Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the Alter Rebbe of Chabad, was arrested in his home in Liozna, White Russia, and brought to Petersburg on the night following Simchat Torah, in 5559 (1798). He was incarcerated in one of the secret cells of the Fortress of Petropavlovsk and charged with treason against the Russian Empire for allegedly sending money to the Sultan of Turkey (referring the funds he annually collected and sent for the poor of the Holy Land, which was under Turkish rule at the time).

The first three weeks he was kept under strict surveillance in a cell designated for traitors. Afterwards he was moved to a more comfortable place, in the same fortress. He was detained there for exactly fifty-four days, which Chasidim point out corresponds to the total number of chapters in Tanya, his classic work of Chasidic doctrine published two years previously.

About that time, a deputy minister of the police was assigned to interrogate him. This high-ranking gentile official, who was a learned man and knowledgeable in the Scriptures, was very impressed by the prisoner, who was obviously was no ordinary rebel. Interrupting his list of official questions, he said to the Rebbe, "I have a question on the text of the Bible and would be pleased if you could give me a satisfactory answer."

"Ask whatever you like," the Rebbe told him, "and, with G‑d's help, I hope to be able to solve your problem."

"What is the meaning of the verse 'G‑d called to Adam and said: Where are you?'" the official queried. "How is it possible that omniscient G‑d did not know where Adam was?"

Do you believe that the Torah is forever relevant and true?

The Rebbe answered with the basic explanation that it was G‑d's intention to inaugurate the conversation with a question not related to the sin, so as to not overwhelm the man who was in dread fear of punishment.

The official, however, was not satisfied by this solution, surprisingly saying, "I am aware of the basic rabbinical interpretations and the allegory offered by Rashi. I had hoped for a deeper answer. Don't you have a more profound explanation?"

The Rebbe responded to him with a question of his own. "Do you believe that the Torah is forever relevant and true, in every generation and to every individual?"

"Yes, I sincerely believe that," replied the deputy minister.

The Rebbe was very pleased to hear this affirmation of faith. If such a high-ranking official was a believer in the Torah, perhaps the trial would be less of an ordeal.

"Since you believe," said the Rebbe, "I will give you a deeper explanation. Actually, the verse does not state 'G‑d called to Adam,' for what is written is, 'G‑d called to Ha'adam,' meaning 'to the man.' This means that at all times G‑d is calling to every individual and asks him 'Where are you?', meaning 'Where do you stand in this world.' G‑d allots to each person a certain amount of days and years, each of which is to be utilized for doing 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 xx years (the Rebbe stated the exact age of his questioner!). How have you used this time? Did you accomplish something good? Have you benefited others?"

The official was thoroughly amazed and thrilled by the fact that the Rebbe 'guessed' his right age. He put his hand on the prisoner's shoulder, exclaiming: "Bravo!" Afterwards he continued his formal interrogation of the Rebbe, who showed profound wisdom in his precise answers to every question, impressing the interrogator even more.

As further events unfolded, the admiration of the government minister for the Rebbe turned out to be a significant factor. But that part of the story is for another occasion.

The sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe (1880-1950) related that the Alter Rebbe's response saved him from kalot hanefesh, the soul's ecstatic and blissful expiration and flight from the body. This was because the Alter Rebbe was in a state of great joy and ecstasy for having merited to be imprisoned and to suffer martyrdom for propagating the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, and his own master, the Maggid of Mezritch.

But when he considered that G‑d asks each one of us, "Where are you? Have you accomplished your mission - as a soul within a body - for which you were placed on earth?" this kept the Alter Rebbe from kalot hanefesh. For it impressed upon him that he must remain in this world and complete the purpose for which his soul had descended here below.

Adapted from Beis Rebbe and other written and oral sources.

Biographical note:
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (18 Elul 1745-24 Tevet 1812), known as "the Alter Rebbe," was one of the main disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch, and the founder of the Chabad Chassidism. He is the author of Shulchan Aruch HaRav and the Book of Tanya as well as many other major works in both Jewish law and the mystical teachings.

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