The Dilemma

I would like to tell you a story.

By now, you have realized that I like to do that from time to time, and they tend to be Chassidic stories. Why Chassidic? Because they interest me, so I figure that they will probably interest other people, as well.

This particular story is about Rabbi Menachem Nochum Twersky of Chernobyl (1730-1797). Frequently referred to as the “Chernobler Rebbe,” this great Chassidic leader was nearly penniless.

Knowing the pressure of his financial situation, one of his disciples brought him a gift of 100 silver rubles.

His family and his personal assistant were quite pleased with this gift, as it would help them get out from under some of the debt they had accumulated in order to purchase groceries for their open home.

After the chassid who gave the monetary gift to the Rebbe departed, other chassidim arrived to request blessings for their personal needs. After meeting with some of them, they gathered for the evening prayer service. At the conclusion of the prayers, Rabbi Menachem Nochum secluded himself in his room for a period of time.

He eventually opened the door to his study, and instructed that a particular chassid (one of the chassidim whom he had met with earlier in the evening) be called in to see him. After that meeting, he then continued to meet with other chassidim until late at night.

Later still, Rabbi Menachem Nochum’s assistant arrived, and requested funds to purchase groceries and sundry items for the Rebbe’s household.

Aware of the recent gift of 100 silver rubles, he had even prepared a list of how much money he would be able to pay back to each vendor.

Rabbi Menachem Nochum opened the drawer in which he kept his personal funds (charitable funds were kept in a separate drawer, so nothing would get mixed up), and much to his dismay, the assistant did not see the silver rubles. There were a few other silver coins and many copper coins — but no silver rubles.

The Rebbe instructed his assistant to take all the coins, which also included three gold coins. The assistant counted the coins, and they added up to nearly the value of 35 silver rubles.

He did not want to inquire as to the whereabouts of the 100 silver ruble gift, for he felt that it would be chutzpadik to do so. At the same time, the mounting debt had become quite vexing to him. What was he to do?

Seeing the distress on his face, Rabbi Menachem Nochum asked, “Why the sad face? Is it not true that the One Who Gives bread to all has graciously sent such generous fellow Jews our way?”

The debt weighing painfully on his heart, the assistant could not restrain himself. As if having no control over his words, he said, “Where are the 100 silver rubles that were brought to you earlier? With those funds we would be able to pay off a portion of the debt!”

“It’s true!” said Rabbi Menachem Nochum. “Indeed, someone brought me 100 silver rubles. It’s just that as soon as the money reached my hand, I wondered what I had done to deserve such a handsome gift. I felt privileged that the Almighty G-d had seen fit to send me and my family these funds, in such an honorable fashion.

“But then, the more I thought about it, I realized that perhaps the Almighty was giving me material sustenance in lieu of spiritual sustenance.

“And I recalled one of the visitors from the evening, who poured out his heart to me. It had been an entire year since he had paid his children’s teacher [in those days, Jewish children were not educated in formal schools; rather, their parents would hire a private teacher, known as a melamed]. This melamed was a G-d-fearing individual and had continued teaching the children with the hopes that he would, eventually, be compensated. Furthermore, this visitor himself had been threatened to be evicted from his home for not paying rent for eight months. On top of all this, his daughter was engaged to be married, and he had no funds for the wedding.

“I heard this chassid’s story,” continued Rabbi Menachem Nochum, “and I thought that perhaps the reason that the Almighty sent me the generous gift of 100 silver rubles, was in order to assist this needy individual with a threefold mitzvah: Torah study, saving a family from eviction, and assisting a young bride in getting married.

“So I asked the chassid how much money he estimated he needed, and it was 100 silver rubles.

“As soon as I decided to give him the money, another idea popped into my mind: Why should I give all the money to one individual? With this respectable sum, I could assist six families with their general expenses!

“I was uncertain what to do. Both options seemed good. I could give all the money to the one chassid, or I could divide it amongst a number of needy families. I decided to seclude myself in my room to reflect on the dilemma.

“As I tossed the ideas back-and-forth in my mind, I recognized that the thought of giving all the money to the one chassid came from my Yetzer Tov (Good Inclination), while the idea of dividing it came from my Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination).

“How was I to be so sure of this?

“If the second idea had come from the Yetzer Tov, then my first thought should have been: Nochum, you have received 100 silver rubles. Take the money and divide it into six parts; distribute five portions to needy families, and take one portion for your family. 

“But my Yetzer Tov didn’t say this. No sooner had I decided what to do, than my crafty Yetzer Hara attempted to trick me into doing something else. So I decided to listen to my Yetzer Tov, and gave all the money to that one chassid.”

I told this story at our Shabbat table last week, and it elicited some interesting discussion. What do you think about it?