March 30, 2006

During the Enlightenment

Two of the great sages of Hasidism in the Eastern Europe of the late 1700s were a pair of brothers, united in life and legend but opposite in personality. The younger, Elimelekh, was the worldly leader, who founded a school, held court, and attracted followers, inspiring loyalty and intimidating his disciples with his severe intellect. His elder brother, Zusia, was innocent and humble, a bit of a holy fool, who preferred to praise God by singing and dancing in the forests. Listening to his master, the great Maggid of Mezeritch, Zusia would miss the point of the discourse because he fell into ecstasy at the first sound of the Maggid’s voice. Plagued by ailments throughout his life, Zusia lived in a state of joy. When asked how he could thank God amid all his suffering, Zusia hardly understood the question, so happy was he to be alive in the world God made. Once, Zusia discussed the problem of good and evil:

“True, suffering exists. Like everything else, it too comes from God. Why does it exist? I’ll tell you: man is too weak to accept or absorb divine charity, which is absolute. For that reason, and that reason alone, does God cover it with the veil that is pain.”

Once, before they became well known, they were traveling and stopped at a village inn where a noisy wedding party was in progress. Some wise guys decided to have fun with the two uninvited guests, who were huddled in a corner trying to be inconspicuous. Instinctively they grabbed Zusia. They spun him till he was dizzy, and punched him. After a while they let him go, but an hour later they began again – and an hour after that, and an hour after that, throughout the night.

“Why does it always have to be you?” asked Elimelekh.

“Such is the will of God,” Zusia groaned weakly.

“I have an idea. Let’s change places. They’re too drunk to notice. Next time, they’ll take me.”

But when the time came, one of the attackers cried out, “There are two of them – why do we always take the same one? Let’s try the other for a change.”

And Zusia told his brother, “You see, it’s not up to us. Everything is written.”

Years later, when Zusia was dying, he said: “When I face the celestial tribunal, I will not be asked why I was not Abraham, Jacob, or Moses. I will be asked why I was not Zusia.”

Elimelekh envisioned the scene this way: “They will ask me if I was just; I will say no. They will ask me if I was charitable; I will say no. Did I devote my life to study, to prayer? No. And then the Supreme Judge will smile and say, ‘Elimelekh, you speak the truth – and for this alone you may enter paradise.’”

Adapted from Elie Wiesel, SOULS ON FIRE: PORTRAITS AND LEGENDS OF HASIDIC MASTERS, Summit Books, 1972.