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Lech Lecha – Realize the opportunity

Realize the opportunity!

Chernobyl’s (now Ukraine) latter-day claim-to-fame is the world’s worst nuclear power accident that occurred there in 1986… Before that, it was known as the city in which the famed Tzaddik Reb Nachum of Chernobyl zt”l, (1730-1797 the founder of the Chernobyl dynasty) – author of Meor Einayim, disciple of the Baal Shem Tov and a disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch, served as Rabbi.

While the Torah contains 613 mitzvahs, each of which we are commanded to keep to the best of our ability, this does not preclude the concept of “specialization.” Many great tzaddikim had certain special mitzvot which received the lion’s share of their attention, even though they were most scrupulous in their observance of all mitzvots. Our sages say that there are two commandments that are called “great mitzvot.” The first is the commandment to procreate, and the second is the commandment to redeem imprisoned Jews. When one redeems a Jew, thereby saving his life, it is as if one has given birth to a soul.

The “speciality” of Reb Nachum zt”l was the mitzvah of Pidyon Shvuyim – redemption of captives. He dedicated much of his life’s work to redeeming imprisoned Jews. In those days, Jewish peasants would lease property from the wealthy land-owners who dominated the countryside. If a Jew could not pay his debts to the local landlord, or if a Jew was late paying his rent, even for legitimate reasons, he could be evicted without warning, from his property, and thrown into a jail, pit, or dungeon, sometimes with his entire family. Rabbi Nachum raised money to redeem these unfortunate Jews, saving them from sure death. Many Jews died in such quarters after extended periods of captivity.

Reb Nachum made it his business to ensure that no Jew remain in captivity for lack of sufficient funds. He would travel from village to village, enquiring into the wellbeing of the locals. When Reb Nachum would hear that a Jew had been taken captive, he would not rest until he had raised enough money to pay off his debts, and secure his immediate release. Reb Nachum left no stone unturned in his quest to free all captives.

Once, while visiting the Ukrainian village of Zhitomir, some people took a distinct dislike to Reb Nachum. They spread rumors that he was cheating the government, and made sure their false accusations were heard in the right places. Reb Nachum was arrested, and for many weeks lived in captivity while awaiting his trial (he was ultimately acquitted).

While in general Reb Nachum practiced the ideal of his namesake Reb Nachum Ish Gamzu (who would always say “Gam zu le-tova – This too is for my good!” no matter what happened – see Ta’anis 25a), he found his present circumstances beyond comprehension. How could it be that he – who had dedicated the better part of his life to freeing others from captivity and imprisonment – should be taken prisoner? What could he possibly have done to deserve such a fate? Was this perhaps a sign from Heaven that his deeds were unworthy, that he had failed to perform the mitzvah of Pidyon Shvuyim ‘for its own sake?’ These questions plagued Reb Nachum and gave him no peace of mind.

One day, he received a visitor in prison who found Reb Nachum in very low spirits. “Let me ask you something, Reb Nachum,” said his visitor. “Who was the greatest Machnis Orchim (host to the wayfarer) that ever lived?”   “Avraham Avinu,” answered Reb Nachum. “Chazal, say that Avraham’s tent had four openings, one in each direction, so that a weary traveler would never need to go looking for the entrance, but rather could enter immediately, and be treated to warm food and hospitality.” “Yet,” said the visitor, “we find that Hashem tested Avraham by telling him (Bereshis 12:1), ‘Lech-lecha – journey abroad; leave your land and your birthplace and live the uncomfortable life of a wanderer.’ Furthermore, he was then forced to leave Canaan and go to Egypt. There, instead of having his hospitality returned to him, Sarah was taken from him.

“Now why, of all things, did Hashem choose to test Avraham by making him leave his home and live the life of a wanderer? Is it just and fair that a person who had dedicated his life to helping the wayfarer should himself be subjected to such harsh conditions” “?However” continued the visitor:”Avraham Avinu was truly a great Machnis Orchim. Yet as great as he was, there’s always room for improvement. Avraham could never really appreciate just how great the mitzvah of having an open house for travelers, because he himself had never experienced the feeling of not knowing where he would receive his next meal or even if he would have a place to sleep for the night. This was the one ingredient missing from Avraham’s Hachnasas Orchim – a true appreciation for what the mitzvah means to its recipient. Indeed all his life, Avraham Avinu fulfilled the Mitzvah of Hakhnasat Orchim, hospitality to the stranger and the wayfarer, providing him with food and shelter. Yet Hashem commanded him to go forth from father’s house to the land that he would show him. Avraham, himself, became a stranger in a strange land. Why did Hashem do that? He wanted Avraham to recognize the greatness of that mitzvah he performed. It is as though Hashem told Avraham, ‘Lech lecha – go out, and taste the searing desert dust upon your lips. Only through such an exercise will you ever appreciate the mitzvah to which you have shown such dedication’

“And you, Reb Nachum” continued the visitor” have all your life demonstrated such commitment to the mitzvah of Pidyon Shvuyim. Yet it is only now, after having lived in captivity yourself, that you can truly understand just how great the mitzvah you have been doing, really is. I have no doubt that this is why Hashem has placed you in such a predicament. Soon you will be released, so that you can continue doing what you’ve been doing all your life, only with even greater fervor and dedication.”

His words made an impression on Reb Nachum. He now understood that although he had devoted his life to redeeming captives, it was necessary for him to experience a taste of captivity so that he could fully appreciate how great the mitzvah of rescuing captives really is. Those who have suffered imprisonment understand the situation first hand and subsequently devote themselves to the mitzvah with even greater zeal

From that point on, until his ultimate release, Reb Nachum focused on his life as a prisoner with all the attendant meanings and feelings.

“The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”(Sir Winston Churchill). Sometimes from life’s most difficult situations arise the greatest opportunities for growth and self- improvement. Every time one experiences a difficult or uncomfortable situation, one should grasp it as an opportunity to grow as a person and to identify and empathize with others who may find themselves in similar circumstances. One should take note of one’s feelings and one’s needs (and how good it felt if someone cared for them), and try to remember those feelings when, sometime in the future, one has an opportunity to help someone else in similar circumstances.

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