"Reb Nochumke Horodner." That is how he was known by the gedolim of his time and those of the following generations.
Who was this extraordinary chossid of Horodno whose name was uttered in reverence and awe even by the gentiles of the region?
The shamash in the Chevra Shas was the job Reb Nochum chose for himself in order to provide for his large family. As part of his work, Reb Nochum passed the kushyos from one lamdan to the other and he was subsequently the shaliach to return the teirutzim and chidushim that circulated in the beis hamedrash.
Despite the fact that Reb Nochum was already renowned as a talmid chochom muflag and held in the highest regard by the Jews of Horodno and beyond, and had even been offered various posts of rabbonus, he did not find it belittling to run back and forth, serving the lomdei Torah.
In his introduction to the sefer recounting Reb Nochum's life, the author writes that, unlike other seforim of gedolei Yisroel, this one does not start with an account of how unique Rabbeinu was already at a young age; or that when he was but a youth everyone could tell he was destined for greatness. The average Jew reading such descriptions immediately feels he cannot aspire to emulate this godol at all. "What do I have to do with this great personality?" he reasons to himself. "I do not possess such a sharp mind, and neither was I born particularly talented. I'll never grow to be like him."
Not so with Rabbeinu Reb Nochum. His earlier years were extremely difficult ones, and he had to exert himself immensely in order to reach the high madreigoh that he ultimately attained. Knowledge of this will encourage even the average person to maximize his potential.
Reb Nochum's parents were destitute. On his own initiative he left home in order to exile himself to a mokom Torah, and toiled arduously to retain and understand everything he learned. At one point, as a youth, he heard that in the town of Toretz there still lived a talmid of the Gaon Reb Chaim of Volozhin. Immediately, the young Nochum made his way to that town to learn Torah from him personally for, as he said, "`Toras emes is in his mouth,' since his Torah is from the source of wisdom, namely the Gra zt'l."
It was for this very reason that the Chofetz Chaim hung a portrait of Reb Nochum in his house: so that his children should want to emulate him.
Perhaps Reb Nochum would have succeeded in hiding his Torah greatness from the public eye were it not for his acts of tzedokoh and chessed that were part of his daily routine. These too he at first tried to do clandestinely, but over time his secret leaked out. The poor and destitute, the widows who received money from him, the households that made their Shabbos meals only from Reb Nochum's challos, fish and wine delivered weekly — they slowly let the word out until it was common knowledge. As a result all the inhabitants of Horodno — including the goyim — fulfilled his every request on behalf of the poor and broken- hearted, and donated generously.
Although he and his family lived in dire poverty, Reb Nochum never used the tzedokoh funds for his own needs. To this end he even appointed an "accountant" to keep track of the money collected and to ensure that it reached the correct addresses.
Rabbeinu gave two shiurim a day, one to ordinary tradesmen and the other to lamdonim and talmidei chachomim, his purpose being to be mezakeh es horabim. On Shabbos he would deliver fiery droshos to bring everyone closer to Torah and mitzvos. His audience would fill the beis hamedrash to capacity and even overflow outside its walls.
An awesome story was related by Reb Nochum's talmid, morenu the Chofetz Chaim, to his talmidim:
"When I was fifteen years old, I went to learn under Rabbeinu. There were some talmidim who tried to follow Rabbeinu's every move, and they discovered an intriguing fact. Every night at a certain hour, Reb Nochum would disappear. The talmidim were aware that Rabbeinu slept no more than three hours a night, but none knew where he went or what he did there. Was it to carry out chessed secretly at night? Or perhaps hisbodedus with Hashem alone? The speculations were many but no one knew for sure.
"The more determined among us persisted and finally found out that his nightly venue was the large beis haknesses which at night was empty of people. He would stay there a while and then return.
"I was filled with a burning desire to know," continued the Chofetz Chaim, "what my Rebbe does in the beis haknesses every night. I decided to find out.
"One evening I davened ma'ariv in that beis haknesses. Following the tefilloh, instead of leaving together with everyone, I went up to the ezras noshim and hid under a bench. After a perfunctory check to see that all had left, the shamash extinguished the lights and went out too, locking the doors behind him.
"I emerged from my hiding place and waited in anticipation, learning by heart in the darkness.
"At midnight I heard the sound of the door opening. A tremor passed through my body as Reb Nochum entered and alighted the bimah. There on the bimah lay the genizah, where people discarded their old seforim and worn out talleisim.
"Reb Nochum withdrew from the pile a sefer — apparently a sefer Kabboloh — and began to learn from it.
"Suddenly, I beheld a fire rising from nowhere and surrounding Rabbeinu. I began to tremble violently, my bones knocking together in fright, and I almost screamed out, `Gevald! There's a fire burning!'
"But then I noticed that this was no ordinary fire, that it was not spreading at all. So I overcame my fear and kept quiet.
"Rabbeinu stood and learned in this manner for about an hour. All the while I felt that my neshomoh would fly out at any moment, choliloh.
"Upon finishing his learning, Rabbeinu closed the sefer, returned it to the genizah pile, and the unconsuming fire disappeared as though it had never been. Once Rabbeinu had left the beis haknesses, I stopped my breathing returned to normal. Still I remained rooted to the spot until sunrise when the door opened for the congregants to daven shacharis. It was only then that I dared to return to yeshiva, my revelation etched on my mind forever."
Prior to his histalkus, Rabbeinu expressed his wish to those present that he hoped that in Gan Eden he would be given three seforim, one of them the Sheilos Uteshuvos Rabbi Akiva Eiger. "It would be my greatest pleasure in Gan Eden to study these seforim."
On the 8th of Cheshvan, Rabbeinu left this world and Horodno saw a levaya the likes of which had never been seen in the entire region. Rabbonim, talmidei chachomim, ordinary laymen from all walks of Jewish life, and yes, even some goyim, accompanied this mekadesh sheim Shomayim to his final resting place.