The winter of that year—5547 (1786)—was most severe, the first snow falling in Liozna during the festival of Sukkot.
Sitting in the sukkah required a fur coat and fur-lined boots, and on several occasions the snow had to be removed from the sukkah. Shemini Atzeret was on a Shabbat and snow had fallen all night long; the Alter Rebbe instructed that the gentile servant be told, “We need to eat in the sukkah, and we cannot eat there as long as there’s snow on it,” so that he should understand to remove the snow.
Many of the guests who came to spend Simchat Torah with the Alter Rebbe that year arrived in Liozna with frostbitten fingers and toes, and many had fallen ill from the unexpected cold.
On Friday, I entered the Rebbe’s room to report to him that all the Torah scrolls had been properly wound and wrapped for that evening’s hakafot. On that occasion I mentioned to the Rebbe the plight of the sick Chassidim, many of whom were running a high fever.
The Rebbe leaned his holy head on his hands and entered a state of d’veikut (meditative contemplation). For a long while he remained deeply engrossed in his thoughts. He then opened his eyes and, in his famous melody, said: “The Torah says that the Torah is a ‘fiery law.’ Today is Simchat Torah, the rejoicing of the Torah. Fire consumes fire: all should be brought to the hakafot (special dancing with the Torah scrolls on Simchat Torah) in the synagogue, and the fire of Simchat Torah will consume the fever induced by the frost.”
Now, in Liozna, there lived a venerable old Torah scholar by the name of Rabbi Eizik. Reb Eizik counted himself as one of the mitnagdim (those opposed to the Chassidic movement), yet he had great personal respect for the Alter Rebbe, for he recognized the extent of the Rebbe’s knowledge of Torah and his great piety.
Reb Eizik had a nephew—Reb Moshe Uptzuger was his name—who was a Chassid of the Alter Rebbe. That Simchat Torah, Reb Moshe, accompanied by two sons and a son-in-law, came to Liozna to be with the Rebbe. The entire party stayed in the home of their relative Reb Eizik.
Reb Moshe was of frail health, and the trip in the bitter cold did him great harm. He lay with a high fever. His sons and son-in-law were also gravely ill. Abraham the doctor predicted that the young men would, with G‑d’s help, survive the illness. But in regard to Reb Moshe, due to his advanced age, frailty, the severe pains he felt in both his sides, and his high fever, it was extremely doubtful that he would pull through, Gd forbid.
Reb Eizik was greatly grieved by the plight of his nephew, and repeatedly denounced the irresponsible behavior of Chassidim. To come greet one’s teacher under such circumstances, he argued, is not a mitzvah at all.
Following the evening prayers on Shemini Atzeret, I, together with Ephraim Michel (a young Chassid also from Shklov), Chaim Elya Dubrovner and a number of other young Chassidim, began making our rounds among the lodging-houses of Liozna to summon—and if need be, bring—everyone to the synagogue for hakafot, to be warmed and healed by the fiery law of Torah.
Wherever we came, I repeated the Rebbe’s instructions (which everyone was already informed of: within an hour of my departure from the Rebbe’s room, the Rebbe’s words were known throughout Liozna; nevertheless, all wanted me to repeat the Rebbe’s words, word by word).It was truly gratifying to witness the great joy which the Rebbe’s words evoked in the guests, their children, and the members of their household. All were confident that the sick would, with the help of G-d be cured.
That evening there prevailed a bitter cold, wet snow mingled with frozen rain and a wind that penetrated one’s very bones. In addition, great masses of mud clogged the streets. None of this prevented the sick Chassidim from coming to the synagogue. Many had to be helped along; others had to be carried on our shoulders.
Arriving at Reb Eizik’s, we found him in the midst of a passionate argument with Reb Moshe’s sons and son-in-law. The latter were demanding that the young Chassidim making their rounds of Liozna should be summoned to help bring them to the Rebbe’s synagogue for hakafot, and that their father and father-in-law should also be carried there. Reb Eizik was heatedly saying that they mustn’t leave the house in their condition, and as regards their father, this is certainly out of the question. Since morning—Reb Eizik was saying—Reb Moshe had been lying stupefied from fever and was no longer aware of his surroundings; according to Abraham the doctor, his very life was in jeopardy. If taken outside, the very first whiff of wind would spell his end, G‑d forbid.
When Chaim Elya Dubrovner, myself and another two young men entered Reb Eizik’s home, there was great rejoicing among Reb Moshe’s children. We were greeted with cries of “Thank G‑d!” “Father and we are saved!” while Reb Eizik cried: “Murderers! Killers! This is against the holy Torah!”.
When I approached Reb Moshe’s bed and saw him lying there still as a log, his skin a blue-blackish tinge, his eyes closed and the heat of his fever radiating from him, I was so alarmed that I nearly lost my bearings.
“What do you propose?” cried Reb Eizik to us. “That this critically ill person should be taken to the synagogue for hakafot? Even in the times of the Holy Temple, when it was a Biblical commandment to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the Talmud explicitly states that ‘the ill and the lame are exempt.’ And going to the synagogue for hakafot is only a rabbinical ordinance. If Moshe is taken outside, this would be nothing short of outright murder!”
Chaim and Baruch, Reb Moshe’s children, countered that if the Rebbe said that this would bring a recovery, they believe with complete faith that bringing Reb Moshe to the synagogue will cure him.
I must tell you that at the time I was utterly confused and at a complete loss as to what to say. On the one hand, I heard Reb Eizik’s arguments and saw Reb Moshe burning with fever; on the other hand, I heard the words of wholesome faith coming from Reb Moshe’s sons, simple young men—the one a village tailor, while the other runs a small business in the village—in whom there shines a faith in tzaddikim, to the point of self-sacrifice, without contemplation and personal consideration on their part.
Human reason dictated that Reb Eizik was surely in the right: a person so gravely ill mustn’t be moved from his place; in such a frost, he might not even make it to the synagogue, G‑d forbid. But the Divine reason of the G‑dly soul said that Chaim and Baruch were right: the Rebbe said that the fiery law of Torah is healing, and one must carry out the Rebbe’s instruction with self-sacrifice.
My regard for Reb Moshe’s children—those simple young men with wholesome hearts—grew from moment to moment. To this day, I remember the inner shame that I experienced; then and there I resolved that I must enter into yechidut with the Rebbe to discuss the lowliness of my spiritual state.
I, Pinye the son of Henich of Shklov, who studied Talmud and its commentaries and Jewish philosophy under the tutelage of the great Torah scholars of Shklov, who recognized the greatness of the Rebbe through my understanding and appreciation of his teachings, and who is already eight years a disciple of the Rebbe—still in me there prevails a supremacy of matter over spirit, of natural reason over G‑dly reason; while these simple young men, who come to the Rebbe with only their fear of G‑d and a simple submission to His will, who have no understanding of the Rebbe’s teachings—in them there shines a G‑dly reason and an absolute faith. Shame on you, Pinye the son of Henich! Be shamed before the Chassidic village tailor and the Chassidic village merchant!
Engrossed in these thoughts, I ceased to be aware of what was transpiring about me, until Chaim Elya Dubrovner gave me a gentle push, and conveyed to me the news that Abraham the doctor says that Reb Moshe has reached his final moments, G‑d forbid.
Before I had a chance to absorb this information, I heard Baruch crying to his father: “Father! The Rebbe has sent emissaries to bring you to hakafot! Father, wake up! We must go to the Rebbe’s hakafot!” I then heard a great commotion in Reb Moshe’s bedroom. When I entered the bedroom, I saw Reb Moshe lying with open eyes and a joyous expression on his face, waiting to be helped along to the Rebbe’s hakafot.
Chaim Elya rushed to summon a few more young men. In the meanwhile, we dressed Reb Moshe in warm clothes—he was still too weak to move a single limb on his own. When the young men arrived, they raised him aloft on their hands and carried him to the Rebbe’s synagogue for hakafot.
When I entered the synagogue, a wave of heat hit me in the face. The synagogue was packed, with a great part of the crowd consisting of the sick. Some sat supported by the walls, while others lacked even the strength to sit at all but lay quietly; others suffered from a relentless cough; and there were those whose moans of anguish so pained the heart that one could hardly bear to look at them.
It was the Rebbe’s custom to first conduct a “private” hakafot in the small synagogue adjoining his room, with the participation of a select number of his disciples. Following the private hakafot he would go to his sukkah and make kiddush, and then come to the large synagogue in the courtyard for the public hakafot.
That year, the Rebbe summoned to his sukkah three Chassidim—Reb Michael Aaron of Vitebsk, Reb Shabbetai Meir of Beshenkovitz and Reb Yaakov of Semilian. Upon their arrival at the sukkah, the Rebbe said to Reb Michel Aaron, “You are a Kohen”; to Reb Shabbetai Meir he said, “You are a Levite,” and to Reb Yaakov, “You are an Israelite.”
“I require a three-member beit din (court), the Rebbe then said, “and this three-member beit din must include a Kohen, a Levite, and an Israelite. I have chosen you to act as my beit din. Listen to my kiddush, answer ‘Amen’ to each benediction, and have in mind that your Amen should relate to the thoughts and meditations I will concentrate on in reciting the kiddush.”
The Rebbe then requested that several flasks of wine be brought to him.After reciting the kiddush, the Rebbe took the remains of the wine in his cup and poured it into one of the flasks. He then told the three-member court that he is appointing them as emissaries of healing. He instructed them to mix the flask of wine he gave them with the other flasks, and to distribute their contents to the sick for their full recovery. He also instructed the three-member court to go up to the women’s gallery and give from the wine to those women who have not yet been blessed with children and those who miscarry their children, G‑d forbid.
The three-member beit din entered the large synagogue in the courtyard, where all had already heard of the nature of their mission and gazed upon them with awe and veneration.
Reb Yaakov Semilianer ascended the podium and repeated, word for word, what the Rebbe had said.
When he had conveyed the Rebbe’s words, he announced that he had something additional to say that was pertinent to the situation at hand:
“It has been handed down to us,” said Reb Yaakov, “from elder Chassid to elder Chassid, that in order that a person should merit to experience the fulfillment of a blessing, two conditions must be fulfilled:
a) the one being blessed must believe in the blessing of the one granting it with a simple faith and without equivocation. b) the one being blessed must be committed to carrying out the will of the one granting the blessing in all that pertains to the service of G‑d, in Torah, prayer and pious conduct.”
Though all had heard Reb Yaakov’s words, it was decided that in order to forestall any doubt, Reb Michael Aaron, who had a loud voice, should repeat what Reb Yaakov had said. When this was done, the young men whom the three-member beit din had enlisted as their helpers began the orderly distribution of the wine from the Rebbe’s cup.
A hush descended upon the room when the Rebbe entered the synagogue for hakafot. As was his custom, the Rebbe recited the first and last verses of Atah Horeita and participated in the first and seventh hakafah.
The following morning all were speaking about the great miracle. Abraham the doctor attested that, for a number of the elderly patients, what occurred was literally a “revival of the dead,” since according to the laws of nature and medicine they had been beyond hope.
Postscript: The miracle of his nephew, Reb Moshe’s miraculous recovery, brought about that Reb Eizik became a Chassid. Reb Eizik would relate:“The pure faith in a Tzadik, which I saw by my brother’s grandchildren, Chaim and Baruch, amazed me. If I hadn’t seen this with my own eyes, I would not have believed it possible at all.”Reb Eizik was by nature studious and a very deep learner. He began to study Chassidut with great devotion. Whatever Torah he heard taught in public he would review a number of times and ask many questions on each point, until he was able to understand it very well.