Jewish Thought

A Cantonist’s Soul is Reawakened

Czar Nicholas’ regime was a ruthless one. The Russian soldiers would heartlessly tear young Jewish boys away from their families and re-educate them in military schools before forcing them to serve 25 years in the army. By the time they came back to the Jewish community (if they were lucky enough), these kidnaped boys, known as cantonists, remembered nothing of their origins. During this period, there was a certain Jew who had an only son who was his pride and joy. At the tender age of five the child was ruthlessly abducted by the czar’s soldiers. The parents were engulfed in grief. Not a day went that they didn’t daven and beseech the heavens for his safe return. Twenty long and painful years passed. One day there was a knock at the door. The Jew opened it to see two policemen standing there. “You are under arrest,” they announced as they dragged the poor man from his house. The Jew knew better than to argue. He meekly followed, but was able to quickly hide a small volume of Gemara under his clothing before leaving.

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He was thrown into a dark and filthy cell where he sat and learned all day long. One day he came across a question in the Gemara. He remembered that the Rashba asked that question, but he couldn’t remember what the answer was. The question really bothered him, so along with the rest of his daily tefillos he davened that Hashem should please send him a Rashba. Not long afterwards, the guard came in while he was learning and informed him that it was his last day on Earth. As a courtesy, he could ask for one thing before being led to his death. The Jew didn’t hesitate and replied, “I want you to go to the nearest Jewish town and get me a Rashba.” When the Jew was given the sefer he hugged it with great joy and immediately started learning. When he was done, he stood up and began to dance around the cell with the Rashba. The guard watched in wonder as the Jew danced round and round in circles with the small volume in his hands.

After two hours of dancing the Jew sat down on the stone floor and said, “Ribbono Shel Olam, I had hoped to be able to dance at the wedding of my one and only son but I wasn’t zocheh. So instead, I danced with the Rashba.” A short while later he was led to the gallows. As the executioner tied the noose around his neck, the Yid began to sing the words of the Gemara. At that moment the guard, who was watching the proceedings, suddenly realized that the prisoner was none other than his own father. The familiar tune had awakened childhood memories he had long ago forgotten of his father lulling him to sleep with that same melody and the same words. A second later he looked up and realized that it was too late; his father had already been hanged. At the very first opportunity the guard ran away and was chozer bi’teshuvah. And for the rest of his life he related the story of his father’s last dance to whomever would listen.


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