Rabbi Meshulam Zusha of Annopol (1718-1800) was one of the colourful personalities in the formative years of what would coalesce as the hasidic movement. In various ways, “the Rebbe, Reb Zusha” – as he is affectionately known – was unlike many of his famous colleagues: He did not author seminal works in hasidic thought, he did not establish a dynasty of hasidic masters that continues to thrive today, and he did not serve in the official rabbinate of important towns. Notwithstanding, Reb Zusha has a favoured place in hasidic lore and in collective memory.
One of Reb Zusha’s disciples – the hasidic master, Rabbi Moshe Elyakim Beriah Hopsztayn of Kozienice (1757-1828), in his posthumously published work Daat Moshe (Lemberg, 1879) – related the following Reb Zusha vignette.
Reb Zusha was once travelling when he came to a fork in the road and he did not know which path to take.
Had Reb Zusha had the opportunity to ask the American poet, Robert Frost (1874-1963), which path to take when two roads diverge in a yellow wood, we all know what the poet would have responded:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
But Reb Zusha used a different yardstick to choose his path. He looked down the two lanes and he saw which of the two roads was mystically marked with the tetragrammaton. When he perceived the Almighty’s name down one of the paths, he chose that road.
At first blush, Reb Zusha’s intersection encounter sounds like a spiritual and esoteric experience that lies beyond our ken. Indeed, Jewish mysticism places great stock in visualising the letters of God’s name, and Reb Zusha may have been calling on his mystical prowess to choose which road to take. If this is the thrust of the tale, then the vignette indicates Reb Zusha’s lofty spiritual powers … but it hardly offers guidance for those of us who do not magically see the tetragrammaton when we stand at a crossroads in an autumnal moment.
Reb Zusha’s student, Rabbi Moshe Elyakim Beriah, offered a different angle that de-emphasised the mystical aspect of his teacher’s experience and invested the moment with accessible meaning. The disciple explained: There are people who are inspired in their hearts to adopt a certain course or act in some way, but they hesitate: Is this what the Almighty wants me to do? I would add – A person might wonder: Am I choosing this course for truly altruistic purposes, or is my preference for a particular path driven by selfish motives? What is my yardstick for selecting which path I take?
Rabbi Moshe Elyakim Beriah responded to his question with a biblical verse: “And Moses said: ‘This is what God has commanded you to do; and the presence of God will appear to you.’” (Leviticus 9:6). The hasidic master creatively rearranged the verse: A person wants to know whether or not the Almighty has inspired a certain course or action – that is, whether or not “This is what God has commanded you to do.” A touchstone for this question is whether or not “the presence of God will appear to you.”
Rabbi Moshe Elyakim Beriah concluded: If through your actions you will contribute to the presence of God, then this is a fair path with a better claim; such a path should not be kept for another day.
Returning to Reb Zusha standing at the crossroads. The inspiring hasidic master did not choose a lane just “because it was grassy and wanted wear”; he did not prefer a path merely because it was “the one less travelled by.” Rather, Reb Zusha selected a road by considering where he might find the Almighty’s presence. Indeed, as we stand at various crossroads of our life’s journeys, choosing divinely inspired paths makes all the difference.
The Maggid of Melbourne is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassa. He is a teaching fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law. His column appears in The Jerusalem Post Magazine. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.