It’s not about “getting across the river safely”
Rabbi Mendel Futerfass was a Chabad Chassid that was put into Siberia for his Jewish activities. For over five years he suffered terribly, and was always in the shadow of death. But afterwards he said that those were the best years of his life.
One of the prisoners in Rav Mendel’s camp was an old Cossack imprisoned because of his loyalty to the Czar. Although the Cossacks were usually rabid anti-Semites, ‘misery loves company’. One long cold Siberian winter night, when they were sitting in the barracks (the guards were afraid to let them work outside in the dark) he opened his heart to Rav Mendel and began reminiscing about….his horse.
When he spoke his eyes became moist and his voice filled with emotion.
“Aaahhh!!! A Cossack horse!!! There is nothing in creation like a Cossack horse!!!! A regular horse in Russia cost one month’s wages – five rubles. A workhorse cost up to ten. But a Cossack horse cost five hundred, six hundred rubles!!
“You see, the Cossack horse was different than all other horses, incomparably different! A Cossack’s horse had a different heart.
“Not only it would do anything for its master; jump into fire, over trees and even houses. Anything. And it was stronger, faster, and braver than anything alive.
“But most of all, it had a different heart.
“I will explain,” continued the Cossack, pausing and drawing deeply on a cigarette.
“How did they catch a Cossack horse? Do you know? Well I will tell you, this is a story!”
He exhaled and leaned back in his chair as the smoke was pouring from his mouth and nostrils.
“The Cossacks were experts at this. There was a special group that would wander the mountains and fields on horseback looking for herds of wild horses.
“This was very important because a Cossack without a horse is like a Cossack without legs, like a cripple, do you understand?
“Then, if they were lucky and found a large herd, say of a thousand, two thousand horses. They would stampede them and get them all running in the direction of the nearest river. Like I say, they were great experts, and sometimes they would run for days until they got there, but when they did they would start screaming and shooting their guns in the air and force the herd into the widest, deepest part of the river. You see, horses can swim, and so they had to get over, through the current to the other side, or die.
“Now, on the other side was waiting another group of Cossacks. The whole thing was planned from the beginning, and they would watch to see what the horses did.
“There were always three types of horses; the majority were the regular horses that would make it to the other side and run away to live their lives. Then there were older horses that couldn’t get across and would unfortunately drown. And there were the young horses, that had the stamina so they didn’t get tired, but didn’t have the strength to cross over, so they just floundered in the middle of the river.”
His voice became serious, and he sat a bit straighter.
“But sometimes… Not always, but sometimes, there was a fourth type; maybe only one or two at the most, that were sort of crazy horses.
“They would make it across, but instead of running away, they would turn around, look back into the river to see if there were horses in trouble and then jump BACK in to save them.”
There were tears in his eyes now, he was leaning forward with arms outstretched as though grasping for the past.
“They would swim to the young horses, grab them with their teeth by their mane and start dragging them in. They just couldn’t stand to see their fellow horses in danger.
“The Cossacks would throw some paint on these special horses and chase them for days until they caught them. Then it would take several months of hard work until they trained them. But the main thing was the heart; it was a horse with a heart.
“This was a Cossack’s horse!!!”
Rav Mendel said that he immediately got the point. The Cossack’s horse is a Chassid.
A Chassid has to be ‘crazy’ and risk everything for his fellow man; he can’t stand to see his brother in danger of drowning. He can’t bear to just live for himself; learn Torah and do the commandments just in order to cross the river of life and get into heaven.
A Chassid has a different heart. And this is the secret of “brotherly love” that the Baal Shem Tov strived to teach.