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The Tao Of Elimelekh And Zusia

From Elie Wiesel’s book Souls On Fire: Portraits And Legends Of Hasidic Mastersthe story of 18th-century two brothers, Elimelekh and Zusia:

All his life Elimelekh aspired to fulfill himself through suffering, which taunted him by eluding him. Whereas Zusia, constantly beaten by life and tormented by Him who give life, considered himself to be the happiest of men.

Zusia: a picturesque character, rich in color, worshipped as a saint, praised as a Tzaddik and affectionately remembered as the “Fool of God.” His younger brother: a natural leader, founder of a major new school. Without either, Hasidism would have been different. Together they gave its future a countenance. In years to come, for a Rebbe to be whole, he had to be both Rebbe Zusia — innocence and humility personified — and Rebbe Elimelekh, supreme incarnation of authority and power. Their two portraits — so distinct and yet intertwined — have remained singularly alive in Hasidic memory.


While Elimelikh was studying and working his way through the tangled texture of Talmudic concepts and arguments, Zusia spent his days and nights roaming the woods, singing and dancing for God. To his brother he explained: “I am like the servant who loves his king but may see him only through a hole in the wall. You are like the prince who may stay in the presence of the king provided you have learned the art of using words.

Of all the disciples of the Great Maggid, said Israel of Rizhin, Rebbe Zusia was the only one not to pass on what he had learned. And this is why: because as soon as the Maggid began talking, Zusia would fall into ecstasy and make so much noise that he would be sent out. How could he have repeated what he hadn’t heard?

One more:

Before Rebbe Zusia died, he said: “What I shall face the celestial tribunal, I shall not be asked why I was not Abraham, Jacob or Moses. I shall be asked why I was not Zusia.”

His brother, imagining the same scene, lent it a more optimistic ending: “They will ask me if I was just; I shall say no. Then they will ask me if I was charitable; I shall say no. Did I devote my life to study? No. To prayer perhaps? No again. And then the Supreme Judge will smile and say: ‘Elimelikh, Elimelekh, you speak the truth — and for this alone you may enter paradise.'”

I read about the brothers last night, and thought, perhaps oddly, about the cardinals in Rome gathered to choose the next pope. The pope needs to be Zusia — charismatic, mystical — and he needs to be Elimelekh, in that he must be rigorous and administrative. Both qualities are necessary in a pope, but both are so, so hard to find in the same person.

And because everything I think about these days, three weeks from the release of The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, is about my sister and me, I thought about the Hasidic brothers and the differences between the two Dreher kids. In a way, Ruthie was Zusia, and I was Elimelekh. I was the analytical, intellectual one, and she was the sibling who preferred to lead with her heart, and to live in the moment. With her terminal cancer, my instinct was to think deeply into it, parse its abstractions; she was happy simply to be present in the moment, and enjoy the sunshine.

But that’s not the whole truth. Ruthie was Elimelekh, in that she internalized (though could not articulate) a very strong framework for experiencing life, and distrusted whimsy or anything that broke the bounds of her way of seeing the world. I was — I am — Zusia, in that I was far more open to experience, to serendipity, and to ecstasy. There are times when I think about her, and wish I could see things as she did, and do as she did. And there are times when I think about how it would have done her a world of good to be more like me in some ways.

In truth, most of us have both a Zusia nature and an Elimelekh nature, and they move always within us, like yin and yang, and also between us. This is why the story of Mary and Martha, from the Gospel, is so archetypal. There is a time for preparation, and a time for celebration. We need grace and wisdom to know when to be Zusia or Mary, and when to be Elimelekh and Martha. When to do, and when to simply be. Harmony, balance, equilibrium, appropriate to the moment — this is the necessary thing. God blesses both, but not at the same time — that’s the Mary and Martha lesson — but He does bless both. The Catholic poet Charles Péguy wrote:

Thus God did not want

It wouldn’t have pleased him

To have only one voice in the concert.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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