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Rebbe Zusha: Run for your Life

Rabbi Meshulam Zusil of Anapoli, better known as Rebbe Zusha, was a senior student of the Maggid of Mezritch. Brother of the renowned Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhansk, Rebbe Zusha is known to have been a Torah scholar and a genius in earnestness and sincerity. Many of the stories about him highlight his earnest nature. He passed away on 2 Shevat, 5560 (1800) and was brought to rest in the gravesite of the Rav the Maggid of Anapoli. 

When Rebbe Zusha was 15 years old, his father passed away. As the eldest child in the family, the livelihood of the family fell upon his shoulders. Rebbe Zusha earned money by visiting his father’s debtors and collecting the money they owed him.

Once, Rebbe Zusha entered the home of a noblewoman who owed his father money. Just like the story of Joseph and the wife of Potiphar, this woman locked him in her home and tried to seduce him. Rebbe Zusha jumped out of the window. But unlike the story of Joseph, this noblewoman jumped right out after him. He fled and she was hot on his heels. He jumped on a passing wagon and she jumped on it as well. Finally, Rebbe Zusha jumped off the wagon and ran to a flour mill. He put his head between the millstones, ready to sacrifice his life rather than to be caught by the noblewoman. But then a voice rang out from heaven, “Enough!” At that moment, the noblewoman left him or even disappeared. From that day on, Rebbe Zusha began to perceive Torah concepts, and Torah greats of past generations would appear to him to teach him Torah.

The world conceals faith and wraps us in a net of lust. The evil inclination for improper sexual relations is among the most addictive and seductive. It is a symbol of the world of falsehood that expands and conquers, enslaving those who fall into its trap. If a person does not succumb and is even willing to die a gruesome death instead of giving in to his evil inclination, God will ultimately say, “Enough!” and the enslavement to the evil inclination will dissipate. This is the realm of God’s Name, Sha-dai, connected in Kabbalah to rectification of the covenant (proper sexual conduct). It means, “He Who said to His world, ‘Enough!’”

In the words of the Ba’al Shem Tov, this is the process of submission, which flees sin, and separation, which follows in its tracks and manages to completely disengage from the sin. It is important to emphasize that “God desires the heart” and the primary test is not the result, but rather, the uncompromising effort to escape and the discomfort or worse that one is willing to suffer to attain this goal. The Mittler Rebbe of Chabad wrote that this is the meaning of the verse, “God, your God is testing you – to know.”[1] The test is meant to evaluate the depth of knowledge, which is the deep connection and bond of a Jew to God. After he has proven his deep devotion to God, Rebbe Zusha reaches the stage of sweetening and apprehended the secrets of the Torah as well as its revealed level.

For Rebbe Zusha, the separation and sweetening come immediately after he withstood the trial. It does not, however, always happen this way. Joseph, whose story of his encounter with the wife of Potiphar was similar to Rebbe Zusha’s story, was thrown into prison for twelve years immediately after overcoming his trial. Jacob, called “the choice of the Forefathers” suffered one hardship after another for more than one hundred years until he was reunited with his son, Jospeh at that age of 130. Only then was his prayer “He Who said to His world ‘Enough’ will say ‘Enough’ to my hardships” fulfilled. What is the need for hardships after a person has already withstood a trial?

When a person would perform a miracle outside the laws of nature, the original Chabad chasidim had a custom to lay him on a table and hit him. “Why are you engaging in things that are in the Rebbe’s realm?” they would accuse him. As strange as this custom may seem, it contains a great truth. When an ordinary person manages to ascend above the ordinary reality of life and bring a significant change to the world, there is a danger that he will forget Whose strength made it possible for him to succeed. (Of course, his success does not have to be in the form of a miracle). The ‘punishment’ is meant to inject in the chasid the recognition that he would never have been able to do what he did by himself. He is nothing more than an unimportant, unremarkable assistant to the Holy One, Blessed Be He.

A person who has withstood a difficult trial that most people would not have managed to navigate also feels that he has overcome human nature. Sometimes,  subliminal pride in his ability to overcome his evil inclination may accompany his success. This is where the hardships come in. They remind a person of his lowliness and only after that can God’s Name Sha-dai, which puts an end to both the evil inclination and the hardship – be revealed. The Torah that is subsequently revealed belongs to God’s Name Havayah, which God gave only to Moses: “And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as E-l Sha-dai, and with the Name Havayah I did not make Myself known to them.”[2] After the submission and separation in which the Forefathers engaged, the time had come for the sweetening of the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah.

There is another story about Rebbe Zusha that shows how his lofty heights influenced his younger brothers:

The holy brothers Rebbe Zusha and Rebbe Elimelech had a third brother, Reb Natan, who was a relatively simple person. His work was to run a barge that would transport people from one side of the river to the other. Every time that Reb Natan would have to transport a woman on the barge, he would take a piece of paper and make a black dot upon it. When he would come home at night, say the Kriyat Shema prayer and the Midnight Lamentations, he would cry so much over the paper that the black dot would be erased. Only after all the black dots were erased would he go to sleep.

Apparently, this stormy fear of Heaven was characteristic of the entire family…Whether they knew it or not, all the siblings received their spiritual abundance from their eldest brother, Rebbe Zusha. This is what the Arizal writes about the saying of the sages that connects the obligation to honor one’s eldest brother with the obligation to honor one’s parents. According to the Arizal, every new soul that is added to the family is drawn down to the parents through the eldest child, making him a sort of additional spiritual father to his siblings.

This point is also significant for parents. Kabbalah explains that the level of holiness of the parents during intimacy brings about a holy garment for the soul of the child. According to the above, this is even more significant: We would think that the spiritual garments of the children who have already been born have already been set. But their spiritual garments both influence and are influenced by the souls of their younger siblings as they are born. This also teaches us that despite what we may think, it is always possible to rectify a situation or deed. Nothing and no one is ever a lost cause.

Image by Monika Baechler from Pixabay

[1] Deuteronomy 13:4.

[2] Exodus 6:3.

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