The Police Chief
Our story begins on a Friday night in the year 5536 (1776) in the historical city of Prague. It was Shabbos Shuvah, the Shabbos between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Fraida sat in the dim candlelight of her one-room apartment, doubled over with agonizing pain of childbirth. A midwife sat beside her, holding her hand and whispering soothingly.
A candle flickered and then went out. There was just one taper left, its dim lighting casting shadows on the grey walls of the tiny apartment. Reb Mordche, Fraida’s husband, sat wearily at the table, trying to learn. Fraida had been in labor for two days by then, and the hour was late. Despite his attempts to remain awake, he kept finding himself shaking himself out of a sudden doze.
For the umpteenth time, Reb Mordche nodded
off. This time, however, his head rolled forward and hit the table with a thud. Immediately, the lone remaining candle was extinguished, plunging the room into utter darkness. Startled awake by the bang, he lifted his head.
Fraida cried out in pain, and the midwife stood up, groping to find her way around in the darkness. “You must light a candle,” she instructed Reb Mordche. “Your wife is in childbirth, and its pikuach nefesh.”
“It’s Shabbos!” Reb Mordche sputtered. “I can’t light a fire–.”
“Nonsense,” the midwife cut in crisply. “I’m a midwife, and I’ve been in this situation many times before. You are allowed to desecrate the Shabbos for your wife at this point.”
Reb Mordche bit his lower lip. “But… Shabbos…”
“You are obligated to desecrate Shabbos for a choleh,” the midwife pointed out. “At this point in childbirth, that is exactly what your wife is. Please light a candle for us.”
Fraida emitted a soft moan.
Her husband hesitated. “It’s Shabbos Shuvah,” he said through a sandpaper mouth. “Are you sure? I’m a little hesitant, especially on this holy Shabbos.”
The midwife stamped her foot impatiently. “What if your wife is ready to give birth? We need light. Do you want her to die? This is a matter of life and death! It’s not a time to try to be overly righteous!”
“I’ll run and get a non-Jew,” Reb Mordche offered. His eyes had adjusted to the dark, and he could see Fraida crouched over in bed. “Fraida, I’ll be right back.”
The midwife pursed her lips disapprovingly but did not object.
Reb Mordche donned his overcoat and stepped out of the tiny apartment. The weather was blustery and wet. Torrents of rain poured down from above, and there was no one around in the streets. Where would he find a non-Jew? With hurried steps, he rushed through the rain in the direction of the police station.
The moonless sky and pouring rain made it difficult to see, but Reb Mordche plowed on. He arrived at the station, soaked through and through. With shivering fingers, he pulled open the door and walked in, breathing in the warm air of the heated building.
A police captain was sitting at the desk, his forehead creased in thought. He did not notice his visitor immediately, and Reb Mordche had a few moments to study his uniform and rank. It was the chief of police himself.
Reb Mordche took a deep breath and cleared his throat to get the man’s attention.
The police chief glanced up. “Yes?”
“My wife is in labor,” Reb Mordche said breathlessly. “I’m a Jew, and today is our Sabbath. We need someone to light a candle for her. Please, can you send one of your officers with me to light a candle? This is an emergency. It took me at least ten minutes to get here, and she might be ready to give birth at any moment.”
The police chief’s eyes raked over Reb Mordche’s bedraggled appearance, from his soggy beard to his drenched overcoat to the puddle slowly forming around his shoes. “How did you get here?”
“I walked,” the Jew replied.
The policeman clasped his hands before him and raised his eyebrows. “You couldn’t hire a coach?”
“It’s our Sabbath,” Reb Mordche explained.
“Alright,” the chief said, standing up. He left the room and returned a few moments later with another uniformed policeman. “Officer Peter here will accompany you.”
“Give me directions to your home,” Peter instructed. “I’ll take a horse and buggy there. You are invited to join me, of course, but if you insist, you can walk and we’ll meet at your front door.”
“Thank you,” Reb Mordche said emotionally. “Thank you so much.” He gave the man precise directions to his home and began hurrying there as fast as he could, hoping to be there at the same time as the police officer.
A few minutes later, he arrived back home, breathless. Peter was waiting in his covered wagon outside, and he followed Reb Mordche down the muddy stairs to the small basement apartment.
They found Fraida in a similar position to the one they had left her in, crying softly. The midwife jumped up. “Thank you for coming!” she cried in relief. “Please, can you get this house lit?”
Peter lit one candle, then another and another. Soon, the entire home was brightly lit.
“Much better,” the midwife said approvingly. “Much better.” She glanced around and then turned to the police officer. “I think that this woman needs her privacy,” she hinted. “But thank you very much for coming.”
“Let me give you something for your trouble,” Reb Mordche said, hurrying to the small kitchenette in the corner of the studio apartment. He plated a small piece of their Shabbos fish and found a small bottle of wine. Handing them to Peter, he thanked him profusely for coming.
“Thanks,” Peter said, downing the wine and the fish in a single gulp. “It was my pleasure.”
Reb Mordche walked him to the door and watched as he began climbing the steep staircase. With a sigh of relief, he shut the door and returned to his brightly lit apartment.
When he returned, the midwife greeted him with a large smile. “Mazel tov,” she said simply. “Your wife gave birth to a healthy baby. A boy!”
Something inside Reb Mordche contracted, an intense combination of joy and deep emotion. A child! A son! “How is Fraida?” he asked.
Before the midwife could respond, they heard a piercing scream from outside. Reb Mordche pulled the door open and rushed outside. From above him, he heard his upstairs neighbor do the same. They met on the stairs. “What was that?” Reb Mordche asked, swiveling his gaze from side to side.
“Look!” his neighbor pointed to a man laying head down, his legs dangling on the stairs above him.
Reb Mordche wiped the rain from his eyes. It was Peter, the police officer who had lit the candles just minutes before. He knelt beside the motionless officer, ignoring the mud and puddles.
“Quick, call a doctor!”
“Let me grab my raincoat,” his neighbor said hastily, dashing back inside his apartment. He returned moments later, fastening the button at his neck as he walked briskly through the pouring rain.
Reb Mordche remained home for an agonizing wait. He alternated between spending time with his brand-new son and checking on the officer strewn across his steps. Deep inside, he knew that chances were slim that Peter was still alive.
What felt like hours later but could not have been more than a few minutes, the neighbor came running up breathlessly, the Jewish doctor at his heels.
“Everyone stand back,” the doctor ordered, lighting a lantern for a clearer view. He removed a stethoscope from his bag and plugged it into his ears. “I can’t hear his heartbeat,” he said apologetically, turning the patient and attempting to listen to the heartbeat from a different position. After a few moments, he admitted defeat and pronounced the man dead.
Reb Mordche was left to deal with the corpse of the gentile. He bit his lip in fear. What would happen when the police chief discovered that his officer had died after being sent to a Jewish home in the middle of the night?
“Fraida, I’m going to the Maharal,” he told his wife, his left leg twitching nervously.
She didn’t reply. A closer look revealed that she was sleeping.
With a final glance at the tiny baby who had made him a father, now sleeping peacefully beside Fraida, Reb Mordche left the house.
The Maharal was, thankfully, still awake.
“Rebbi, rebbi, you must help me!” Reb Mordche cried in panic when the sage opened the door.
The Maharal ushered him in and sat him down. “Tell me what happened,” he offered kindly.
“My wife was about to give birth,” Reb Mordche began, breathing heavily from his long run. “The candles went out, and she needed light. I went to find a non-Jew to light a candle for her.”
“Why didn’t you light it yourself?” the Maharal asked.
Reb Mordche looked at the floor. “It’s Shabbos Shuvah,” he mumbled. “I didn’t want to desecrate Shabbos…”
“Don’t you know that saving a life takes precedence to Shabbos?” the Maharal scolded. “You should have lit the candle yourself.”
Reb Mordche hung his head. He was silent for a moment, accepting the rebuke. Then he continued his story. “It’s raining really hard. There was no one outside. I went to the police station to find a gentile, and a police officer came to my house. He lit some candles and then left. However, it seems that he must have slipped on the wet, muddy stairs on his way up and hit his head. We found him sprawled on the steps, dead.” He looked at the tzaddik with desperate eyes. “Rebbi! What should I do?!”
The Maharal thought for a moment. “This is pikuach nefesh for the entire Jewish community, since the death of a police officer outside a Jewish home can lead to a deadly pogrom. We can’t waste any time. Get a horse and buggy and drive to the home of Reb Sholom, one of the seven most important askanim in town. Go together with him to the chief of police and give him a message in my name that he should help you out to ensure that nothing bad happens to the Jews as a result of this.”
Reb Mordche nodded, thanking the sage for his guidance.
“Don’t walk, drive there,” the Maharal reiterated. “Now is not the time to be stringent regarding the laws of Shabbos.”
Reb Mordche left the Maharal’s home and hurried to do his bidding. Stoically, he climbed onto the buggy and whipped the horses, conscious of the fact that he was doing Hashem’s will by driving on Shabbos. He rounded up Reb Sholom and briefly described the story. Together, the two of them continued on to the police station.
The police chief was sitting in the same place as he was previously, when Reb Mordche had arrived, drenched, looking for a gentile to light his candles. He recognized Reb Mordche immediately. “It’s you again,” he pronounced. “How can I help you this time?”
“Can we speak to you privately?” Reb Sholom requested.
The chief got up and led them to a private office further down the hallway. He indicated to two chairs, closing the door behind them. Sitting down on the other side of the desk, facing them, he asked, “Well?”
Reb Mordche’s voice shook in fear as he responded. “A little over a half hour ago, you sent a police officer to my home. To light a candle?”
“That’s right,” the police chief agreed.
“He’s dead now,” Reb Mordche blurted out.
The chief stood up in shock. “What? How did he die?!” He peered at Reb Mordche through suspicious lenses. “Did you give him anything to eat when he was at your house?”
“J..j…just some fish and a l…little wine,” Reb Mordche stammered.
“Perhaps the wine was poisoned,” the police chief suggested coolly.
“It wasn’t,” Reb Mordche insisted. “I myself ate from the fish and drank from the wine.”
“I see. How, then, did he die?”
“I’m not fully sure,” Reb Mordche admitted fearfully. “I found him lying face down on my steps. I promise I didn’t kill him!”
Reb Sholom stepped in to rescue his friend. As a prominent askan, he was more accustomed to dealing with the authorities, and his voice bespoke confidence and assuredness. “We believe he slipped on the stone staircase and hit his head,” he put in. “It’s very wet outside, and the position in which he was found indicates that this was the most likely cause of his death.”
The police chief pursed his lips. “That does seem likely,” he agreed.
“Our rabbi, the Maharal, sent us to ask you in his name to ensure that the Jewish community does not suffer as a result of this unfortunate occurrence,” Reb Sholom continued, holding his breath to hear the chief’s response.
To the immense relief of both Jews, the police chief nodded, his expression serious. “We must get the body away from your home immediately,” he said, tapping his fingers on the tabletop. “If it’s found there, no one will believe you when you say he died from slipping on the stairs.”
“But he did,” Reb Mordche burst out, his face white.
The chief ignored him. “Here’s what you should do. Peter lived at 45 Oleg Street. Now, while it’s still raining, bring his body to that address and leave him sprawled on the street outside his home. Put a half-empty bottle of whiskey in his pocket and another bottle on the ground beside him. When people find him tomorrow morning, they will assume he drank himself to death.”
The two Jews stood up and thanked him, hardly believing that the chief of Prague’s police force was actually helping them cover up a crime instead of locking them up on suspicions of killing Peter.
“Don’t tarry,” the police chief cautioned. “The streets are bound to be empty right now, thanks to the pouring rain, but a storm like this won’t last too long.”
Reb Mordche and Reb Sholom hurried to do his bidding. They drove the wagon to Reb Mordche’s home, and after carefully ensuring that no one was around to witness their actions, loaded the corpse onto the wagon. Following the chief of police’s precise instructions, they laid the body on the street in front of his house and tucked a half-empty bottle of whiskey in his pocket.
Reb Mordche returned home, exhausted and frightened. Would their ruse be discovered? Was the entire Jewish community of Prague about to be destroyed as a result of his decision to be overly stringent and refuse to light a candle for his laboring wife?
Entering his apartment, the sweet sounds of his newborn son’s cry reminded him of the joyous news. Fraida was still very weak, and he hurried to take the baby from her arms. Cradling his son, his pinky wrapped by the newborn’s tiny fingers, he felt some of the tension leave his body. Still, it was impossible to fully forget.
The next day, Shabbos, dawned bright and sunny. Other than some leftover puddles dotting the streets, it was impossible to detect just how fierce the storm had been the previous night.
Peter’s oldest son left the house to meet his friend and discovered his father laying in the gutter. He bent over the strewn form. Was his father sleeping off his midnight drinking? A closer look revealed the bottle of whiskey sticking out from Peter’s pants pocket, corroborating this assumption. Then, his son noticed that his father’s body was cold.
“Your old man must have died from overdrinking,” the son’s friend suggested. “Or maybe liver failure?”
The bereaved son nodded, his eyes filling with tears. “Can you go call my mother?” he asked his friend hoarsely.
The following day, a stately funeral was held for the police officer, who had served the city for over a decade. His body was buried with great ceremony, and the cause of death on his death certificate was noted as alcohol overdose.
The Jewish community of Prague was spared a grisly pogrom, and Reb Mordche breathed a sigh of relief.
Yom Kippur set in just a few days later. Dressed in his kittel, holding his worn machzor, the Maharal prepared to leave for shul for Kol Nidrei. He emerged from his home, tall and regal, looking like an angel. A group of prominent community members awaited him outside his home, ready to accompany him to shul.
The entire Jewish community stood at the foot of the shul, awaiting the arrival of their venerated leader. When the Maharal arrived, they moved to the side to allow him entry. He walked up the stairs, slow and stately, followed by the community’s dignitaries. The rest of the people followed behind, taking their places in shul. A pensive silence hung over the crowd. Yom Kippur had arrived.
After Tefillas Zakah, the sefer Torah was removed from the aron kodesh. Before Kol Nidrei, the Maharal began delivering words of censure to the community. “There are black clouds hanging over the city of Prague,” he began ominously. “Difficult days are ahead. There is a tremendous amount of teshuvah required from each and every person in this room. We must repent!”
The room was pin-drop silent as the Maharal’s powerful voice rippled through the air. The people shivered.
The Maharal continued. “You are all fasting until tomorrow evening. That is not enough. We are living through a terrible time, and more is needed. From now on, we must all fast every Monday and Thursday, until I inform you that the danger has passed. This includes both men and women. It is only through genuine repentance and heartfelt tefillah that we will hopefully emerge from this danger unscathed.”
A palpable fear overtook the room. The people felt the awesomeness, the severity of the day, acutely. That Yom Kippur, they prayed like they never prayed before.
As per the Maharal’s directive, the entire community undertook to fast every Monday and Thursday. Sukkos came and went, and they continued fasting twice a week, utilizing the time for fervent tefillah.
It happened on a Thursday, six weeks after Sukkos. Maariv was to take place in less than an hour, after which the Maharal planned on breaking his fast. There was a knock on the door, and he went to answer it.
Framed in his doorway was the chief of Prague’s police force.
“Rabbi, may I speak to you?” he inquired respectfully.
“Please come in,” the Maharal invited him, showing him into his sparsely furnished home.
“How can I help you?”
The chief of police had suspicious moisture glistening at the corner of his eyes. “Rabbi,” he said emotionally. “You know that I did you a tremendous favor. I saved the entire Jewish community! If not for my actions, the Jews would have likely been wiped out by a deadly pogrom.”
“Yes, we are forever indebted to you,” the Maharal agreed. “I want to bless you.” Closing his eyes, he gave the police chief a warm blessing. Then he got up and removed a bundle of coins from a corner shelf. “I was waiting for the opportunity to pay you back. This is for you.”
The police chief shook his head. “I don’t want these coins,” he said hoarsely. “I’m not here for money. I want you to listen to my story.”
“I’m listening,” the Maharal responded.
“Let me introduce myself properly,” the chief began. “My name is Moshe. Despite my appearance, and despite what you may think, I am a Jew.”
The police chief began his story. “Many years ago, I lived in a city a few miles from here. I came from a very wealthy and Torahdik home, and I married a modest and pious girl from a similar kind of family. About a year after we married, we were blessed with a beautiful little boy. Life was wonderful, and we constantly thanked Hashem for the blessings he showered upon us.
“My father had a brother who settled in Amsterdam. One day, my father received a letter from the government of Holland informing him that his brother had passed away. Being that my uncle did not have a wife or children, my father was next-of-kin, and he was to receive his brother’s money and property. While my father was wealthy, my uncle was doubly so, and this inheritance was a tremendous amount of money.
“My father was already elderly, and it was too difficult for him to travel all the way to Amsterdam to claim the inheritance. He asked me to travel in his stead. I, however, was reluctant to leave my wife and son, now a chubby toddler of three, behind. Holland was completely foreign to me, and I was uncomfortable traveling to a place in which I could not speak the language and did not know a soul.
“My father, however, did not let me off the hook so easily. There was a very significant amount of money on the line, and he did not want to forfeit it. He understood my concerns but felt that it was still worthwhile to travel to Amsterdam, promising me a nice cut of the inheritance as a reward for my trouble.
“Although my whole being rebelled against the idea, this was a request from my father, and as a frum Jew, my father’s will was my command. I reluctantly bid goodbye to my wife and precious little boy and headed off for Holland. Other than my tefillin and a small amount of cash, I did not take much with me.
“The journey took about three weeks. I reached Amsterdam in the evening, and stopped off at a hotel to stay in overnight. It seems that there was a major fair taking place in the city that day, and so the hotels were all exorbitantly priced. I shelled out the steep fee and was provided with a room on the third floor. Exhausted from my long journey, I fell asleep almost immediately.
“Suddenly, I heard screams. Panicked, desperate, bloodcurdling screams. I sat up in bed and squinted. It took a moment for the sleep to fade from my conscience. The I began to realize that the cries were coming from within the hotel. ‘Jump!’ people were yelling. ‘Jump from the windows!’
“The unmistakable smell of smoke hit my nostrils, and I realized that the hotel was burning. A burning ball of fire burst into my room, and without stopping to ponder what I was about to do, I opened the window and jumped from the third floor window.
“The next thing I knew; I was lying in a hospital bed. There was a Dutch Jew sitting at my bedside, and he explained to me that I had suffered a concussion from my freefall. I had broken several ribs and the bones in both of my legs. Not being able to speak Dutch, having a Jew around made me feel safe and taken care of. The man, who introduced himself as Zev, committed to come back every day to spend time with me until I got better.
“My recovery was slow and painful. I was very weak and being far away from my loved ones, compounded the difficulty. Zev’s daily visits were a genuine lifesaver. They gave me a reason to wake up each morning and filled me with vitality. I knew that if not for his presence, my chances of survival would have been rapidly diminished.
“After a few weeks in the hospital, I confided in Zev about the reason for my journey to Amsterdam. I lamented that after all the difficulty I’d been through to come to Amsterdam, I couldn’t even move my legs, let alone deal with government bureaucracy in laying claim to the inheritance left by my uncle. Zev promised to come to my aid and assist me with the process.
“Later that day, he returned to my hospital room with a lawyer. They had me sign documents authorizing Zev to deal with claiming the inheritance on my behalf, and I complied immediately, grateful for Zev’s kindness. That night, I slept well for the first time in weeks. The burden that I had shouldered since leaving my family was now being managed by my new and capable friend.
“The trouble started shortly after that. Zev informed me that while my uncle had indeed left all his assets to my father, his wife had sued the court, upset that she had been left out of the will. She wanted half the money. I was very taken aback to hear this. ‘How can that be?’ I asked Zev. ‘My uncle never married. He never had a wife.’
“Zev looked at me strangely. ‘Are you sure?’ he asked. ‘There’s most definitely a woman insisting that she was his wife. She even has documents to prove it.’
“The next court date was scheduled for a few weeks later, and I pushed myself in my physiotherapy sessions, hoping to be well enough to make it to court in person. When the day finally arrived, I was given permission to leave the hospital for a few hours, and Zev pushed me in a wheelchair to the courthouse. His friend, the lawyer, joined us as well.
“From the spectator benches, we watched as the woman’s lawyer represented her side, explaining that she had been married to my uncle for many years and deserved fifty percent of the inheritance. Right away, I could tell she was lying. There was something about her that rang of falsehood. Zev, to the contrary, seemed convinced by her story, and he tried to bring me around to his point of view.
“When the judge called a recess, I wheeled myself over to the woman and introduced myself as my father’s son. ‘As far as I know, my uncle never married,’ I told her, point blank. She just shrugged in response. ‘You must be my nephew, then,’ she said. ‘I’m not sure why you were never aware of me, but your uncle and I married many years ago, although we never had children.’
“I rolled my wheelchair back to my seat, mulling over her words. While she sounded convincing, her eyes were glittering with greed. A sixth sense told me that someone had hired her to play this role, probably in exchange for a percentage of the inheritance if she won the case.
“Shortly thereafter, I noticed Zev’s lawyer huddled with the woman in a corner. They were discussing something animatedly, and the woman kept nodding in agreement with the lawyer’s words. Then, the lawyer approached Zev and the two began whispering together. My instincts shot up to high alert. Had the man I thought to be only friend in this foreign country betrayed me?
“When the session resumed, the woman’s lawyer called on witnesses and presented evidence proving that she had been indeed married to my uncle. The judge subsequently ruled that half the inheritance belonged to her. It was not an insignificant amount.
“Zev commiserated with me about the loss as he wheeled me back to the hospital. ‘It’s infuriating,’ he commented, expressing my very sentiments. ‘But if she’s the wife, then there’s nothing to do. It belongs to her.’
“Just a few days later, a check arrived from the government for fifty percent of the inheritance. I held onto it for a few weeks until I was finally released from the hospital. My first outing after my release was to cash the check at the bank, and that was when I ran into another obstacle. Dutch currency was worthless in my hometown. The inheritance had no value until I exchanged it for other currency.
“Seeing how tired I was, Zev offered to exchange the money for me, and with a niggling sense of foreboding, I entrusted him with the sum. That was the last time I saw the money, or Zev. Both disappeared, along with my uncle’s ‘wife’, no doubt enjoying their stolen treasure while I suffered the double-edged pain of my friend’s betrayal and the loss of the entire inheritance.
“I was a wealthy man, son of a wealthy man, and married to the daughter of a wealthy man. Yet at that moment, I was trapped in the circumstances of the most destitute of paupers. I had absolutely no money on me, and was forced to beg for charity to pay for my daily bread. I walked and hitched most of the way home, a journey of many weeks, since I did not have the funds to hire a carriage.
“After weeks of traveling, I finally arrived back at my hometown, bearing nothing but the worn clothing on my back and scars all over my body from my midnight escapade out of the third floor window. As I approached the block that I lived on, I felt a fresh burst of life enter my tired limbs and I continued on with renewed vigor.
“And then, standing before me was… home! The large, stately structure that housed my small family stood there, set back from the road, familiar like an old friend. I broke into a run, crossing through the garden. The front door was wide open, which struck me as strange, but I was too excited to pay much attention. I glanced around, and not seeing my wife, made a beeline for our son’s room. There was a small child lying in the bed, and I lifted him up, pressing him close.
“Then I stopped short. This was not my son. He was fair where my son was dark, and more importantly, the beautiful payos that graced my own little boy’s face were missing from this unknown toddler. Just as I laid the still sleeping child back onto the bed, three muscular soldiers burst into the room, guns drawn.
“I took a step back in fright as they yelled, ‘Kidnapper! Jew! Kidnapper!’ One of them grabbed me by the shoulders while his partner bound my hands together. I tried protesting that this was my home, but they did not heed my words. I was marched to a military compound, which had been constructed in town during my lengthy absence, and tried before a military tribunal.
“During the trial, I was accused of attempted kidnapping, not just of any child, but of the son of the captain who had led the conquest of the city. It seems that during the ongoing wars taking place between feuding states, my hometown had been conquered by the other side and my home was repossessed for the family of the captain.
“I tried explaining that the house had formerly been my own, and that I had been out of the country for many months, unaware of the changes that had taken place in my absence. The tribunal, however, opined that kidnapping is kidnapping, and by lifting the child of the captain off his bed, I had committed this very crime. I was sentenced to death through torture.
“I begged for information about my wife and child, but none was forthcoming. I was taken to a room with vicious-looking equipment. Two executioners stood ready, axes in hand. Though I couldn’t fathom how I had ended up in this situation, I knew my end was near.
“I was bound, hand and foot, and laid across the floor. My executioner wielded his menacing axe, lifting it high above me and readying himself to bring it down with a crashing blow. I closed my eyes, bracing myself for death.
“Suddenly, the door opened. A priest walked in, dressed in flowing black robes. ‘Don’t kill him!’ he called out. ‘I want to offer him a chance to live, not only in this world, but for eternity!’ He approached me with a warm smile. ‘If you agree to become a Catholic, you will be completely exonerated. If not, you die now.’
“I felt disgusted by his false smile. ‘Absolutely not!’ I cried with a strength I did not even know I possessed. I was born a Jew and I will die a Jew! I will never renounce my faith!’
“The priest turned purple with rage and he kicked me with his shoe. ‘Kill him!’ he commanded, folding his hands and stepping back to watch. ‘Give this Jewish dog what he deserves! Kill him!’
“All those present in the room began to echo his words. ‘Kill him, kill him,’ they chanted. “Give the dog what he deserves!’ I lay there, unable to move, as the executioner lifted his axe again to the rhythm of their hateful words. Then I fainted in terror.
“When I awoke, I found myself laying on a bed. Half a dozen priests surrounded me, all smiling. ‘Congratulations,’ they exclaimed when they noticed that I was awake. ‘You’ve joined our religion! What a wonderful move!’
“I looked at them in astonishment, shaking my head from side to side. I had done no such thing! What were they talking about? As I lay there, stunned into silence, they began throwing water at me as part of my conversion ceremony. I wanted to protest, but I couldn’t utter a word.
“Then the friendly atmosphere turned menacing. A high-ranking army officer joined the semi-circle around my bed, his face stern. ‘We’ve done our homework,’ he informed me. ‘We know exactly who you are and who your family is. We know that you are intelligent and brave, exactly the kind of person we were looking for to fulfill a vacant position in the army’s intelligence unit. But consider yourself warned. One bad move, and we kill your wife and child.’
“I finally found my tongue. ‘My wife!’ I cried. ‘My son! Where are they?’
“‘We know where they are,” he snapped. ‘You want them to live? Follow orders and don’t try to be foolish. If you escape from here, your small little family won’t be waiting to greet you.’ He made a cutting motion across his neck, emphasizing his words.
“I was trapped. There was no way out. If I dared to defy my captors, the lives of those dearest to me were at stake. From that day on, I played my role to perfection. On the outside, I was a non-Jew, working for the army and consistently being promoted to higher and higher positions. Inside, however, I remained true to my faith.
“When the war was over, I was hired as the chief of police for the Prague police department. My former captors have relaxed their vigil over me somewhat, but my actions are still being monitored constantly. Despite the difficulty, I continue on only because I know that I am saving the lives of my wife and son, who is by now a grown man.”
When Moshe concluded his unfortunate tale, there were telltale tears in the corners of his eyes. “Rebbi,” he said, his voice low and serious. “I saved the entire Prague community from a terrible pogrom. Now it’s my turn to ask for a favor.”
“What can I do for you?” the Maharal asked.
“Who is going to say kaddish for me?” Moshe asked plaintively. “I gave up my life to save my family, to save the Jewish community of Prague. But who will be there to say kaddish for me?! I want the community to say kaddish for me! Let an extra kaddish be recited each year after kol nidrei, for me.”
The Maharal nodded. “I promise that from now on, we will institute a new minhag in Prague. We will say an extra kaddish, for you, after kol nidrei every year.”
Moshe began crying. “Rebbi, rebbi! What will be with me? Will I ever get out of this trap? Is there hope for me?”
The Maharal began crying along with him, long and bitter sobs. “I want you to know,” he told the pained Jew through his tears, “in the end, Hashem will bless you, and you will die as a Jew! You’ll be a ben olam habah. One day, you will be able to do a proper teshuvah, and your wife and son will be protected as well.”
Moshe thanked the Maharal profusely. Donning his police cap, he left the house.
True to his word, the next Yom Kippur, the Maharal recited an additional kaddish especially for the police chief. The years marched on, and the minhag became ingrained in the Prague community. The extra kaddish was there to stay.
Many years passed. The Maharal grew older and frailer. One Friday night, the Maharal went to shul for kabbalas Shabbos and maariv. To the eternal puzzlement of the other congregants, he recited Mizmor Shir Liyom Hashabbos twice. When he attempted to make kiddush at home, his hands trembled violently and tears streamed down his face. It was obvious to his family that something was wrong.
When the seudah was over, the Maharal asked his grandson to call the Kli Yakar over. Known by the name of his famous sefer, the Kli Yakar was the Maharal’s closest disciple. Closeted in a room alone, the two gedolim spoke for many hours. The following morning in shul, the Maharal announced that he had designated the Kli Yakar to lead the community after his death.
Shortly thereafter, the Maharal passed away. His grieving disciple, the Kli Yakar, assumed his duties.
One year, on Yom Kippur evening, after the extra kaddish was recited, a man walked into the shul. White-haired and dignified, he wore an official-looking cap and a cape. People began whispering, turning around to stare.
“There’s a non-Jew who just entered the shul,” someone informed their rov, the Kli Yakar.
“What should we do?”
The Kli Yakar was quiet for a moment, lost in his thoughts. “Bring him forward,” he replied. “Bring him closer.”
The man was ushered to the front of the shul, where the Kli Yakar greeted him with a warm smile. At the rov’s behest, he was given a seat of honor in the front of the shul and was provided with a tallis and a machzor. As the mysterious man sobbed throughout Maariv, the people’s curiosity grew. Who was this man?
After davening, all the congregants filed passed the Kli Yakar and received his blessing. At the end of the line came the white-haired man. “Rebbi, may I speak with you for a few moments?”
“With pleasure.” The Kli Yakar ushered him into a side room and turned to face him. “I know who you are. You are Moshe, the chief of police.”
“Yes,” Moshe replied.
“The Maharal told me, before he passed away, that you would come back. He told me you would come back on Yom Kippur,” the Kli Yakar continued.
Moshe began to cry. “Rebbi, I am back. Today is Yom Kippur. What will be with me? My life is nearly over. My years are gone. The only thing I have to show for my life is the kaddish, the extra Kaddish in Prague. Will Hashem ever forgive me?”
The Kli Yakar put his arm around the weeping man. “Of course He will. You were being forced against your will to live this way.”
“That’s not the merit I think I’ll be forgiven in,” Moshe said hoarsely. “Rather, there’s a different reason I hope to merit forgiveness. After I had risen in rank in the army, I decided to use my powerful position and connections to track down Zev, the traitor from Holland. He had taken advantage of me when I was weak and alone, and now that I had regained my power and strength, it was time for me to give that despicable thief was he deserved.
“I succeeded in tracking Zev down and had him brought before me. I reminded him of his terrible deeds, and he began shaking in fright and shame. He hadn’t dreamed he would be caught, and now he feared the retribution he would suffer at my hands. He really did have what to fear. He had terribly wronged a man who now controlled entire divisions of a powerful army. He was sure his end was near.”
Moshe paused and gave a half smile. “But no. I am a Jew, and a Jew does not seek revenge. It took superhuman strength to tell that to him, to feel it inside, but I persisted. I let him go after that one discussion, without penalty, confident that he would never repeat his despicable act. Now, I beg Hashem to forgive me despite my unworthiness, just as I did with Zev.”
The Kli Yakar was extremely moved by Moshe’s words. “Indeed,” he agreed. “In that merit, you will certainly achieve forgiveness. Will you join us tomorrow morning for Shacharis?”
“I don’t plan on leaving,” Moshe admitted. “It’s been years since I’ve been to shul. I plan on remaining here the entire night, doing teshuvah and davening.”
The following day, Yom Kippur, the tzibbur davened like they never did before. Moshe stood among them, wrapped in his tallis, his body racked in sobs. The atmosphere was one of elevation, of purity.
The Kli Yakar decided to honor Moshe with Maftir Yonah. Tears streamed down the police chief’s wizened cheeks as he recited the brachos before and after his aliyah. He could barely believe this was happening to him, a man who had been trapped in a foreign religion and customs for so many years.
Neilah began and the congregation prepared to accept the yoke of Hashem’s Kingship. They squeezed their eyes shut as they yelled “Shema Yisroel!” expressing their total belief that even if a non-Jew would threaten to kill them if they refused to serve his idol, they would willingly die for the name of Hashem. Moshe’s voice rose above the others as he cried out his total and complete conviction in the Oneness of his Creator.
This followed by three resounding rounds of Baruch Shem, elevating the people to the level of angels as they made open use of the malachim’s praise of Hashem. Moshe’s eyes roved heavenward. Baruch Shem Kivod Malchuso L’olam Vaed! Again! And again!
And then came the climax, where the congregation expressed their complete faith in Hashem’s mercy and judgement. Seven times over, with increasing fervency and intensity, they pledged their allegiance to the One Who is just and Whose ways are just. Just as Moshe finished screaming “Hashem Hu HaElokim!” for the seventh time, he collapsed.
The crowd surged forward in concern. The medically knowledgeable among them rushed forth to offer aid, but they were too late. Moshe’s neshamah had left his body.
The kohanim fled. A murmur swept over the crowd. Moshe’s face was covered, and the Kli Yakar stood up to address the congregation. In an emotional voice, he related Moshe’s incredible life story to the spellbound mispallelim.
Over his years of estrangement, Moshe’s pintele yid had always been alive and flourishing. His dedication and total commitment to accepting Hashem as his master had not faltered. While finally having the opportunity to accept ol malchus shomayim upon himself, he had actually tasted the meaning of the words he was saying, and his soul simply could not bear the holiness. This precious neshamah merited to leave the world just as he reaffirmed his commitment to serve as Hashem’s most loyal servant.
Rosh Hashanah is approaching. Unlike Moshe, we are fortunate to be able to live freely as Jews. As we say the tefillos on this awesome day, let us try to put ourselves into the words, to really feel them, and in that way, may we be zoche to truly crown Hashem our King.
Have a Wonderful Shabbos! This story is taken from tape # A182