The Russian Spy Whose Heart Didn’t Skip a Beat

During the French-Russian War, the Alter Rebbe sent R. Moshe Meizlish to spy on Napoleon’s army and report to the Russians. When Napoleon nearly caught him, the Chassidus he learned and applied saved his life.

R. Moshe Meizlish was a chossid of the Alter Rebbe, and then Mitteler Rebbe and the Tzemach Tzedek. A native of Vilna (born c. 5519), he was an important official in the Vilna kehila and became a chossid of the Alter Rebbe.

R. Moshe authored a unique sefer titled Shiras Moshe, which contains of an acrostic poem for the 620 letters of the aseres hadibros, with every line devoted to one of the 620 mitzvos min hatorah and miderabanan, all following the order of the Rambam. R. Moshe also had broad secular knowledge, and famously used his knowledge of languages to spy against Napoleon, at the behest of the Alter Rebbe. He moved to Eretz Yisroel in 5576 and passed away at an advanced age in 5609.


Although the chassidim of Vilna suffered during the time of the great machlokes, they constantly tried to bring about peace and did not respond to their tormentors. At one of their meetings in 5556, some of the young talmidei chachomim among them decided that it was time to fight back. R. Meir Refoels, who for many years had worked on keeping the peace, argued against this. R. Moshe Meizlish sided with the younger group, and, deeply pained by all their past suffering, used sharp words against his opponent.

Hearing about this, the Alter Rebbe immediately dispatched a messenger to tell the younger chassidim that although in principle they were right, they must nevertheless act with middos tovos and ahavas Yisroel – for this was what would ultimately cause the Name of Hashem to be glorified.

Later that year, the Alter Rebbe also wrote a letter to R. Moshe Meizlish, asking him to publicly ask forgiveness from R. Meir Refoels, “For Chazal teach that no peace will come from quarreling, and most tzores result from machloikes that is thought to be leshem Shamayim. (May HaShem protect us from it!)”


R. Moshe once told R. Aizik Homiler, “The alef of Chassidus saved me from a certain death.” He explained, “The Rebbe taught us that the first step, the alef of Chassidus, is to serve Hashem with one’s inborn abilities, such as the mind’s inherent dominion over the heart. This quite literally saved my life.” He then shared this story:

During Napoleon’s war against Russia, he served as a translator for the French High Command, being a learned man and fluent in German, Russian, Polish and French. The Alter Rebbe had chosen him to associate with the French military officials, to attain a position in their service, and to convey all that he learned to the commanders of the Russian army. Within a short while, he succeeded in gaining the favor of Napoleon’s chief commanders and knew their secret plans.

“Once,” related R. Moshe “the High Command of the French army was meeting, and were debating the maneuvers and the arrangement of the armies for the upcoming battle. The maps were spread on the floor and the officers were examining the roads, unable to reach a decision. Time was short. Tomorrow, or, at the very latest, the day after, the battle in the surroundings of Vilna must begin.

“They were still debating when the door flew open with a crash. The guard stationed inside the door was alarmed and drew his gun. Everyone thought that the enemy had burst in to capture the French Chief Command…

“But it was Napoleon himself who appeared in the doorway. The Emperor’s face was dark with fury, and he raged: ‘Have the orders been given for battle?’

“‘And who is this stranger?!’ he continued, pointing to me. In a flash, he was at my side. ‘You are a spy for Russia!’ he thundered, and placed his hand upon my chest to feel the pounding heart of a man exposed.

At that moment, the alef of Chassidus stood me by. In an unwavering voice, I said: ‘The commanders of His Highness the Emperor have taken me as their interpreter, as I am knowledgeable in the languages crucial to the carrying out of their duties…’ “

At that, Napoleon let him be.

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