2250 Story: Challenging Heaven


Rabbi Zusha of Hanipoli (18th century) was famous for his simple faith. Many stories are told about him, but perhaps the best known relates his response to students who asked why his teachings were different from those of his own teacher. Zusha's answer was: "When I come before the judges of the heavenly tribunal, they are not going to ask if I lived my life like Moses, or if I lived my life like Abraham. They are going to ask me if I lived my life to be the best Zusha I could be."

In his youth, Rabbi Zusha and his brother, Elimelech, traveled from town to town, learning with different rebbes. In those days, many Kabbalists were wandering ascetics, sleeping in the study halls and living on morsels of bread and scraps of food--except on Shabbat, when their stomachs usually would be filled. The Kabbalist learns much more from the experience of life than from books.

Zusha and Elimelech loved to attend joyous events: engagements, circumcisions, and especially weddings. Weddings have so much mystery, and yes, plenty of food too. 

In a traditional Jewish wedding, a number of rituals have kabbalistic importance. The chuppah under which the bride and groom stand during the ceremony represents a gateway to heaven. Before the wedding, in a separate ceremony called a bedeken, the bridegroom lowers a veil over the face of the bride. During her time under the veil, it is said that every bride is in direct communion with the souls of her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmothers all the way back to Sarah, the bride of Abraham. Moreover, during this time under the bridal veil, she connects with the souls of her children, her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren forward to the time when messianic consciousness will change our perspective of reality. Thinking about all of those connections was enough to make Zusha dizzy.

During the ceremony itself, when the bride first enters holding a candle, she circles the groom seven times. This symbolizes that she is bringing light to seven primordial levels of creation in which she and her groom are joining their souls. Seven blessings are said during the ceremony to commemorate the bond on each level. And breaking the glass at the end of the ceremony, although this act has many meanings on many levels, symbolizes for mystics the beginning of creation. That is to say, the light of each marriage is so bright it shatters all previous conceptions and opens the world to a whole new set of possibilities. For Zusha, weddings were not simply places to get good food, they were miraculous events. He believed that the world was balanced on each marriage.

This is a story of one wedding in particular that caught Zusha's attention. Many people think of hasidic stories as fables, folk tales, or anecdotes designed merely for entertainment or teaching. But great Kabbalists say that these stories are always real on some level.

  This was a big wedding. People had come from all over the countryside to honor the bride and groom. The arrangements were lavish, food was abundant, music played constantly and the dancing was ecstatic. Everything was designed to send wave after wave of joy to heaven so that a life of bliss and happiness would be assured for the couple during their time on this earth, and in the world to come.

But Zusha was frightened. He had seen something happen in the wedding that worried him. It was a subtle thing, probably nobody else noticed, but it was the kind of incident Zusha spent his life noticing. You see, Zusha was one of the lamed-vav tzaddikim, one of the thirty-six hidden saints who quietly do their work in this world in a way that holds the entire universe together.3

 Without the work of a lamed-vavnik, it is impossible to imagine the pain and suffering that would ensue.

  This incident had happened in the wedding ceremony itself. When the bride first came to join the groom under the canopy, she began to circle around him to enter the higher realms. For many people these other worlds are a mystery, some would even say a fantasy. Indeed, many assume that these worlds are not important compared with tangible reality. But for Rabbi Zusha, these other worlds were as real as anything he could touch or see. Indeed, for him, these worlds were far more significant and more permanent than anything on earth.

At an early age, Zusha had discovered how to enter other realities. He had a mysterious inner vision. When a person acted in a certain way, it was a sure sign that something fortunate was going to happen to that person in the near future. Zusha learned to observe that when someone moved to the left or to the right it was somehow an indication of their potential for success. 

As a child, Zusha assumed that all people had this ability to observe and thereby anticipate things that would happen. Later, however, he discovered that although everyone did indeed have the capacity to foresee the future, most people did not allow themselves time to develop this unique and extraordinary gift. Indeed, he rarely met anyone that could see things in the same way as he. Thus, he was extremely disturbed when he saw that the bride only circled the groom five times rather than the required seven.

Too many people had crowded around the canopy. A number of rabbis and many family members had been crushed together at this critical moment. Everyone had been distracted at one point by a barking dog. The bride had done the best she could, but nobody was really counting. Nobody, that is, except Rabbi Zusha, who did this kind of thing automatically. In fact, for him the softest rush of wind was a message, the quietest bird call, the color of a fly, or whether one was breathing in or breathing out when something was being said. Each and every detail in the universe unveiled something much, much bigger for this lamed-vav tzaddik.

The fact that the bride only made five circuits was a foreboding sign. A connection was not completed in two of the seven spheres and thus the harmony of this couple's universe would be greatly impaired. It would falter and the imbalance would bring about great tests and trials.

From his observations of the cycles of life, Rabbi Zusha knew that every married couple faced ongoing challenges, but that there were special difficulties in the seventh year of marriage. This was a time when all the worlds either settled into a new harmony for another seven years, or things got stuck in some kind of inflexibility. When this happened, they would fly apart. For our sweet couple, it was going to happen in five years. Moreover, it was going to be enormously difficult for them because their two worlds would be at odds. Rabbi Zusha was very much afraid for them.

But, thank God, fate is not as fixed as some people think. Everything we do affects how life will unfold for us. Of course, most of the time we do not realize the subtleties of the forces in life, so we miss many opportunities to direct our own fate. It is the job of a lamed-vav tzaddik, however, to constantly improve the destiny of those around him or her. Thus, Rabbi Zusha set out to do his work, to use his considerable influence in the cosmos to give the newly married couple a secret wedding gift. It was a gift that could never be discussed. Only Zusha himself five years from now would be able to appreciate the fruits of his efforts.

In his prayers the morning after the wedding, Zusha deeply meditated on the problem and began to open vital channels. As a young man he had learned that just as he could observe the connections between the universe and individual acts, he could actually influence the universe by purposely doing something. For example, when he noticed that a particular action of someone would invariably led to a painful experience, he often distracted that person at a critical moment. If someone said something that surely would lead to trouble, Zusha would find a way to engage this person in a conversation and gently maneuver the subject to undo the damage. This was his responsibility as a lamed-vav tzaddik. He had no choice in the matter.

He even learned to observe when someone was in a dangerous state of mind and he found ways to subtly tickle this person's psyche and break the mood. Sometimes, for no reason at all, we go from a bad mood to a good mood; it could be the result of a lamed-vavnik standing nearby. Indeed, sometimes we think we are having a casual conversation with a stranger and the fact is that this other person is helping us avoid a serious tragedy. Moreover, many of us act as lamed-vav tzaddikim without even knowing it ourselves. But that is the subject of another story.

Zusha, in deep meditation, began to plead for this newly married couple. If only people had the wisdom to see the importance of small actions. Of course, he understood that the bride had not caused the problem as such. Rather she was simply revealing something already in the hands of fate. Yet, the way things work in this world, had she been able to make the seven circuits, she might have influenced her fate and perhaps modified the decree through the power of her own free will.

Rabbi Zusha tried, in his way, to complete the two circuits. The argument in this heavenly court was quite complex. The lives of the bride and groom and the lives of their parents and grandparents were reviewed in depth. As with all human beings, mistakes had been made. Some had accumulated. The decree was not based on a single issue, which is often the case, but upon a series of events that led to an inevitable result.

Finally, Zusha made a plea bargain. The couple had a debt to pay. But if he could accomplish a way to get them involved in the next three months to give more charity than usual, and to perform many acts of loving kindness, the decree would be cancelled. It was agreed, signed and sealed.

Once Rabbi Zusha had finished his meditation, he set out to find the couple, to persuade them somehow to fulfill an obligation that they did not know they had. He could not tell them, of course, and even if he had they would not have believed him. No, he was obliged to do the work in his usual way, behind the scenes. If he were successful they would not even know he had been around. (Hear this story mp3: 1206)