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Rabbi Nachum Menachem of Chernobyl: On Second Thought?

Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (also known by the title of his book, the Ma’or Einayim) founded the chasidic dynasty of Chernobyl. He was the eldest of the disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch and even had the merit to learn directly from the Ba’al Shem Tov, himself. According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rebbe Nachum was the grandson of Rabbi Adam Ba’al Shem. Rebbe Nachum traveled from Jewish town to Jewish town to awaken the people to follow the path of ethics and Chassidut. After the passing of his mentor, the Maggid of Mezritch, many chasidim saw Rebbe Nachum as his successor, and Rebbe Nachum became a chasidic rebbe. He established his court in a number of places until it settled permanently in Chernobyl (Ukraine). Among Rebbe Nachum’s disciples were the Bat Ayin (Rebbe Avraham Dov of Avritch) and his son, Rebbe Mordechai of Chernobyl. His famous book, Ma’or Einayim, is one of the fundamental books of Chassidut. Additional chasidic sects that stemmed from the Chernobyl court are Tulna, Skver, and Rachamstrivska (Rachmistroika). Rebbe Nachum passed away on the 11th of Cheshvan and was laid to rest in Chernobyl. 

Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl lived in dire poverty. One of his chasidim came to him and brought him a gift of 300 rubles in paper bills, equal to 100 silver rubles. Rebbe Nachum’s family and his assistant were very pleased. Finally they would be able to pay back their great debt for the food that they had eaten and additional household necessities.

Following the chasid who had brought Rebbe Nachum the 300 rubles, tens more chasidim had private audiences with the Rebbe. They all took a break for the afternoon and evening prayers. After the evening prayers, Rebbe Menachem Nachum closed the door to his room and engaged in private contemplation. He then opened his door and called for one of the chasidim who had already been to his room – and then he received more chasidim until very late at night.

After all had left, Rebbe Nachum’s assistant entered his room to ask him for funds to pay for the household expenses. As he knew about the 300 rubles, he was sure that he would be able to pay part of the debt – and he had already compiled a detailed list of how much he would pay each creditor.

Rebbe Nachum opened his money box and the assistant saw a few silver coins and many copper coins. He did not see the paper money, and he was surprised.

Rebbe Nachum instructed him to take all the silver and copper coins and another three golden dinars that he found among the coins. The assistant counted them, and their total value was close to 100 paper rubles. The assistant was so taken aback that he couldn’t even ask about the 300 rubles. He was sorry that he could not pay the creditors.

“Why do you look so sad?” Rebbe Nachum asked the assistant. “Thank God, Who provides bread for every being, in His great kindness sent free kindness. Many Jews from many places troubled themselves to come here to give us this sum!” The assistant was worthy of his position as the Rebbe’s close confidant. But this time, he could control himself no longer. The debts and the poverty in Rebbe Nachum’s home were very close to his heart and the words surged forth from his heart to his mouth: “And where are the 300 rubles that the chasid brought? Together with these 100 rubles, we could have paid part of our debt!”

“True,” Rebbe Nachum replied. “I received 300 rubles. At the first moment, it was very wondrous in my eyes – why did I deserve this great sum? Then I was pleased that I found favor in God’s eyes, to give me and my household sustenance with such great abundance and honor. But when I contemplated on the fact that God gave me material abundance, I felt great sorrow, for perhaps it was in exchange for some spiritual abundance.”

“Among the chasidim who had come to me,” Rebbe Nachum related, “there was a chasid who opened his heart to me. He told me that he did not have the money to pay for his sons’ Torah tutor. The tutor is a pauper, but has great fear of Heaven. He continues to teach his sons in the hopes that this chasid will pay him. In addition, he owes his landlord for eight months rent. If he does not pay him, he will evict him from his property. Not only that, but he agreed to a marriage match for his eldest daughter, but he has no money to pay for the wedding expenses.”

“When I heard all of this,” Rebbe Nachum explained, “I felt that perhaps God had given me the merit to give charity, and the sum that had been given to me was so that I would be able to fulfill these great mitzvahs: Aiding Torah study, saving a family, and aiding a bride. I asked the chasid the amount of all his debt and I saw that it was the exact sum.”

“Then when I thought of giving the entire sum to this chasid,” Rebbe Nachum continued, “I had another thought: ‘Why give the entire sum to one person? After all, with this sum, it is possible to sustain at least six families. I didn’t know what to do, for both of the arguments are true and honest. I did not know how to decide. So I closed my room in order to contemplate the matter.”

“I realized that both of these possibilities come from the two judges: The judge that says that this sum can be divided between a number of families is not from the good inclination. For if it had been the advice of the good inclination, he should have stated his opinion immediately, when I received the sum, and said:

“Nachum, you have received 300 rubles. Take the money and divide it into six parts. Give five parts to the needy and take one part for yourself.”

“However,” Rebbe Nachum said, “He did not say that. The first time that he spoke up was when God gave me the merit to hear the good inclination telling me what really should be done. Then the evil inclination came and masterfully attempted to deceive me. So I fulfilled the advice of the good inclination. I called the chasid back into my room and gave him the 300 rubles.”

(Igrot Kodesh, the Rayatz, Part 4, p.135)

Like many tzaddikim, Rebbe Nachum relies on his initial, more daring thought, more than on this second, seemingly more balanced and well-considered thought. What is the source of the strength to do so? Rebbe Nachum was one of the fathers of the Ruzhin dynasty. In their family heritage book there are also anecdotes about the way he conducted himself and his aphorisms that can shed some light on this point:

We learn from Rebbe Nachum’s teachings that the purity of thought was very central to him. He would relate in the name of the Ba’al Shem Tov (whom he visited twice, after which he continued to study under the Maggid of Mezritch): “Happy is the man who does not think God – to him is the sin.”[1] The general understanding of this verse is without the hyphen, as follows: “Happy is the man unto whom God does not account a sin.” However, without changing any words, the Ba’al Shem Tov explained that it means, “Happy is the man who does not think God” – that a fleeting moment of not thinking about God – is already considered a sin for him. The cleaving to God described here is not cleaving of contraction and anxiety. In a different place in the book, Rebbe Nachum emphasizes: Purify your ideas and thoughts from thinking many thoughts. Rather, focus on one thought: To serve God בשמחה (with joy), for מחשבה (thought) is a permutation of בשמחה (with joy).

This is Rebbe Nachum’s secret. He is a tzaddik whose primary service is in thought, and he is happy in his thoughts. The result is that the first thought that comes to him is from the side of holiness. The other considerations in which he is liable to become entangled are from an aspect of the intellect of binah (understanding) “from which harsh judgments are awakened.” Harsh judgments are criticism of others and also of oneself: “Why give one person all the money?” The intellect has a tendency to arouse judgments. This is necessary for the average person, who must stop the flow of unrectified thoughts in his head. The service of the tzaddik, however, is to give more weight to considerations of loving-kindness.

Image by Jan Alexander from Pixabay

[1] Psalms 32:2.

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