The Problem With Reb Zusia

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There is a famous story about a chasidic rebbe named Reb Zusia saying that he wasn’t worried that the heavenly court would ask why he wasn’t like Moshe, because he could answer that he lacked Moshe’s abilities. But he was worried that they would ask him why he wasn’t like Zusia, i.e. Why he did not live up to his full potential. This is a beautiful story about how we should judge ourselves according to our own individual standards. It is both uplifting and challenging. The perfect story. The problem is that at least on the face of it, it seems to contradict explicit passages in Talmud and Midrash.

The Gemara (Yoma 35b) tells us that when a poor man reaches the heavenly court and says that he could not study Torah, he will be asked if he was as poor as Hillel. As a young man, the sage Hillel was so poor that he one day he could not even afford the trivial entrance fee for the study hall. However, this did not stop him and, through tremendous personal pain and sacrifice, he found a way to study anyway (by climbing onto the roof of the study hall despite the falling snow). Hillel obligates poor people, the Gemara states. He makes their poverty, even severe poverty, inadmissable as an excuse for failing to study Torah. In other words, poor people do not have to live up to their own abilities of perseverance, as per Reb Zusia, but to Hillel’s standard. The Gemara adds that rich people cannot claim that they were too busy with business, because R. Elazar was able to overcome his wealth and study Torah. Rich people are judged according to R. Elazar’s abilities.

The midrash (Tanna Devei Eliyahu Rabbah, ch. 25) states that each person must say “When will my deeds reach the deeds of my ancestors?” (i.e. Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov, as made explicit in Yalkut Shimoni on Deut. 5:6, no. 830). We see that people are specifically judged against the standard of the patriarchs, contrary to Reb Zusia’s claim.

The truth is, though, that we all want Reb Zusia to be right. Who wants to be judged by the standards of people much greater than us? It doesn’t seem fair and it certainly doesn’t seem comfortable. Perhaps we can rescue Reb Zusia by saying that we must aim for the level of the sages and patriarchs but God recognizes our abilities and only judges us based on our individual capabilities. Or maybe we can distinguish between actions (the letter of the law), for which we must follow the example of the patriarchs, and holiness (beyond the letter of the law), for which we are all judged on our own level. However, perhaps none of these attempted resolutions are sufficient and this story of Reb Zusia is just contrary to talmudic ethics.

Feel free to add your own thoughts and suggestions in the comments section.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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