The amazing aspect of Yaakov’s preparation to meet his brother Eisav was his calm and calculated approach. He was well aware that his brother intended to do him harm, but rather than lose control, Yaakov came up with a plan. His every move was coordinated in a methodical manner, which eventually led to a peaceful and successful reunion.
In the year 1812, when the French Emperor Napoleon invaded Russia, the Baal HaTanya, Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi zt”l, sent a secret missive to one of his loyal chasidim, Reb Moshe Meisels. Reb Moshe had been an antagonist to the chasidic movement in his youth, but eventually he was drawn to the teachings of the Baal HaTanya, rising to become one of his choicest disciples. In the letter, the Rebbe informed his trusted chasid that at all costs, it was important for the spiritual well-being of the Jews of Russia that Czar Alexander win the war against Napoleon.
When Napoleon’s armies reached the gates of Vilna, Reb Moshe found himself in the occupied zone. He was an educated man and became friendly with the French officers who were impressed with his wide knowledge of languages and general education. When an interpreter was needed to question captured soldiers and officers, or to issue public notices and proclamations, Reb Moshe was much in demand to help carry out these tasks. It did not take long before Reb Moshe enjoyed the fullest confidence of the French general staff.
In this way, Reb Moshe served as a “double-spy” – learning important military secrets from the French, and transmitting information through his Jewish contacts to the Russian generals on the battlefront.
Once, when Reb Moshe happened to be in the French generals’ headquarters, the generals were making plans about their next attack. Huge maps were spread out on the table, and the generals debated heatedly about the various possibilities of distributing their military forces on the battlefront in order to hand the Russians an unexpected blow.
Reb Moshe pretended not to hear or see what was going on, and the generals paid him no mind.
Suddenly, the door burst open and in strode Napoleon himself. The generals sprang to their feet and stood at attention. With one glance, Napoleon took in the whole scene. “What is this stranger doing here?” he demanded, pointing to Reb Moshe. Without waiting for a reply, Napoleon, a notorious paranoid, rushed up to him, exclaiming, “You are a spy!” He pressed his hand to Reb Moshe’s chest to feel if his heart was beating rapidly at having been exposed as a spy.
But Reb Moshe’s heart was not pounding, and his face did not pale, as he calmly replied in perfect French, “Your Majesty, your generals appointed me to be their interpreter, and I await their orders.” His cool manner and calm voice completely disarmed Napoleon, and his suspicions were dispelled. Reb Moshe was saved from certain death.
When Reb Moshe related the episode of his encounter with Napoleon to Rav Yitzchak Eizik Epstein of Homel zt”l, he declared that it was the “alef-beis” of chasidus that saved his life at that particular moment. He explained: “A Jew is required to use his natural abilities for the service of Hashem. One of these abilities is that the brain rules the heart. In other words, according to the nature that Hashem created in man, reason is basically stronger than feeling; a person has the power to control his emotions. However, it is not enough for a man to know this; he must persistently train himself to exercise this power in his daily life and conduct, until it becomes a natural habit with him.
“Thus, I have schooled myself to achieve absolute self-control, so that I allow my mind to rule my heart. And where it is important for the heart to express its feelings, my mind must make sure that my feelings do not get out of control. And so, I trained myself to control my feelings, not to get too excited or lose control under any circumstances, and not to be overwhelmed by anyone or anybody. It was this ‘alef’ of chasidus that saved my life!”