Chassidic leader, student of the Baal Shem Tov, Kabbalist.
Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, a student of the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezritch, was one of the pioneers of the chassidic movement. When young Nachum lost his father, his uncle Rabbi Nachum shouldered the responsibility of educating the young boy, sending him to one of the highly acclaimed yeshivot of Lithuania. Being a diligent and very gifted student, he quickly rose to the top. After his marriage he earned his livelihood as a melamed, a teacher of young boys, while continuing his intensive studies of Torah. He mastered nigleh, the oral tradition contained in the Talmud and halachic codes, but showed a predilection for nistar, the esoteric tradition of Kabbalah, delving into the hidden and mystical meaning of the Scriptures as propounded by R' Yitzchak Luria, known as the Ari HaKadosh.
With advent of Chassidism, Rabbi Nachum traveled to Medzibosh to meet the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism, the new movement of religious revival; R' Nachum became his devoted disciple. After the Baal Shem Tov's passing, R' Nachum accepted the Maggid of Mezritch as his mentor. Since R' Nachum was a gifted orator he was assigned the task of propagating the ideas of Chassidism. With his saintly demeanor and spellbinding rhetoric he captivated his audiences, inspiring them to follow the ways of Chassidut, of approaching God through joyful and fervent prayer and enthusiastic observance of mitzvot. Although a poor man himself, he distributed his last penny to the needy.
R' Nachum's book Me'or Einayim (Light of the Eyes), comprising insights on the weekly portions of the Torah, reflects his proclivity to Kabbalah. It has gained widespread acceptance as one of the major works of chassidic ideology. He was succeeded by his son Rabbi Mordechai of Chernobyl, founder of the Chernobyl dynasty. Chernobyl Chassidut has survived the ravages of the Holocaust and is today throbbing with new vitality under the inspired leadership of the Skverer Rebbe, Rabbi David Twersky, who has created a small town in New York State named New Square.
Mitzvot, Our Link to God
The main significance of the mitzvot is the fact that they were given by God Himself. They are therefore the only means through which we can approach the Creator; and for this reason we derive spiritual nourishment in performing them. If we observe the mitzvot with the intention of achieving closeness to God, our mitzvot have a life and a soul. Otherwise they are empty rituals-bodies devoid of spirit. (Me'or Einayim, Vayeira)
Rabbi Nachum once spent Shabbat with the Baal Shem Tov. It happened to be Shabbat Bechukotai on which the Tochachah, the curses are read. Much to Rabbi Menachem Nachum's surprise, he was "honored" with the aliyah that contains the Tochachah. The Baal Shem Tov was the Baal Koreh (reader). As he began to read the Tochachah, Rabbi Menachem Nachum felt terrible pain and sickness throughout his entire body. But with the reading of each verse of the Tochachah, the pain left another part of his body. By the end of the aliyah, Rabbi Nachum was entirely healed. His acceptance of the great rebuke had brought him refuat hanefesh u'refuat haguf - a healing of his soul and his body.
R' Nachum was very devoted to the Mitzvah of Pidyon Shevuyim, the rescue of the captured and imprisoned. One day, on a false charge, the Czar's officers threw the rabbi, himself, into prison. It is said that the rabbi's students, shocked, complained to God:
"Here is a man who has devoted his entire life to saving others from prison. How could you, Oh God, allow him to be thrust into prison?"
God replied to the students: "All his life, Avraham Avinu fulfilled the Mitzvah of Hakhnasat Orchim, hospitality to the stranger and the wayfarer. His tent was always open to the stranger for whom he invariably provided food and shelter. Yet I commanded him to go forth from his native land and from his father's house to the land that I would show him. Thus Avraham, himself, became a stranger in a strange land. Why did I do this? I wanted Avraham to recognize the greatness of that mitzvah he performed." "Likewise Rabbi Nahum, who had rescued so many, now himself a prisoner, fully appreciates how great is the Mitzvah of rescuing captives and those who are imprisoned."
Rabbi Nachum in the Heavenly Court
Rabbi Mordechai of Chernobel son of R' 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 fruitify 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 mitzvot; 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 mitzvot my father fulfilled during his life, the one dearest to him was hachnassat 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 shabbat 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 shabbat 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 chatzot, 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.' I could not understand my father. 'What do you mean? He took all our family treasures.' 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 R' 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." (Admorei Chernobel)
May the merit of the tzaddik Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl protect us all, Amen.