23rd Elul – the question we will be asked in heaven – why were you not you?

Martin Buber tells the story of the great Hasidic Rabbi Zusya (Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol). On his deathbed he began to cry uncontrollably and his students and disciples tried hard to comfort him. They asked him, “Rabbi, why do you weep? You are almost as wise as Moses, you are almost as hospitable as Abraham, and surely heaven will judge you favourably.”

Zusya answered them: “It is true. When I get to heaven, I won’t worry so much if God asks me, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Abraham?’ or ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Moses?’  I know I would be able to answer these questions.  After all, I was not given the righteousness of Abraham or the faith of Moses but I tried to be both hospitable and thoughtful.  But what will I say when God asks me, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Zusya?’

As a teenager I had a poster of a Peanuts cartoon which had Linus complain “there is no heavier burden than a great potential” Like all those cartoons, there was great wisdom in those funny sideways comments. But the reality is each of us has great potential, and during this time of the year we need to think about the answer we might give to the question Rabbi Zusya feared so much.

Every human being has unique capacity to add to the world. Each of us can bring love and goodness, creativity, thoughtfulness, human warmth. We don’t all need to be great scholars or rise to the top of our profession. We each have potential to be fully present in the world, fully open to the possibilities of relationship with the other. We make our choices every day, waking – as the Morning Prayer reminds us – with a pure soul that was given to us by God. So in Ellul it is a good time for us to pre-empt the question of Zusya – as we continue to live out our days, how shall we be more fully our best selves?


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