told him the nobleman thanks you for coming and he will see you in a few minutes, but please come in and wait in a waiting room.
Yaakov came in and sat in one of the plush chairs, dreaming of the fortune he is about to receive and what he should do with it. All of a sudden, four burly officers entered the room and began binding his hands behind him as if he is a terrible criminal. They ignored his protests that he is here because the nobleman instructed him to come, but rather brought him outside and placed him in a waiting wagon that took him with other condemned individuals to Siberia.
Yaakov was distraught, no one, even his own family members, knew with whom he was dealing with in the capital, so how would anyone know what happened to him. He was tormented with the thought of what is going to befall his family? How are they going to survive? The wonderful townspeople who so readily lent him the few extra rubles they had, might think that he scammed them all. Will they have in their hearts an interest in taking care of his wife and children for who knows how many years? Why did he allow himself to fall for this ruse? The nobleman had it figured out from day one. There were no witnesses to the loan and no one knew about it, the nobleman explained it must remain a secret. He was now a doomed man, who knows what is going to happen to him?
Then came the gnawing thought, but the Rebbe gave me his brocha, he told me to go ahead and Hashem shall continue blessing me. Where is the blessing?
After a few days of travelling, they arrived at their destination, a large prison in Siberia, where all the prisoners were forced to work on various projects that the government deemed necessary or important. Here he was no longer tormented by any thoughts, as he had no time to think. He was forced to do heavy manual labor for ten to twelve hours a day. He came back to his barrack every day exhausted. His only thoughts now were of survival.
Three weeks passed and one morning as all the prisoners lined up to go to work, the commanding officer said the following individuals are to stay here, and all others are to report to work. He then took out a paper and read ten names, Yaakovs name was the last one mentioned.
After the other prisoners left, the officer informed them, “Today is the Czarina’s birthday. In an act of her benevolent kindness she chose to free you ten men from prison. You are free to go home. However, before you go to your family’s you all will go into that wagon which will take you to Petersburg. There you will thank her majesty the Czarina for her tremendous compassion and goodness, then you will receive money to cover your travelling expenses to arrive at your destination.
The prisoners were shocked and thrilled, for a moment they were dazed as they didn’t know if they were actually being freed. They initially were afraid that they were being singled out for a reprimand and even harsher punishment, and now they were being sent home free men. Their happiness knew no limit.
Arriving a few days later at the royal residence, they were brought into a reception room, where there was plenty of food and drinks on the table and told that shortly the Czarina will meet with you. Indeed a short time later they all were ushered into a room and after they all blessed the Czarina for her graciousness and magnanimity; she asked each one why they were in prison and if they promise to conduct their lives from now on as loyal Russian citizens.
Each prisoner informed the Czarina of their misdeed, whether it was an act of disrespect or a serious crime, with a promise never to do it or anything contrary to the government’s wishes again and was freed. When it came to Yaakov’s turn, he replied, I don’t know why I was imprisoned. Last year I lent this young nobleman a thousand rubles and he promised to repay it at the end of the year, with interest. I borrowed from all my friends and acquaintances until I had the money he needed. But when I came to collect the money, his servants bound me up as a common criminal and sent me to prison. How am I supposed to go home now empty handed. He then asked, Where is Justice!
Hearing this, the Czarina was momentarily furious. Here I freed this prisoner and he has the audacity to declare to me that my government is corrupt and full of injustice. He deserves to be sent back immediately to prison and perhaps receive even a harsher punishment.
But on the other hand, perhaps there is some truth to this one incident of injustice, after all why would he say to me such a rash statement, if there is no validity to this claim? So she asked, do you have any proof to this claim?
Yaakov replied, “Yes indeed.” And he took out the document that the nobleman wrote and signed. One of the attending servants took it and read it out loud. Hearing this the Czarina was momentarily thoughtful, it indeed looks like an official document, but how was she able to verify if this is a true document or if it was forged.
After a few moments of silence, she instructed a servant to place Yaakov in a guarded waiting room, while other servants were dispatched to call that nobleman. Hearing that the Czarina wanted him, the nobleman thought that his ambitions of being elevated were being fulfilled and he eagerly went to meet the Czarina.
The Czarina greeted him kindly and said, my secretary can’t write all the letters and documents that need to be sent out immediately, so I would like you to copy one of the documents to see if your handwriting is extremely legible and perhaps you can become his assistant.
The nobleman couldn’t believe his good-fortune. Everyone knows that the Czarina’s secretary has daily access to her majesty. People will lavish him with gifts etc. so that he should say a good word about them to her. This was beyond his wildest dreams.
After profusely thanking the Czarina for considering him for this position, he sat down at a table and copied the letter given to him. Fifteen minutes later, the Czarina reentered the room and after receiving his letter, she placed it next to the letter that Yaakov had given to her. There was no mistake about it, the handwriting was the same. Evidently the Jew had stated the truth, the person standing in front of her was a complete charlatan.
Wanting to make sure that her feelings are correct, she looked at the young nobleman and asked, “Tell me, how did you, a man who comes from a simple background and not an aristocratic family amass your fortune?
The nobleman replied, I succeeded in various ventures, but then I realized, I should use all my talents and abilities to serve our country and her majesty, the Czarina, so I gave up everything to help the ministers.
You didn’t borrow any of the money, by any chance, she inquired.
Of course not, your majesty, all the money was earned through my strenuous efforts, he replied confused and quite nervous.
She then motioned that Yaakov should be brought forward, and carefully watched the expression on the nobleman’s face when he will see his accuser. The shocked expression told the Czarina everything she needed to know. Angrily she said, so please explain to me, what is the meaning of this letter that this Jew gave to me and he was thrown in prison, because he came and requested that you honor your pledge? Is that how a nobleman acts?!!
The nobleman began stumbling for words. The Czarina immediately understood that Yaakov was saying the entire truth, so she commanded four officers to accompany the nobleman to his residence where he was to gather the fifteen hundred rubles and bring them back to her to give to the Jew. I am waiting, she declared. And then we will see how to reward you for your noble activities.
Yaakov thanked the Czarina profusely, declaring now I will publicize to all the justice of her majesty and her government, and returned home. After paying off all of his debts and thanking the kind people for taking care of his family during his extended absence, he stopped off by the Alter Rebbe. Entering the Rebbe’s room he said, Rebbe your brocha was indeed fulfilled, I received the extra 500 rubles, but why did I have to endure that month of torture and uncertainty. In all honesty, if I would have known that it depended on living through that horrendous ordeal, I wouldn’t want it. It wasn’t worth it for me or my family.
The Alter Rebbe replied, “You were supposed to receive those rubles without any aggravation. However, each time you were asked how you are planning to repay the numerous loans, you confidently replied, ‘Don’ worry, everything is under control, and you will receive your money in full.’ Not once did you say the words bezras Hashem (with the help of Hashem). So now you realize how success comes without Hashem’s help.
From now on you shall continue being extremely successful, but make sure to thank the Aibishter, as all your success comes from Him!
I am publicizing this story the week we start saying selichos, where we all state publicly, lecho Hashem hatzedokah, that whatever we receive is only because of Hashem’s kindness, it is not our own accomplishment. So let all of Israel, wherever they may be, be blessed with Hashem’s bountiful brochos in a revealed and open kindness, in everything each person needs.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.