Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl
Died: 11 MarChesvan 5558 (1797) in Chernobyl, Ukraine
Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, a student of the Baal Shem Tov Hakadosh and of the Maggid of Mezeritch, was one of the great Chaaidic chasidic masters in the early days of the chasidic movement. When he was youngster Reb Nachum lost his father, his uncle Rabbi Nachum accepted the responsibility of educating the young boy, sending him to one of the highly acclaimed yeshivos of Lithuania. Being a diligent and very gifted student, he quickly became a extremely learned young man. After his marriage he earned his livelihood as a melamed, a teacher of young boys, while continuing his intensive studies of Torah. He mastered נגלה, the revealed aspects of Torah contained in the Talmud and halachic codes, but showed a predilection for חכמת הנסתר, the esoteric/hidden tradition of Kabbalah, delving into the hidden and mystical meaning of the Scriptures as propounded the Ari HaKadosh.
With the advent of Chassidism, Rabbi Nachum traveled to Mezibuzh to meet the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement. R’ Nachum became his devoted disciple. After the Baal Shem Tov’s passing, R’ Nachum accepted as his mentor the Maggid of Mezeritch. With his saintly demeanor and spellbinding rhetoric he captivated his audiences, inspiring them to follow the ways of Chassidus, of approaching Hashem through joyful and fervent prayer and enthusiastic observance of mitzvos. Although a poor man himself, he distributed his last penny to the needy.
R’ Nachum’s book, מאור עינים (Light of the Eyes), comprising insights on the weekly portions of the Torah, reflects his proclivity for Kabbalah. It has gained widespread acceptance as one of the major works of Chassidus. He was succeeded by his son Reb Mottela of Chernobyl, founder of the Chernobyl dynasty.
Rabbi Nachum often traveled to collect money for פדיון שבויים (redeeming Jewish prisoners). While traveling through the city of Zhitomir on one occasion, local authorities imprisoned him for his “criminal” work.
One day an elderly woman wrapped in a shawl appeared near his cell. She introduced herself as Sarah Imeinu, and began to speak: “Hashem tested Avraham by instructing him: ‘Go forth (lech lecha) from your land, and from your birthplace, and from your father’s house,’ promising that this would ultimately benefit him. But what kind of benefit can come from leaving everything one has? I don’t understand.”
Rabbi Nachum, who realized that this woman wasn’t an ordinary person, remained silent.
She continued, answering her own question: “Avraham excelled at helping travelers with lodging, food and drink. But because he had never experienced the distress of leaving the comforts of home, or the turmoil of spending endless days on the road, he couldn’t identify with the people he helped. Hashem wanted Avraham to gain a deeper appreciation for his work.”
Rabbi Nachum understood (as he later related to Rabbi Zev Volf, the maggid of Zhitomir) that the Sarah Imeinu intended to provide Rabbi Nachum with insight into his own situation. Clearly, Hashem had arranged for him to be in prison so that he could better appreciate the value of the work he did raising funds to redeem prisoners.
Rabbi Nachum in the Heavenly Court
Rabbi Mordechai of Chernobyl, son of Rabbi Nachum, sat at his holy table surrounded by his Chassidim. Suddenly the Rebbe closed his eyes, bent his head and appeared to have fallen asleep. After several moments he reopened them and gazed with a dazed look, as if he had just arrived from a different world. He looked at his disciples and began:
“I was just in heaven where my father was being judged. The charge against him involved a particular case of a barren woman who had come to him for a blessing. My father had told her that if Hashem saw fit not to given her children, he must abide by that sentence. This naturally did not satisfy the bitter woman who kept returning to my father, R’ Nochum, for his blessing. When he refused her time after time, the woman decided to force his hand.
“She bided her time until she saw one day that the members of the Rebbe’s household had left for their various reasons. The Rebbe was all alone in his study. The woman tapped on his window and demanded, ‘Rebbe, you must bless me with children.’ The Rebbe looked up, annoyed by the commanding tone, doubly annoyed by the persistence of the bothersome woman.
“And why must I promise you children,” he asked, “when I have refused you many times for the same reason?”
“Because this time if you refuse me I will enter your room and cause you to transgress the yichud prohibition of being alone with a woman in one room.”
The Rebbe looked about and saw that there was no one and nothing that could prevent her from from entering his chamber.
“Stay where you are. I will do what you ask,” he reluctantly agreed. He than began to pray for the woman until he split the heavens with his pleas. The woman returned home and within a year was blessed with a child.
“This episode raised a furor in heaven. The celestial court could not condone the Rebbe’s deed of forcing it, through his prayers, to help a barren woman and abolish its decree of barrenness. When my father died he was summoned to the heavenly court which wished to review his case. To do what he had done required substantial credit of mitzvos; they wished to see if he possessed enough. The heavenly judges searched his record and found one outstanding deed at the head of the list.”
“Of all the mitzvos my father fulfilled during his life, the one dearest to him was hachnassas orchim (hosting people). My father so rejoiced with the opportunity of hosting people that he himself would serve his guests and tend to their needs. A man posing as a maggid once came to avail himself of the Rebbe’s hospitality. Reb Nachum tried his best to please his guest; waiting upon him himself, offering him choice dishes and a fresh, comfortable bed. But nothing seemed to please the man; he turned his nose up at the great food and asked for additional bedding. He caused my parents much inconvenience but they took it uncomplainingly. When shabbos came he even dared to ask to borrow my father’s special silk caftan. My father was not insulted; he gave it willingly. As if this weren’t enough, when shabbos was over he further requested that my father accompany him on his fundraising rounds.”
“One night while the entire household slept save for my father who was busy with his midnight tikun chatzos, our guest crept stealthily from his bed. I, too, was awake and could see him fill a large sack with our silver and valuables. As soon as he slipped out of the house I hurried to my father’s study to tell him what I had witnessed. ‘Hurry, father,’ I urged. ‘Pursue him before he is out of sight. Make him return our valuables.’ My father looked at me in surprise. ‘What makes you suspect he stole? Our guest only took what was his.rsquo; I could not understand my father. ‘What do you mean? He took all our family treasures.rsquo; But my father persisted, ‘Whatever he took was his own for from the moment he set his eyes and heart on those things, I gave them to him as a gift so that he would not commit the sin of stealing. So you see that whatever is in his sack is really his. And now, my son, lie down and pretend you did not see a thing, so as not to embarrass the guest.”
“It was this deed,” concluded Rabbi Mordechai, “that made such a forceful impression upon the entire heavenly host so that they all unanimously agreed that this tzaddik was indeed worthy of abolishing a heavenly decree. And so my father was acquitted.”