When I was 6 years old, my grandfather, who was born in the town of Trisk near Chernobyl, told me a story about his great-grandfather, Reb Menachem Nochum Twersky. He was the Grand Rebbe of Chernobyl, known as the Meor Einayim (the light of the eyes), and a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov.
It was a classic Jewish folk tale replete with archetypes: the wonder-worker rabbi, the poor townspeople, a rich man, and the cold frozen Russo-Ukrainian landscape.
Though I have seen and heard the tale repeated in different forms and variations, it went something like this: The itinerant rebbe came upon a village somewhere in the Pripyat Marsh whose inhabitants were so poor they had no proper mikvah or bathhouse. In summer they used the Pripyat to bathe and go to the mikvah. During the winter this was all but impossible. Those intrepid souls who did, risked death. Family life, which was dependent on the mikvah, could not continue.
The rebbe went downriver to Kyiv. (The Pripyat flows 80 miles or so south into the Dnieper, which divides Kyiv.) Kyiv was a substantial city even in the 18th century and there were rich folk there. The rebbe asked one such rich denizen of Kyiv to pay for a mikvah back in the village.
The conversation probably went something like this:
“May I ask you for 10 million rubles to pay for a mikvah in the village of Boiberik?”
“What? I should pay for a small town upriver in a place I never heard of?”
“That is what I am asking.”
“Rabbi, I know you are a saintly man, but we are people of the earth. If I fulfilled everyone’s requests, I would be a poor man myself. Here, take this 10-ruble note and let’s be done. You’re doing the Lord’s work, my good man and the Lord will have to provide. This is all I can do”
The rebbe prayed silently and used his head. “What if I told you that this was an investment that would bring you wealth? What if I told you that this would make you a richer man, a tycoon, in this world and the next?”
“I’m a poor man,” said the rebbe. “I have nothing in the world, not even 2 kopecks. But I have wealth coming to me in the next world. What if I deeded over to you my share in the world to come? For 10 million rubles, you will be wealthy in this world and the next.”
The rich man had never heard anything like this before. Was the rabbi mad? Who would give up their share in the world to come? Was there even a world to come? Who could be sure? And would the sale be valid? Is heavenly reward transferable? Does it work like a voucher?
“Indeed, it is transferable,” the rebbe said. “I will write a contract, a deed for you right now. Call in witnesses to sign. I will do it right now, I say. Do we have a deal?”
“It is a risk, rabbi, a risk.”
“We both have something at risk here,” said the rebbe, “a world to lose and a world to gain.”
“Tell me rabbi, why would you do this, on behalf of some no-name village?” asked the rich man. “It’s all that you have.”
“Love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your possessions,” said the rebbe. ”This is my chance to fulfill that commandment. I am a poor man. I have no possessions. This document represents all that I have. I give God my all, by giving it to you.”
The rich man wept. “This may be utter foolishness, a foolish piety, but I am going to do it!” He called in witnesses and signed the document and handed him the money. “You are the luckier of the two of us, rabbi. How rich the reward in the next world must be for a man who gives his all.”
When I heard this as a small child, my mother was 30, my father was 34, my grandfather was a robust 60. The world to come was as far from me as Timbuktu. Yet the story got into me somehow.
How many stories and ideas enter you as a child? Hundreds, maybe thousands. Many are repelled at the door, others enter you, stay for a time, only to be forgotten. Only a few remain, maybe to be mobilized much later when the shadows in life have already grown long.
In February, Putin sent his armies downriver through the 1,000-square-mile Chernobyl Exclusionary Zone—to conquer Kyiv. Volodymyr Zelensky’s eloquent and brave response made me think of my grandfather’s story.
In his address to the British House of Commons, Zelensky said, “To be or not to be? I can give you a definitive answer. It’s definitely yes—to be.” At another point when asked if he was afraid of dying, he said, “For my loved ones, yes. As for my life: I am the president of the country, and I simply do not have the right to it.”
Zelensky and the rebbe were both trying to move the rich man. In the rebbe’s case, it was the proverbial well-heeled urbanite in Kyiv. In Zelensky’s, it was the metaphorical rich man: the collective, wealthy West.
To be sure, the rebbe was a pious, holy man; Zelensky makes no pretense to holiness. He is merely a courageous one. Yet in an ingeniousness born of desperation, both the rebbe and Zelensky successfully fought the cynicism of the status quo: What has this got to do with me?
With a smidgen of slyness they each glamorized sacrifice and trounced the repugnant aspect of self-preservation. They each put an offer on the table. Zelensky’s was this: If you love freedom from tyranny, then you are with me in a bond of everlasting self-respect for life. Give up self-preservation for righteousness, foresight, and courage.
When the Ukrainian Jewish comic-cum-president eloquently traded on transcendence, he helped me understand the maggid of Chernobyl. The rebbe said, “take Pascal’s wager,” exceed yourself, and you will be rich in this world and the next.
I confess that when I was younger, I cynically saw the holy man’s gambit as a feint, a gimmick to receive an even bigger share in the world to come by selling his sainthood status in the here and now. Sure, why not double dip, to double your money, so to speak?
But when I heard Zelensky plead with us to give up immediate self-preservation for the pleasures of righteousness, foresight, and courage, I saw the tale of the Chernobyler maggid in a completely different light. He created a brilliant nexus between transactionalism and truth. The rich man trades in a world of transaction, not transcendence. The rebbe, famously poor and anti-money, lived in a world of transcendent truth but no transactional truth—no way to generate capital. Was it a hustle? Yes, but a holy hustle.
Legend has it that he got the mikvah built in Boiberik, or some other such place like Voronkov or Yehupetz or Mekarv, the Ukrainian ghost towns of our impoverished yesteryear. Of course, millions have been slaughtered since then in those very places.
What then became of the rebbe with no share in the world to come? I asked my father this question 50 years ago when I first heard the story. Where is great-great-grandfather’s place?
My father shrugged then gravely gestured toward the seforim shank, the bookcase with the Talmud and thousands of holy books—and the sefer Meor Einayim, the rebbe’s Hasidic masterwork. “That’s his world to come,” he told me. “He’s in there.”
In my father’s house we were “forbidden” to read the Meor Einayim. The concepts were kabbalistic in nature and my father felt that neither he nor the rest of the family could understand them. So the volume gathered dust.
Fifty years on, I “disobeyed” my father and opened the book. On the first page he quotes Genesis: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was tohu, without form, and bohu, void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. Tohu and bohu, wonder and chaos. Playing on the word bohu, he writes bo hu—He is in it. God is in the wonder and the chaos. His spirit hovers over the waters of the world before and after creation.
I got a glimmer at that moment of the Meor Eynayim. There is a flow between worlds. For him the next world and this world were not completely separate units. They were like Jacob’s ladder—the base on earth but the top in the heavens. Surely, a man whose head was already in the heavens can sell his share in the world to come and somehow still have a place.
Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, a psychotherapist in New Jersey, is director of The New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies. He is also author of the Yiddish novel Yankel and Leah.