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Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl: Don’t be Such a Tzaddik

Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (also known by the title of his book, the Ma’or Einayim) founded the chassidic 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, the precursor to the Ba’al Shem Tov in the leadership of the hidden tzaddikim.

Rebbe Nachum traveled from town to town, awakening the people to follow the path of ethics and Chassidut. After the passing of his mentor, the Maggid of Mezritch, many chassidim saw Rebbe Nachum as his successor, and Rebbe Nachum became a chassidic rebbe. He established his court in a number of places until settling permanently in Chernobyl. Among Rebbe Nachum’s disciples were his son, Rebbe Mottel (Mordechai) of Chernobyl  and Rabbi Avraham Dov of Avritch (eponymously known as the Bat Ayin). His famous book, Ma’or Einayim, is considered one of the fundamental books of Chassidut. Other chassidic courts that emerged 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

The first time that Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl came to the Ba’al Shem Tov, the Ba’al Shem Tov’s wife invited him to eat with them on the holy Shabbat. At that time, Rebbe Menachem Nachum was a traveling Torah teacher journeying from village to village to admonish the local Jews for their sins and bring them close to their Father in Heaven.

During the Shabbat meal, the Ba’al Shem Tov made light of the tzaddik, Rabbi Menachem Nachum, and pulled his hat from side to side. Rebbe Menachem Nachum’s zhupitze (outer garment) was made of cotton wool for he could not afford a silken garment. The Ba’al Shem Tov took hold of it and pulled it once to the right and once to the left.

“What do you have against our guest?” asked the Ba’al Shem Tov’s wife. “Can’t you see that he is a pauper?”

“Don’t you know who he is?” replied the Ba’al Shem Tov. “He is a thief. He wants to take the entire Garden of Eden for himself!”

The Ba’al Shem Tov then blessed Rebbe Menachem Nachum that his children and grandchildren would wear zhupitzes made of silk and would ride in carriages of gold.

What fault did the Ba’al Shem Tov find in the tzaddik who had nothing to do with worldly matters, walked everywhere on foot, and wore the simple clothing of poor people? We can learn more about this from a well-known teaching of the Ba’al Shem Tov[1]:

Considering the words appearing in Psalms, “I considered my ways and I turned my feet to Your testimonies,”[2] the matter is that “there is no tzaddik in the world who does good and does not sin,”[3] meaning that even when a tzaddik performs a good act it contains some sin in the form of self-interest. He [the Ba’al Shem Tov] further explained that if there is no sin, i.e., self-interest involved, the evil inclination will provoke him. However, if the evil inclination sees that he has been given a “part” in the good deed from the outset, it will leave the person alone permitting the deed to be completed for the sake of goodness alone (and not for personal gain).

For this reason, we find the statement, “Israel are thieves”[4] for they must outwit [i.e., steal from] the evil inclination whenever they perform a good deed. This is the meaning of, “I considered my ways,” meaning, for every good deed or holy endeavor I want to perform, I first consider that deed to be “my way,” i.e.,  for my physical pleasure, and only then can “I turn[ed] my feet to Your testimonies,” meaning that my behavior, symbolized by the feet [in Hebrew, the word for “feet” is cognate with behavior or habits] can be dedicated to the good deed alone.

From this explanation, we see that we can understand the Ba’al Shem Tov’s actions and remark in two ways. First, he may have wanted to warn Rebbe Menachem Nachum of the danger of pride that can be expected to arise on the path he had chosen. A person who wants to take the entire Garden of Eden for himself—meaning, that he strives to do good only for its own sake—will certainly inflame the evil inclination causing it to do everything in its power to entrap him. Instead, even the individual who is pure and righteous in spirit must thoroughly search for the self-interest that pollutes his good deeds. When he finds it, he can acknowledge his imperfections and faults, a state known as lowliness. After it has been identified, the self-interest can be separated from the good deed by offering it to the evil inclination, much like the scapegoat offering made on Yom Kippur. With the evil inclination having been identified and separated, the good deed remains purely sweet.

A second way to explain the Ba’al Shem Tov’s actions is that a person who is so clean that he has no interaction with earthly matters has reached ultimate nullification and cannot be suspected of pride. If so, what is wrong with him wanting to take the entire Garden of Eden for himself? This is simply a matter of him recognizing his own self-worth, that he is truly a righteous person who does good deeds and does not sin. But the Ba’al Shem Tov believed cleanliness and righteousness of this pristine type are not what God wants. A person who is so righteous is not living in this world at all. It is as if his soul – in spite of inhabiting the body – actually ignores it and its surroundings altogether; it is as if nothing has changed since it stood before God in the spiritual worlds. This is not what God wants. He put souls into bodies with the intent that they produce light from the darkness of reality, so that they will live through all the crises and go through all the obstacles while being firmly implanted in their bodies.

Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonne, known as the Ba’al Hatoladot was the Ba’al Shem Tov’s main redactor. He once said: “They say about him [Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl] that he is a tzaddik?” Everyone thought he was ridiculing Rebbe Menachem Nachum, but the Ba’al Hatoldot explained himself, saying, “He is not a tzaddik, he is ten tzaddikim!”

Every tzaddik in the world has a different path of service of God, by means of one of the sefirot. One tzaddik serves God from a place of loving kindness, another from a place of might, a third from a place of beauty. This is what we learn in Kabbalah regarding the seven shepherds—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David—each of whom illuminated the world with an emphasis on his own attribute. The same is true of every tzaddik. But Rebbe Nachum of Chernobyl served God with all ten sefirot, and thus he is ten tzaddikim, as the Ba’al Hatoldot remarked. It could be that this was also what the Ba’al Shem Tov intended when he hinted that because Rebbe Nachum was serving God on every path, he did not leave room for other tzaddikim. By means of the service of lowliness and finding what is lacking and partial in his service, however, Rebbe Nachum would be able to serve God by means of all the paths, without outshining his colleagues.

It is interesting to note the way that the Ba’al Shem Tov influenced Rebbe Menachem Nachum, by pulling his hat and garment from one side to the other. Special tzaddikim have the wondrous ability to exert influence in a tangible manner. They can take a person from place to place with a slight touch or pull. In this manner, the Ba’al Shem Tov playfully brought Rebbe Menachem Nachum to a place of lowliness. He did not take his own honor into regard, nor the honor of his guest. In this manner, he meant to extract him from the persona of the perfect tzaddik and pull him into this world, with all its faults and imperfections. Indeed, Rebbe Menachem Nachum’s children and grandchildren did live a holy life, surrounded by gold and silk, just as the Ba’al Shem Tov blessed him.


[1][1] Keter Shem Tov 141.

[2] Psalms 119:59.

[3] Ecclesiastes 7:20.

[4] Avodah Zarah 70a.

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