As a young man, Rabbi Nota of Chelm led a quiet contemplative life in a small village, where he lived in the home of a wealthy property owner who had hired him as a Torah tutor for his sons. These children, unfortunately, were not very bright, and he didn’t have much success in teaching them the skills and concepts necessary to advance in Torah study. He nevertheless maintained a positive attitude towards the boys and his task of teaching them morning and evening, into which he poured much energy and ingenuity.

R. Nota found himself with significant chunks of free time...

One personal compensation was that since his students did not have the ability to concentrate for long periods, R. Nota found himself with significant chunks of free time that he was able to devote to improving his own service of the Creator. He would isolate himself in his room, study in great concentration and depth, and pray with supreme devotion. R. Nota felt himself to be quite fortunate in his current lifestyle, and probably would have continued so for many years. However….

One Shabbat, the mistress of the home woke up suddenly in the middle of the night. She thought she heard unfamiliar sounds coming from the room of the tutor. Her curiosity aroused, she walked as silently as she could towards his room. As she came closer, she recognized the sounds to be that of Shabbat songs and prayers. She tiptoed to the door, bent down and peeped through the keyhole. The sight she perceived flabbergasted her.

The tutor was standing in the middle of the room, still dressed in his elegant Shabbat robes. In one hand he clutched a siddur, while his whole body swayed in rhythmic ecstasy. His head tilted back, his eyes radiated light as they gazed upward, unseeing. The woman was captivated by the vision and moved to rapture by his soulful tunes. She knelt on the floor and continued to peer through the tiny hole for a long time.

The next day she decided to scrutinize the ways of R. Nota more closely. As days went by she realized more and more what a special Jew the tutor of her children was. Finally she let her husband in on the secret. From then it did not take long until the local populace became aware that there was a holy tzaddik in residence in their village. They, as well as their fellow Jews in the surrounding area, started visiting him on a regular basis to request his advice and his blessing.

In a relatively short time the word spread that R. Nota was an exceptional Torah scholar and miracle worker. The Jewish community of Valadova extended an invitation to him to be the chief rabbi of their town. He moved there, and was visited by hundreds of people who came to hear inspiring words of Torah from his mouth, receive his blessings, and bask in the light of his presence. After several years there, he moved on to become the chief Rabbi of Chelm, in East Poland. There he attracted crowds of followers and became renowned as a significant Rebbe in his generation.

...the economic situation of the wealthy property owner had deteriorated seriously.

In the meantime, the economic situation of the wealthy property owner had deteriorated seriously. He had prospered greatly the whole time he had the tutor living in his house, but now all his accumulated wealth was gone, and he found himself forced to sell off possessions just to cover basic necessities. His frustration with the changes in his life was extreme.

His wife suggested that he to go to Valadova in order to visit their former employee, who had become such a famous Rebbe. He agreed, saying to himself, "All those years I supported him; now has come the time that he can return the favor and help me."

When he arrived at the synagogue of R. Nota in Chelm, he was astounded at the exalted position the young tutor he remembered had attained. As it was already Friday, he took his place on the line of arriving Chassidim waiting to exchange greetings with the tzaddik. He was confident that as soon as the teacher of his children saw him face-to-face he would be overjoyed to see him, and would greet him and relate to him as an old friend, and show him special favoritism.

Great was his disappointment when finally his turn came. True enough, the tzaddik shook his hand and smiled at him warmly, but so he had done with all the other guests. He had expected that the Rebbe would act demonstratively different with him. At first he tried to dismiss it as due to the pre-Shabbat pressures of Friday afternoon, but the same treatment repeated itself during each of the three Shabbat meals.

Although disturbed by his reception, he decided to wait until Saturday night to speak to the tzaddik privately and discuss his forlorn situation. "Of course once he hears, he will eagerly bestow upon me his blessing and show me special recognition," he reasoned.

Finally his appointed hour came. The villager entered into the tzaddik’s room, trembling with emotion. When the Rebbe wished him farewell in exactly the same manner as he did his other visitors, he was unable to hold himself back. He blurted in a demanding tone, "Rebbe, I have a question!"

The Rebbe looked at him patiently, a small smile playing at his lips...

The Rebbe looked at him patiently, a small smile playing at his lips, and said, "Nu, ask."

The man looked directly back at him. "In the special penitential prayers before Rosh HaShanah, on Rosh HaShanah and Yom HaKipur and the days in between, we invoke over and over again the merits of our holy forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Then, again, right at the beginning of the cantor’s repetition of Neilah, the unique fifth prayer service of Yom Kippur, we all call out, ‘Av yida’cha minoar’ — ‘Father knew You since youth . ’ In those precious, crucial closing moments of the Day of Forgiveness, instead of again simply invoking ancestral merit, shouldn’t we try to find some new, compelling point?"

R. Nota gazed penetratingly at the simple villager, whom of course he had recognized right away. "Perhaps you have an answer to your own question?" he said gently.

"I do, Rebbe," the man replied, still excited. "I’m not at all learned, but this is how I understand it. At Neilah, at the time of the finalization of the judgment, we have to worry that the Accuser will stand up and challenge: what is all this about the merit of their ancestors? If the patriarchs had never been, would the Creator be any less great?

"To this we answer: ‘Father knew You from youth . ’ True, G‑d’s greatness is not dependent on anyone. But no one recognized His greatness before Avraham our ancestor caused His name to be known. Therefore, he and his descendents are entitled to G‑d’s kindness even after He became exalted and acclaimed throughout the world."

The villager cast his eyes down, suddenly embarrassed, and continued in a trembling voice, "The same here. The Rebbe is clearly a holy tzaddik even without my testimony, but before me no one knew that! I am the one who made it possible for the Rebbe’s greatness and name to be known in the world. So why doesn’t the Rebbe show me kindness —special kindness— at this time that I am mired in misfortune?"

A wide smile spread across the Rebbe’s face. It was clear that he greatly enjoyed the simple villager’s ingenuous interpretation: Avraham knew G‑d in G‑d’s youth, so to speak, rather than the usual: Avraham knew G‑d since he, Avraham, was a youth. With great warmth he exclaimed to him, "You may go home, and I promise you that soon, with G‑d’s help, all your former wealth and status will be returned to you."

And so it was.

For many years after Rebbe Nota would repeat with delight each Yom Kippur the novel interpretation of the words from the Neilah prayer by the simple villager. His Chassidim used to say that it was no wonder the Rebbe showed no special warmth to his old acquaintance at first; he wished to inspire him to his special Yom Kippur insight!

Translated and adapted from Sichat Shavua #401, with a few additions from Sipurei Chassidim-Mo'adim #104.

Biographical note:
Rabbi Nota of Chelm [17??- 1 Shvat 1812], a disciple of Rebbe Elimelech of Lyzhinsk, became a Rebbe in his own right and acquired many followers. He is the author of Nota Sha'ashuim.

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