Zusya Always Ahead of Me

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775

Rabbi Nathan Adler of Frankfort once said: “It is not for nothing that they say the Poles have no savoir vivre—no elegance or manners. No matter when I lift my soul to Heaven, Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol (southern Poland) is always there ahead of me. Once I fasted for a long time, in order to reach the gates of Heaven while they were still closed. I stood before the gates, and when they were opened, I was the very first to enter. And whom do you suppose I saw inside? Rabbi Zusya! How he got in, I don’t know; but he was certainly there. He had not had the grace to wait until he was admitted. It is not for nothing that they say the Poles have no savoir vivre.”[1]

I have felt the same way this year in my High Holy Day preparations. Not the same way about Poles, I really have nothing of substance to say about the Polish people or even about Jewish Poles per say. What I mean, is that wherever I have turned this year, every sermonic thought or idea, each one has led me back to Zusya. He is standing there waiting for me every time. Every moment an idea has struck,  somehow he always has the answer.

Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol was one of the early Chasidic Rabbis. He was born in southern Poland, also known as Galicia or Anipol, and he lived from 1718 until 1800. He was beloved by all. Every story of him tells of his love and his humor, his ability to see only the good in others, and his deep, deep piety. So when Rabbi Nathan Adler of Frankfort complains about Zusya’s lack of elegance, it isn’t really a complaint at all. Rather, he is saying that no matter how hard he tries, no matter how pious he is, how good, how hard he reaches for blessing, he always finds that with ease Reb Zusya is always all those things and more.

So why have I turned to Zusya so many times this year? It has something to do with authenticity. I have been spending a lot of time thinking about what that is, what that means, what that looks like. How are we our most authentic selves? How is the community authentic? When is a leader authentic? What does that look like? What does that feel like?

For Slichot, we watched the movie “The Adjustment Bureau,” the main character is a congressman running for Senate. In every race he is the frontrunner because people see in him something real, something they trust. His problem is that he’s too authentic and each time he gets close to success he does something childish to undermine his own possibilities. But even in losing, his concession speech is so good, so true, that there can be no doubt of his success the next time. It’s not his politics or his policies that draw voters to him. It’s his authenticity, his ability to speak his truth.

The stories of Zusya, all describe a man who is also nothing if not authentic, possibly a little crazy too. He and his brother were both disciples of Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezritch, also a very famous sage, and the two brothers would travel around the countryside teaching and speaking wherever they went. It was taught that when Zusya was young and in the house of his teacher, a man came before Rabbi Baer and begged him to advise and assist him in an enterprise. Zusya saw that this man was full of sin and untouched by any breath of repentance, he grew angry, and spoke to him harshly, saying, “How can a man like yourself, a man who has committed this crime and that, have the boldness to stand before a holy man such as my teacher without shame, and without longing to atone?” The man, as you might imagine, turned and left in silence. But Zusya regretted what he had said almost immediately and did not know what to do about it. Then his teacher pronounced a blessing over him, that from that moment on, he might see only the good in people, even if a person sinned before his very eyes.[2]

Zusya’s view of humanity was changed in that moment. No matter who stood before him, he saw only the good. Imagine how it might feel to walk through the world only seeing what is good in those you meet. On the one hand, what a relief! Zusya would only feel the goodness in the world he would not have found fault with anyone. And those who met him felt that from him. They felt that he was responding to their best qualities, they felt loved by him and honored for what was really good and really special inside of them. This experience of being seen only for what is positive inside is very powerful. And when we cross paths with people who see in this way, we tend to call them holy. I imagine this is the experience people have when they meet the Dalai Lama or the current Pope. Many people felt this way after meeting the recently deceased Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement. An interaction with such a person who sees only our best qualities leaves us feeling changed for the better. And also creates in us a great love for that holy person.

But there was a down side to this blessing. Because of course the world has never been a place filled completely with goodness. Zusya did still see the sins of the people he met, the difference was that he didn’t attribute those sins to them. He took them on and blamed himself for each and every one. He saw goodness in everyone and sin in himself, he spent his days and his time praying for forgiveness, praying for the ability to change.

One story has Rabbi Zusya coming to an inn and as he looked at the innkeeper he could see in his face long years of sin. He and the innkeeper stood still looking at each other for awhile, neither moving nor speaking. But when Zusya was alone in his room, the shudder of the innkeeper’s life overcame him while he sang his prayers. In the midst of singing psalms he cried aloud: “Zusya, Zusya, you wicked man! What have you done! There is no lie that failed to tempt you, and no crime you have not committed. Zusya, foolish, erring man, what will be the end of this?” Then he listed the sins of the innkeeper, giving the time and place of each, as his own, while he sobbed. The innkeeper had quietly followed this strange man. He stood at the door and listened, and he heard him. First he was seized with dismay, but then penitence and grace were lit within him, and as the story goes, he woke to God.[3]

Now, when the rabbi of Rizhyn (REE zsin) (BTW Rizhyn is in the Ukraine), who is often featured in Zusya stories, taught about this blessing of Zusya’s he would always add: “And if all of us were like him, evil would long since have been destroyed, and death overcome, and perfection achieved.[4] If all of us were like him. If all of us were able to see each person we meet only as their best selves.  To see in everyone only good…Ok that’s kind of outrageous. It makes me worry we would all become easy pickings for every Nigerian prince with a fortune to deposit in our bank accounts if only we send him some walking around money. Or maybe I only think that way because I am clearly not Zusya. if I were I wouldn’t even understand that such things were possible. In fact I would be consumed with my own guilt over pretending to be a Nigerian prince who spent all my time sending out emails to unsuspecting Zusyas throughout the interweb.

But what if we were to take that down to a smaller more personal level. What if we could look at our immediate circle of family and friends and see only the best in them? How would that change us? How would that change them? How would that change our relationships? And the harder question would it make us or our relationships more authentic?

I do believe it would improve all of our relationships to look for the good, the beautiful, the holy in those that we love. If we start there, with love, we might be able to see more of the good, and put aside those bits that upset or annoy us, those bits that make us angry every day. At first it might not feel authentic though. It might even feel dishonest, but eventually with work, it might be true and authentic. By seeing the good stuff only or even mostly I think, I hope, that not only we will see the other stuff less, the other stuff might actually stop upsetting us.

But that too is pretty simple. I struggle with this. This idea of what is authentic.  Part of growing and learning is imitating. Copying the way we see people we respect behaving. Our parents model for us, our peers, our teachers. As we grow we take those in and add our own pizzaz and come up with ourselves. As we age and learn new things ourselves will grow and change, but somewhere along the way we mostly settle into who we are.

Sometimes we have a public version and a private version of ourselves, or a professional version and an at home version. I’m not sure that any of these are inauthentic, they are appropriate to different circumstances and adjusting our behavior is also part of being around others. But we do also know when we are faking it. And often we know when others are faking it. And that’s the part that feels like lying, the part that gets in the way, the part that is not authentic.

This past Shabbat as I was driving in to Torah study, I was listening to NPR as I often do. Scott Simon spoke about a man named David Candow who was known as “The Host Whisperer.” He had just passed away, and Scott Simon was honoring him by sharing who he was with us. He said that David Candow would teach radio hosts how to be radio hosts by teaching them how to be themselves. He would say, “Let’s just talk…don’t announce, talk. Don’t act, be yourself. It’s a very hard thing, eh (he was Canadian), to be yourself in front of all those people? But if you can be yourself, you’ll sound like no one else. And people really hear what’s real.”

If you can be yourself. Finding out who ourself is, is not as easy as it sounds. Trying to be like the others we respect sometimes gets in the way. Trying to be the way people who love us would like us to be sometimes gets in the way. Trying to impress and being sure that to do that we have to be more than ourselves, sometimes gets in the way. Trying to be confident when we are not, sometimes gets in the way. Trying to be certain when we are not, certainly gets in the way.

It is no secret that I really enjoy teaching and working with teenagers. I think part of why I love it so much is that being a teenager is an almost desperate dance of figuring out oneself. Teenagers try on one persona after another. Some days there is the pain and agony of being so different from everyone that no one will ever understand them. Other days it is the pain and drama of being so regular so much the same as everyone that they will never feel special.  I tell all of our students who leave for college that they are not allowed to return home freshman year until Thanksgiving. They have to leave, they have to spend some time away from their parents and people who have known them their whole lives so that they can experiment and figure out who they really want to be. Very few people are able to create their own destiny while living with their parents. They have to leave so that they can return and so that we can be awed by what they become. I love working with teenagers because I find this process to be the most real and most authentic time in our lives.

I am sometimes frustrated when people who are so obviously searching for something, tell me all the answers they have found as if those are the only answers. When people explain to me the way it is, as if that is the only way it is. I find that I am drawn to the people who just keep asking questions. The people who believe they have a part of the answer, but are not at all certain that they can see the entire answer. Sometimes I find this with teenagers too. Sometimes I find those who are struggling the most are the ones who just want the answers to be clearer, to be black and white, right or wrong. The kids who want to do everything the right way, they are the ones I worry about the most. Some days I want to shake them and say—Now is your time to stretch not limit, now is your time try new things rather than fall back on what others have already done, now is your time to invent yourself. And perhaps now is even the time to learn something from Zusya about seeing goodness but unlike Zusya, maybe we have to begin by seeing the goodness inside of ourselves.

Perhaps that is not just good advice for teenagers. Perhaps it is good advice for all of us at every stage of our lives. And perhaps especially that this time of year when we take stock of who we are, who we have become, and where we want to go.

As Zusya prepared for his own death, one night he had a vision, and he woke up afraid. His students said to him, “What could you have to fear, you who have been as humble, as learned, and as true to God as Moshe Rabenu, Moses our teacher?” Zusya turned to them and said, “I am afraid because in my vision I understood that in the world to come, I will not be asked why I wasn’t Moses. I will be asked, why I wasn’t Zusya.[5]

If we want to live authentically, that is the question we have to ask ourselves. We have to stop comparing ourselves to others, comparing our successes and failures our level of holiness or savoire vivre to others. We have to stop all of it and ask ourselves that singular questions “How can I become myself?”

So this is the question that has occupied me this year especially as I prepared for these High Holy Days. I don’t have the answers only more questions, and I’m trying to always be comfortable with the questions rather than the answers. As we enter these days of Awe, these ten days of repentance and turning, and we look back at the past year and look forward into the new one, I pray that we will all find a way to get more comfortable becoming even more ourselves. As David Candow taught, “It’s a hard thing eh, being yourself in front of all those people, but if you can be yourself, you’ll sound like no one else.” Now is our time to stretch not limit, now is our time try new things rather than fall back on what others have already done, now is our time to become ourselves. May we all find our way to our most authentic selves.

Ken Yehi Ratzon, May this be God’s will.

[1] Buber, Martin, “Tales of the Hasidim: part I,” Schocken Books, NY, 1947, p.249.
[2] ibid. p.237.
[3] ibid. p.241.
[4] ibid. p. 237.
[5] idib. P.251.