Saturday, January 8, 2011

Reb Nachum of Chernobyl and the Mountain Jews

Reb Nachum of Chernobyl, founding Chernobyler Rebbe, was a disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch. Early on, the Maggid told Reb Nachum to become a maggid himself (preacher; someone who goes around rousing people to repentance), and travel to off-the-beaten-path communities to provide inspiration and hope to downtrodden Jews.

During his travels, Reb Nachum happened upon a small community in an even smaller town. As was his custom, he would go to the town square, and announce himself. "I am a traveling salesman. I have needles, in case anyone needs prodding. I have perfumes if anyone needs to be uplifted. And I have soothing balms for the soul." He would then tell the townsfolk to assemble in the shul at a particular time so that he could preach inspirational words. Next to this particular community stood a mountain. The townspeople informed Reb Nachum that there was a small community of Jews up top, just a few minyanim (quorums) worth of Jews, but it was no easy feat getting up the mountain. They were a community of woodcutters and lumberjacks. There was also an elderly affluent man who lived atop the mountain, not because he particularly wanted to live there, but because he had a lung disease, and the fresh mountain air was good for his health.

Reb Nachum resolved to make his way up the fairly steep hill. Atop the mountain he found the local shul, pulled out a sefer (religious book), and waited until the people assembled for mincha (afternoon prayer). Nobody came for mincha, nor did anyone show up for maariv (evening prayer). He went for a walk, and bumped into a Jew. Upon inquiring as to why nobody in the community davened mincha or maariv, he was told, "you know, it's tough for a Jew to make a living. Nobody really has the time to daven daily. And besides, when we do daven, we do so at the old man's house. He has trouble making his way to the shul, so we assemble in his house on particular days of the week." Reb Nachum, frustrated, began to walk around. Word got out to the community that this was Reb Nachum of Chernobyl who was gracing their town. Various people vied for the honor of having Reb Nachum spend the night at their home, and after some debate, a host was chosen.

It was arranged that Reb Nachum would daven with the minyan in the old man's house in the morning. He awoke early, and asked his host to direct him to the mikveh (ritual bath). "The know Rebbe" said his host sheepishly. "What's the problem?" asked Reb Nachum. "Well," said his host, now stammering, "we..we don't have a mikveh. You see, at one point we wanted to build a mikveh, so we got craftsmen from the next town to give us an estimate. It came out to 300 gold coins, and we can't afford anything near that price. You know how it is. They would have to dig very deep being that we're on top of a mountain." Reb Nachum was dumbfounded. After shacharis at the old man's house he stood up, and announced that the entire community should meet at the shul at such and such a time. "Everyone," said Reb Nachum. "That includes men, women and children."

When everyone was assembled later that day, Reb Nachum took the podium. A few minutes into his speech the small crowd was aghast. The Rebbe was extolling his own virtues. He delved into each period of his life; how when he was a child his father taught him how to daven, and how he cultivated his avodah (worship) to celestial heights over the years; how he began learning at a very young age, and how people were amazed at his precociousness; how well he excelled in the entire spectrum of Yiddishkeit... Why would the Rebbe talk about himself with haughtiness, they wondered! When he was finished speaking, he said, "and all of the zechus (merit) that I have amassed up until this point, the entire bounty of my reward for all endeavors and successes I have just enumerated; my entire chelek in olam habah (portion in the world to come) I am willing to sell right now to the highest bidder. This means an actual kinyan, a sale, with a written contract. Somebody make me an offer." The old man stood up. "I am willing to buy all that you have acquired up until this point for 100 gold coins." Reb Nachum, like a seasoned salesman, said, "100 gold coins? I don't think so. You're going to have to do a lot better than that." "150...175...200 gold coins." "That's not good enough," said Reb Nachum. "225, 250 cold coins," said the old man. "And that's my final offer." Reb Nachum said that this would just not due. He would not sell his zechusim for under 300 gold coins. The old man stood up, once again. "Rebbe, as you know I am an affluent man. I have my share of wealth. But I don't have 300 gold coins." Reb Nachum stayed firm. "Take it or leave it." The old man stood with his head downcast contemplating just what this acquisition would mean: A life of mediocrity replaced by one of infinite virtue; a free pass on the Day of Judgment due to a lifetime of good deeds. And so he raised his head high. "OK Rebbe, I will pay 300 gold coins." The crowd assembled around the old man to wish him mazel tov, and to share in his new-found joy.

Later in the day, the two wrote up a contract, and counted out the gold coins. Reb Nachum left with the money, and went over to the community leaders. "Here, go call the craftsmen from the next town, and build yourself a mikveh. NO Jewish community should be without a mikveh."

Later, some of the men came up to Reb Nachum, and questioned how his countenance shined with joy at the completion of the sale in the shul. "Rebbe, you lost everything you've worked for up until now. You've lost all of your zechus. And you're still besimcha." And Reb Nachum answered, "you see, up until this point in my life I've always suspected that I've had an ulterior motive when performing a mitzvah. I've never been quite comfortable with myself. But now, for the first time, I know for sure that I did a mitzvah lishmah (for the sake of doing the mitzvah). The community was lacking a mikveh, and I am helping them get one. By giving away my zechus for the sake of the mitzvah there is no way that I could have had an ulterior motive this time. I have given away that which I would have wanted to gain from a mitzvah, namely zechus. And aside from performing this mitzvah, now I get to start over with a clean slate."

The chassidim used to tell that shortly after this incident took place he heard a voice: "Don't worry Nachum. You didn't lose anything." Not that the old man didn't get his share, but rather they both got Reb Nachum's complete share.

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