Reb Nachum of Chernobel was one of the great leaders of his generation. His disciples and followers would call him “Reb Nachum The Great.” His greatness, however, was in his piety. Born in 1929, he was orphaned while still a young child. He lived with his uncle, who sent him to one of the large yeshivas in Lithuania to study Torah. He soon developed into a brilliant student and it was forecast that he would be a gaon when he grew older.
At that time, two people arrived at the yeshiva seeking a husband for their daughters. One was a rich man who was not learned, while the other was a poor talmid chacham. Both were interested in Nachum as a prospective son-in-law. His uncle preferred the rich man, but Nachum wanted the scholar.
As he said, “I can base my choice on the experience of Yehudah, who married the daughter of a Canaanite. Rashi (Genesis 38:2) describes the word Canaanite to mean a merchant. Now why did Rashi have to tell us this? To understand this we have to go further to where it states that she gave birth to two sons, Er and Onan, who were bad in the eyes of Hashem. Why did Yehudah deserve to have bad children? Because he only sought to marry the daughter of a merchant. He was interested in material things only. However, when he later married Tamar, who we are told had a good family background (she was descended from Shem, the son of Noah) he had two sons, one of whom, Peretz, was the ancestor of the house of David HaMelech.
Nachum agreed to marry the poor man’s daughter and accompanied him home to be introduced to her. The man had two daughters. The older one was very beautiful and charming, while the younger daughter had very poor eyes, and was nearly blind. When the older daughter saw Nachum, who had a long beard and peyos, she refused to marry him.
Soon a quarrel ensued. The father began to shout at his daughter, and she answered him back in a like tone. To avoid any hard feelings, Nachum interrupted them and agreed to marry the younger daughter, the one who was nearly blind.
After his wedding, Nachum became a teacher, but he found that earning a living was very difficult. Despite his poverty, he never complained, and he devoted every spare moment to helping others. He became a maggid, traveling from town to town, urging the people to observe the Torah and help their fellow man. Wherever he went he made sure that the town had a shul and mikvah.
Once, he entered a small town and was told that there was no mikvah, nor even a public bathhouse. He immediately began going from door to door to raise funds. But the people were very poor and he found it very difficult. Finally, he came to the house of one of the richest men in town. After listening to Nachum’s plea, the rich man agreed to provide the money on condition that Nachum would give him his share in the World to Come.
“This way I am purchasing Olam Habah with the mitzvah of building a mikvah,” the rich man explained. “To make sure it is no small part, I want your share, which surely must be substantial.”
Nachum agreed, and he secured the money for the mikvah. When people asked how he could do this, he would answer, “It is a simple thing. Our Torah teaches us (Devarim 6:5) ‘You shall love Hashem with all your and all your might.’ Rashi interprets the words ‘all your might’ to refer to all of your money. Now every day I say this prayer in the morning and evening, and yet I am so poor that I can never give any money to charity nor do I have money to fulfill any of the other mitzvos of the Torah. Therefore, if I can raise some money by selling my share in the future world and give this money to build a community mitzvah, I have now fulfilled the commandment of loving Hashem with all my money. Now at least I am telling the truth when I utter this prayer.”
He Was Not Poor
Although Reb Nachum was very poor, he refused to accept any money from his followers. One day, one of his rich disciples wanted to offer him some money in appreciation for a blessing that he had given him. Reb Nachum said, “I suggest you give this money to the poor person who lives across the street, and G-d will bless you for this mitzvah. I do not need it.” He said this although he was much poorer than the other man.
His followers knew of his poverty, and one day they decided to help him. They bought a new suit of clothes for him and they were prepared to buy other things for his wife and his home. When they all came to Reb Nachum he refused it saying, “I am a chassid, therefore I cannot accept your kind of offerings.”
The people looked at him, perplexed. “We don’t understand,” they said.
“It is simple,” he replied. “Our sages tell us (Bava Kama 30a) that he who desires to be a chassid should study Pirkei Avot. There (6:4) it states: ‘This is the way that is becoming for the study of the Torah. Eat only a morsel of bread with salt, drink only water by the measure, sleep on the ground and live a life of trouble while you toil in the Torah.’ I want to remain a chassid, therefore I follow these instructions and I can’t accept your kind offers.”