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Talmudic Treasures by Rabbi Ziona Zelazo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Be true to yourself - Ask Zusya's question

     I always thought I was true to myself, but lately, I have been questioning what it really means in my life as a rabbi. Being the anthropologist that I am, I am in love with the spirituality of other cultures, but being the Jew that I am, I find myself adoring elements that are considered Idolatry in Judaism. If I meditate the Zazen style, I am told it is “Not Jewish”. When I adorn myself with a necklace made out of beads by the Massai, I am told I use idolatrous items.

      So, it was not surprising that I was deeply touched by the off-Broadway play “My Name Is Asher Lev” (Playwright Aaron Posner, adapting the novel written by Chayim Potok). I fully identified with Asher Lev, who as a religious man, posses a passionate artistic spirit. Even though his paintings are against all Jewish standards he cannot help himself but paint. His dilemma is how to please the two worlds he lives in; his faith, his parents and his community on the one hand, and himself on the other.

      Jacob Kahn, his art teacher labels Asher Lev “a whore” because he is now hiding his payos and is painting without expressing his true feelings. Asher rethinks what his teacher told him and becomes convinced that there is a difference between naked women and a nude. His father calls this “moral blindness.”

      The Talmud recognized our obligation to be honest when dealing with others and live with integrity, but perhaps, not emphasizing enough the need to live authentically with ourselves and with what we really are in order to feel whole. Tractate Shabbat 31a teaches —

           Raba said; When man is led in for Judgment [called to account before God] he is asked; “Did you deal faithfully [with integrity], did you fix times for learning, did you engage in procreation, did you hope for salvation, did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom, did you understand one thing from another.”

 What about being true to oneself? The Chasidic masters probably asked the same question, and came up with the following story about Rabbi Zusya of Hanapoli [you can find this story and more in the books "Tales of the Hasidim" by Professor Martin Buber];

      Once, the Hassidic rabbi Zusya came to his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him:

"Zusya, what's the matter? 

And he told them about his vision; "I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life."

The followers were puzzled. "Zusya, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?"

Zusya replied; "I have learned that the angels will not ask me, 'Why weren't you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?' and that the angels will not ask me, 'Why weren't you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?"'
Zusya sighed; "They will say to me, 'Zusya, why weren't you Zusya?'"

This story brings up the question whether we choose to stay with our tendency to hide beneath a mask of pretense, or go a step further to explore our authenticity and express ourselves to its fullest. Surely, we need to avoid false relationship between ourselves and others. More than that, Carl Jung was right too:

      "In the final analysis, we count for something only because of the essential we embody, and if we do not embody that, life is wasted."

Asher Lev knows in his heart that he needs to be himself and here is a very strong quote from the book;

      “But it would have made me a whore to leave it incomplete. It would have made it easier to leave future work incomplete. It would have made it more and more difficult to draw upon that additional aching surge of effort that is always the difference between integrity and deceit in a created work. I would not be the whore to my own existence. Can you understand that? I would not be the whore to my own existence.”

What about you? Are you inspired by Asher Lev and Zusya?
Where are you not being true to yourself?
What makes you feel whole and complete?
What makes you feel proud of yourself?


  1. I read that quote years ago and have always loved the wisdom of it. It seems that much in life and even 'religion' (which I stress is a word more descriptive of our interference with true spirituality) constantly seems to be asking why we're not this, or that? But, I'm learning, why am I not the Creation of God He made me to be under the redemption power of Moshiach (I'm a Christian) He came to redeem His Image in me and transform me into His Image. Thanks for the page, Rabbi :)

    1. To Mo_ I am pleased that my post could apply to your religion and spirituality. My blessings.

  2. Thanks for providing such useful information. Hope to get some more information in future also.