WITH THIS it is possible to get a feeling for the idea that is told in the Talmud in an amazing story about the holy man Nachum ish Gam Zu. One time he did not fulfill the mitzvah of charity as he felt he should. He decreed upon himself that his eyes go blind, his hands whither, and his feet be amputated. His decree was fulfilled. This is following the way of great leaders, who if they feel about themselves that they failed in the requirements of their duty, make a request to be relieved of those duties. So too this holy man conducted himself. Since he knew about himself that all his abilities aren’t his, and he is just appointed to utilize them, when he saw a flaw in fulfilling his duties he decreed that all his limbs be dismissed from their jobs. וכן אפשר להרגיש בענין המסופר בגמ׳ תענית (דף כ״א.) מעשה נורא, באיש קדוש נחום איש גם זו שעל ידי שפעם אחת לא מלא חובתו במצות צדקה לפי הרגשתו, גזר על עצמו שיסומאו עיניו ויתגדמו ידיו ויתקטעו רגליו וכן נתקיימה גזירתו, והוא כפי הדרך הנהוג אצל השרים הגדולים שאם מרגיש בעצמו שלא מלא חובת משמרתו, הוא מגיש בקשה לפטרו ממשמרתו, כל זה נהג בעצמו איש קדוש זה אחרי שידע בעצמו שכל כוחותיו אינם שלו והוא רק כגזבר על זה, לכן אם רק קרה לו משגה בשמירת תפקיד הגזברות שלו, גזר על כל אבריו להתפטר מעבודתם,
Nachum ish Gimzo, meaning Nachum of the town of Gimzo, would accept everything that happened to him with equanimity, and with trust that everything happened according to G-d’s plan. When something occurred that would seem to most people to be tragic, he was known to say “Gam zu letovah – this too is for the best.” The other rabbis of the era therefore punned on his name and called him Nachum ish “Gam zu.”
Here is the story Rav Shimon is referring to, as told in the gemara (Taanis 21a; translation slightly adapted from the Soncino):
It was said of Nahum Ish Gamzo that he was blinded in both his eyes. His two hands were cut off. His two legs were amputated and his whole body was covered with boils and he was lying in a dilapidated house on a bed the feet of which were standing in bowls of water in order to prevent the ants from crawling on to him [since he was unable to drive them off his body himself]. His students sought to remove his bed [from the house] and afterward take out the utensils [from thence]. He said to them, “My sons, take out the utensils and afterward take out my bed for I assure you that as long as I am in the house, the house will not fall.” They took out the utensils and afterward took out his bed and the house [immediately] fell down.
His students said to him, “Rabbi, you are [clearly] a thoroughly righteous person [so] why has [all this suffering] happened to you?” He said to them, “I brought it on myself, for one time I was walking on the way to the house of my father-in-law and I had with me three donkeys, one laden with food, one with drink and one with all kinds of finery. A poor man came and stood in my way and said to me, “Rabbi, sustain me [with something to eat].” I said to him, “Wait until I unload [something] from the donkey. I did not succeed to unload [something] from the donkey before he died [from hunger]. I went and fell upon his face and I said, ‘My eyes, which did not have pity upon your eyes, may they become blind. My hands, which did not have pity upon your hands, may they be cut off. My legs, which did not have pity on your legs, may they be amputated.’ And my conscience was not quiet until I said, ‘May my whole body be covered with boils’” They [his students] said to him, “Alas for us that we should see you like this.” He said to them, “Alas for me if you did not see me like this!”
The ending in the Jerusalem Talmud is even more shocking:
… Rabbi Aqiva visited him.
[R’ Aqiva] said to [Nachum Ish Gamzu]: Woe to me that I see you like this!
He said to him: Woe to me that I do not see you like this!
[R’ Aqiva] said to him: Why are you cursing me?
[Nachum ish Gamzu] said to him: Why do you belittle life’s challenges (yisurin)?
As per his character, Nachum Ish Gamzu saw his suffering as a positive thing; so much so that he did not hesitate to utter words that made it sound like he would wish it on someone else. He refers to yisurin, from the same root as mussar, corrective instruction. To enjoy the use of legs doesn’t mean to have them free of pain and illness, but to sanctify them to the service of others. That’s what legs are for.
As we saw, money is given to a person as part of the whole, so that it’s really the community’s money even while it is right for him to enjoy the lion’s share. He too is part of the community. And in his world, the “ani” (the “I”) extends outward from atzmi, his self. (Recall the citation of Hillel: Im ein ani li, mi lie? Ukesha’ni le’atzmi, mah ani? — and when my “ani” is for my self, what am I?) Rav Shimon uses this story of Nachum Ish Gamzu to show the same thing is true of a person’s etzem, his very bones.
סליק לגבי’ ר”ע א”ל אי לי שאני רואה אותך כך א”ל אי לי שאני אין רואה אותך בכך. א”ל מה את מקללני א”ל ומה את מבעט ביסורין.