‘When I die after 120 years and go up to heaven, the Almighty will not ask me why I was not as bold as our forefather Abraham.’
Reb Meshulam Zusha of Anipoli (ca. 1718-1800) was one of the colorful personalities of the early period of Hassidism. His defining characteristic was his humility. While his older brother Rabbi Elimelech of Lezajsk (1717-1786), would become the leader of Hassidism in Galicia, Reb Zusha would be immortalized in hassidic lore for his simplicity and self-effacing manner.
It is to Reb Zusha that a famous hassidic lesson transmitted in a various renditions is attributed: “When I die after 120 years and go up to heaven,” said Reb Zusha, “the Almighty will not ask me why I was not as bold as our forefather Abraham; He will not ask me why I was not a leader like Moses. He will turn to me and say: ‘Zusha, why were you not more like Zusha could have been?’”
Reb Zusha was once seated at a grand feast that was prepared in his honor at the home of one of the wealthy people in Ostroh (today in western Ukraine). Reb Zusha’s days as a pauper were a matter of the past, and he was already a well-respected master. Those who flocked to see him hardly remembered the impoverished Reb Zusha wandering the streets looking for something to eat and a place to put his head, yet he was careful not to forget. Consciously he made sure that his fame and popularity did not dull his sensitivity.
All the most important townspeople were invited to the feast. As they sat around enjoying the delicacies that their host had prepared, Reb Zusha sat at the head of the table in silence. His eyes stared into the distance and he seemed to be elsewhere, not really eating, not really participating in the lively conversation.
Without warning, Reb Zusha picked up the bowl of soup before him and threw it onto to his silk bekishe, the long, black hassidic caftan worn by many hassidim to this day.
The conversation suddenly stopped and all eyes turned to Reb Zusha who began to angrily address his bekishe: “Go on, bekishe, eat it up! This whole event is really in your honor. The soup was prepared for you, and the meat was prepared for you, everything here is in your honor!” The other guests looked at one another, not really knowing how to react: Had Reb Zusha gone crazy? Whoever heard of talking to a bekishe? An awkward silence reigned.
Reb Zusha looked around the table at the venerable guests and saw their looks of bewilderment. With a warm grin, he explained: “I was sitting here and remembering that a few years back I used to live in Ostroh. Alas, at that time I was but a poor man with nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep. I wandered the streets, but no one would open his home to me. They wouldn’t even spare a piece of bread for my empty stomach.
“Times have changed,” continued Reb Zusha, “And today I am invited to this grand feast in my honor. Not only has our host been so kind as to place before me hot soup, choice meat and excellent wine, but he has also graciously invited you notable guests to join me in this feast.
“But I was thinking: Have I really changed that much since I was last in Ostroh? Have I become a successful businessman? Most certainly not. Am I a better person that I should deserve such honor? Alas, I wish that were true. So what has changed since I was last in Ostroh?
“The only change that I could think of was my clothes! A few years back I came into Ostroh wearing the torn garments of a pauper, and today I sit before you in a fine tailored silk bekishe. When I realized that, I suddenly understood that you were not honoring me, that the food was not prepared in my honor, the guests were not invited because of my reputation. The credit must go to my bekishe! He then should eat!”