When a person is called a gaon, it is because he is a great scholar, a genius in the Torah. But many of our gaonim, besides their greatness and their scholarly acumen, were also gaonim in their deeds. Their kindness towards their fellow man was unsurpassed.
One of these gaonim was Rabi Menachem Nachum of Horodna, a small town in Lithuania. Born in 1811 to poor parents, he lived a life of poverty and studied in the Mirrer Yeshiva, one of the great Torah centers in Europe. Eventually he married and was offered the job of rav, which he refused because he feared it would make him haughty and give him an air of superiority. But he did accept the job of shammas – much against the wishes of the community, which was appalled that such a great scholar should hold such a lowly position. To compensate, the community provided him with an assistant who did all the menial work.
When his wife complained that he was not accepting the many rabbinical job offers that came his way, he replied: “Here in our town people know that I am not too well-versed in the Torah nor am I too smart, and therefore they gave me the position of shammas. Can you imagine what would happen if I was hired as a rav and then they discovered I am ignorant? The shame would be unbearable.”
Not To Disturb Anyone
Once, on a freezing wintry night, someone entered the hallway of the town’s main shul. Imagine his surprise when he saw a figure huddled on the floor, asleep in the hallway. As he approached, he saw that it was Rav Nachum.
“Rebbie,” stammered the man, “what are you doing here, sleeping on the floor?”
“The bais hamidrash is closed, so I couldn’t go there to study Torah and it’s too late to return home, for they are all asleep and I didn’t want to waken them. So I decided to lie down for a few hours.”
Preparing The Way
Once, after a snowy night, people were surprised to see a man rolling in the snow early in the morning. His teeth were chattering and his whole body was trembling from the cold, but he continued to stand up and then roll himself along the path where people had to go to the synagogue and the bais hamidrash.
A crowd soon gathered, and they were amazed at the person’s antics. They approached further, and were shocked to see that it was Rav Nachum.
“Rebbie! What is happening? What are you doing?” they asked in a frightened tone.
Realizing that people saw his antics, Rav Nachum stood up and in a meek and sheepish voice said, “Soon the teachers and the pupils will be passing by here to go to school. They are so weak, and many of them have torn shoes, and the snow is so high… I was afraid that this high snow could affect their health, so I decided to smooth the pathway with my body to make it easier for them to walk in this deep snow.”
Teaching Without Pay
Rav Nachum never accepted a penny for teaching others Torah. Every day he would go from house to house to pick up children and take them to the bais hamidrash.
One day, a wealthy person approached Rav Nachum and requested that he teach his son Torah, offering to pay him a large sum of money for his effort. Rav Nachum refused, saying, “I received the Torah free, so I have to give everyone the Torah free regardless if he be poor or rich. For why should a poor child be deprived of our holy Torah?”
Some time later, Rav Nachum’s financial circumstances became even worse. His wife pleaded with him to seek additional income. That day, the same wealthy man again approached Rav Nachum and repeated his offer to pay him to teach his son.
“Does your son know how to sing the tunes necessary to read the Torah?” Rabbi Nahum asked.
“No,” replied the wealthy man.
“In that case, I will accept payment for teaching him how to sing these tunes. But for the instruction of the Torah itself there will be no charge,” he answered.
Helping The Nursing Mother
Rav Nachum never differentiated between Jew and Gentile when one needed help. Once, on a cold snowy night, he was running in the deep snow carrying a young lactating sheep. A wealthy congregant of the town, riding by in his horse and wagon, stopped when he saw Rav Nachum, and invited him into the coach.
“What are you doing at this time of night, when it is freezing and snowing, carrying a sheep?” the coachman asked in amazement.
Rav Nachum replied, “Our next door neighbor, who is Christian, recently gave birth to a little baby. Unfortunately, the mother became sick and she can’t nurse the infant. So I went to another neighbor and borrowed this sheep to provide milk for the child.”