Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol lived in the area of Ukraine for most of the 18thcentury. He was a well-know tzaddik and part of the great Maggid of Mezeritch’sinner circle. He’s known for his particularly progressive take on life.
For example, A man once visited the holy Maggid of Mezeritch and said he had great difficulties applying the Talmudic principle that "A person is supposed to bless God for the bad just as one blesses God for the good.” The Maggid told him to find the Reb Zusya ask him. The man went and found Rabbi Zusya, who received him fondly and invited him to his home. When the guest came in, he saw how poor the family was: there was almost nothing to eat, they were all beset with afflictions and illnesses. Nevertheless Rabbi Zusya and his family were happy and cheerful. The guest was astonished. He said: "I’m here because the Holy Maggid said you could show me how is it possible to bless God for the bad in the same way we bless God for the good." Rabbi Zusya said: "This is indeed a very interesting question. But why did our holy Rebbe send you to me? How would I know? He should have sent you to someone who has experienced suffering."
Indeed, there are lots of stories of Reb Zusya’s optimism. Yet there was one moment in his life where is positivity was broken.
When Rabbi Zusya was on his deathbed, his students found him in uncontrollable tears. They tried to comfort him by telling him that he was nearly as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham, so he was sure to be judged positively in Heaven. He replied, "When I get to Heaven, I will not be asked “Why weren't you like Moses,” or “Why weren't you like Abraham.” God will ask, “Why weren't you like Zusya?"
This story is well-known and often quoted because it teaches us to live up to our own potential. But I don’t think it preaches self-enlightenment as much as it teaches us self-actualization. By that, I mean it’s not that we need to become consumed with finding out who we truly are on the inside – but that we need to live our lives in a way that is in service to others. Sure, our days should be filled with self-satisfaction. In our modern society, the language we use for this is living life with no regrets. We often take that to mean checking off boxes on our recreational bucket lists and accepting failures and moving on from them. But the Jewish take on “no regrets” is different.
According to our tradition, a life well-lived has more to do with figuring out how to make our days count in the grand scheme of the universe.
Because let’s be honest, just like Zusya, our tradition is wracked with guilt. We regret the calamities that befell our people due to our own sins. We regret the missed opportunities we should have taken – the Torah we never learned or the restorative acts we stood on the sidelines for.
“No regrets,” in a Jewish context, would mean that we fill our days with soulful acts – events large and small – that draw humanity closer to olam haba– the fulfilment of God’s dream for us – that we will live as peaceful guardians of God’s creation.
My grandmother died one week ago on Mother’s Day, just 4 days before her 92ndbirthday. Before you’re horrified by that fact, you must know that it was somy grandmother to die on Mother’s Day. None of us are sad about it. In fact, we’re delighted, because it embodies who she was: the matriarch of our family - revered, dignified, demanding, loving, and absolutely NOT a shrinking violet who wouldn’t concede her death to any other day but the one already set aside to honor women like her.
I had the blessing of sitting with her for three days while she was in hospice in Florida, experiencing some profound moments along the way. On Monday, she could hold a short conversation, on Tuesday she could respond with smiles and nods, on Wednesday, just a recognizing glance.
Shortly after I arrived by her side, she mentioned how she was ready for death. She was ready to flow out, she told me. How could she be so sure of this?I wondered. “I have no regrets” she told me, over and over.
Indeed, hers was a blessed life. But I don’t think she was thinking about that as much as she recognized the fullness of her days and the blessings that she birthed into this world.
As her frail body thinned and faded, I believe she recognized the robust beauty of what she was leaving behind. Her muscles were no longer needed by this world, and even though they fought for another few days, they eventually conceded and went to sleep, letting the bodies of those she mentored and loved take up the weight of life’s purpose.
Psalm 90 encourages us: Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. When we take an account of our lives, no regrets will mean that we saw value in every moment, no matter how banal or exciting.
Shavuot highlights the importance of this “numbering our days.” Like a real pal, Rabbi Billy officiated my grandmother’s funeral on Thursday. He reminded us that after the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites did not spend their days plotting revenge or racking up as many hedonistic pleasures as they could find. Instead, they walked 49 uncertain, treacherous days to the base of Mt Sinai where they (in his words) “dedicated themselves to creating a society that would never permit one human being to diminish the worth of any other. At a place called Sinai, they produced a document – the Torah – that would shape the values and hopes of countless generations to come.”
By counting the Omer and then celebrating Shavuot, we celebrate those days in which our ancestors became wise in heart. We number each day so that we may be reminded that every step we take matters in the great scheme of the universe. Our job is to lift our eyes to the mountains, to maintain the optimism that Rabbi Zusya epitomized in his youth, and hopefully like Faith Zimmerman, in our ripe old age, regard death not as a fire extinguished, but a torch passing.