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To the Point of Self-Sacrifice

And the river shall swarm with frogs. They will come up and enter your home, your bedroom, and your bed…, your ovens, and your kneading bowls

Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah1 learned self-sacrifice from the frogs, who entered the ovens of the Egyptians to carry out the will of G-d.

- The Talmud, Pesachim 53b

The world maintains that if one cannot go under (circumvent an obstacle) then one is to go over; but I say, in the first place, go over.

- Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch

At a gathering on July 1 1985 marking the 105th anniversary of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson's birth2, the Lubavitcher Rebbe shlita related the following incident from the life of his illustrious predecessor and father-in-law:

It was during Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok's younger years, when the czarist regime still ruled the Russian Empire. A new decree against the Jewish community was in the works, aimed at forcing changes in the structure of the rabbinate and Jewish education. Rabbi Sholom DovBer dispatched his son, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok, to the Russian capital of Petersburg to prevent the decree from being enacted. When Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok asked how long he was to stay in Petersburg, his father replied, "to the point of self-sacrifice."

Upon his arrival in Petersburg, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok learned that the decree had already reached the desk of Stalinin, the interior minister of Russia and arguably the most powerful man in the Russian Empire. The ruling Czar's intelligence (or lack thereof) made him a virtual rubber stamp for whichever minister the prevailing political climate favored; at the that particular time, His Highness was led by the nose by Interior Minister Stalinin, a heartless tyrant and rabid anti-semite who was personally responsible for many of the devastating pogroms which were 'arranged' for the Jews of Russia in those years.

Living in Petersburg was an elderly scholar, a former teacher and mentor of the Interior Minister. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok succeeded in befriending this man, who was greatly impressed by the scope and depth of the young chassid's knowledge. For many an evening the two would sit and talk in the old man's study.

One day, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok told his new friend the purpose of his stay in Petersburg and pleaded with him to assist him in reaching the Interior Minister. The old scholar replied: "To speak with him would be useless. The man has a cruel and malicious heart, and I have already severed all contact with this vile creature many years ago. But there is one thing I can do for you. Because of my status as Stalinin's mentor, I have been granted a permanent entry pass into the offices of the interior ministry. I need not explain to you the consequences, for both of us, if you are found out. But I have come to respect you and what you stand for, and I have decided to help you."

When Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok presented the pass at the interior ministry, the guard on duty was stupefied: few were the cabinet-level ministers granted such a privilege, and here stands a young chassid, complete with beard, sidelocks, chassidic garb, and Yiddish accent, at a time when to even reside in Petersburg was forbidden to Jews. But the pass was in order, so he waved him through.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok entered the building and proceeded to look for Stalinin's office. Those whom he asked for directions could only stare at the strange apparition confidently striding the corridors of the interior ministry. Soon he located the minister's office at the far end of a commanding hallway on the fourth floor of the building.

As Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok walked toward the office, the door opened and Stalinin himself walked out and closed the door behind him. The rebbe's son and the interior minister passed within a few feet of each other. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok made straight for the office, opened the door, and walked in.

After a quick search, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok located the documents pertaining to the decree in Stalinin's desk. On the desk sat two inkstamps, bearing the words 'APPROVED' or 'REJECTED' above the minister's signature and seal. Quickly, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok stamped the proposed decree 'REJECTED' and inserted the papers into a pile of vetoed documents which sat in a tray on the desk. He then left the room, closed the door behind him, and walked out of the building.


1. The three who refused to bow to Nebuchadnazer's image, even under the threat of being cast into a fiery furnace (Daniel 3).
2. Tammuz 12th on the Jewish calendar



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