It’s not about “getting across the river safely”
Rabbi Mendel Futerfass was a Chabad Chassid imprisoned in Siberia for Jewish activities. He suffered terribly but afterwards would say that those were the best years of his life.
One of the prisoners in his camp was an old Cossack. The Cossacks were usually rabid anti-Semites but ‘misery loves company’. One cold winter night he opened his heart to Rav Mendel and reminisced about….his horse.
His eyes became moist and his voice emotional.
“A Cossack horse!!! There is nothing like it! A regular horse could cost five rubles. A workhorse -- up to ten. But a Cossack horse cost five hundred, six hundred !!
“The Cossack horse was totally different, A Cossack’s horse had a different heart!
“It would do anything for its master: jump into the fire, over trees, etc. It was stronger, faster, and braver than anything alive.
“But most of all, it had a different heart.
“I will explain,” continued the Cossack.
“How did they catch a Cossack horse? This is a story!”
“They were experts at this. They would wander the mountains and fields on horseback looking for wild horses.
“If they found a large herd of a thousand or two thousand horses, they would chase them to get them running towards the nearest river. Sometimes they would run for days until they got there, but when they did they would start screaming and shooting in the air and force the herd into the widest, deepest part of the river. Horses can swim and had to get across the current to the other side, or die.
“Another group of Cossacks was waiting on the other side and they would watch to see what the horses did.
“There were always three types of horses; the majority were the regular horses that made it to the other side and ran away to live their lives. Then there were older horses that couldn’t get across and drowned. The young horses had stamina but not the strength to cross over, so they just floundered in the middle of the river.”
His voice became serious.
“But sometimes… there was a fourth type; 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. 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 to train them. But the main thing was the heart; it was a horse with a heart.
“This was a Cossack horse!!!”
Rav Mendel immediately got the point. The Cossack horse is a Chassid.
A Chassid has to be ‘crazy’ and risk everything for his fellow man; he can’t stand to see him 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 which is the secret of “brotherly love” that the Baal Shem Tov strived to teach.