Excerpt from Breakfast with Rav Zusha: And Other Stories to Wake Up Your Soul by Libi Astaire
“This is a wonderful collection of Chassidic tales retold by Libi Astaire. In her incredibly capable hands, the stories and characters come to life. … The stories are perfect for sharing around Sabbath tables or sharing between children and parents curled up together on a couch.” – Jewish Book Council
How to Get Everything for Nothing
(Rav Zusha’s Way to Win Friends and Influence People)
In the town of Hanipoli there were two rabbis. One, of course, was Rav Zusha, the legendary chassidic master. The other was the rav of the town, who happened to be an opponent of the chassidic movement.
Rav Zusha was beloved by all for his sweet disposition and cheerful outlook, which he maintained despite the harsh poverty he lived in. The rav, however, was not so popular with the townspeople.
Although he was a man of great learning, inside this rav was an angry and bitter man. None of the honors bestowed upon him or the marks of respect he received was ever enough. He always, in his heart, found some reason for complaint. And since misery loves company, once the rav found one complaint, he soon found another one, and then another, until he was boiling with rage because of some perceived insult to his honor and ready to explode.
The rav of course was no boor. He knew with his intellect that the Torah condemns angry behavior in no uncertain terms. However, as soon as his heart began to ponder his unhappy state—where a man of such erudition and refined sensibilities was so unappreciated in the world—strong feelings of anger overpowered him once more.
On one cold, winter night, as he sat by the warm fire in his comfortably furnished study, the rav was again drifting into those dangerous, bitter waters. His thoughts returned to a wedding he had attended the week before.
The father of the bride, Reb Moshe, was a wealthy philanthropist. The entire town had been invited to join in the family’s simcha, and no expense had been spared to celebrate the occasion. As the rav of the town, he of course expected that he would receive treatment befitting his position. Yet during that miserable evening, he had received nothing but insults.
No place at the table had been reserved for him. No food was served to him—unless you call a few picked over scraps of chicken and vegetables that no one else wanted food. But to top it all, when it came time to say the Grace after Meals, no one invited him to recite one of the special sheva brachos said at a wedding.
Instead, who was given the place of honor at the wedding? Rav Zusha, that’s who!
Was it any wonder that he had left the celebration in a total state of rage? How much humiliation was one man expected to endure?
His thoughts returned to the “scene of the crime” again and again, and his mind’s eye became fixed on the beaming face of Rav Zusha, who had sat through the entire event in a state of rapturous bliss.
The rav saw once more Rav Zusha, attired in his tattered clothes, sitting at the head table. There was Rav Zusha, who barely had a tooth in his mouth, enjoying a plate piled high with delicious foods. And when the meal was over, who was given the honor of leading the Grace after Meals? Again, Rav Zusha!
Suddenly, a log on the fire crackled and sent a burst of sparks shooting into the air. One of the sparks fell on to the rav’s hand, and the sharp twinge of pain roused him from his thoughts.
“Even the fire is angry tonight,” he muttered to himself.
He gazed at the fire, and then he looked at the small red mark on his hand.
“My flames of fire burn,” he said with sadness. “Rav Zusha also has a fire within him, yet his fire doesn’t burn. It warms. What’s his secret?”
What’s his secret? The rav’s thoughts became fixated on this question. Why is Rav Zusha always so happy? Why does his face always glow with goodwill? What’s his secret?!
As the rav pondered this mystery, a strange thing happened. His anger began to disappear and an intense curiosity took its place. Even though the hour was late and the night was bitterly cold, the rav had to have an answer to his question.
Normally, as rav of the town and a vocal opponent of the chassidim, he would never dream of visiting one of the “sect” at his home, let alone asking one of them for advice. But tonight he was willing to put his honor—and his opposition—aside. True, he did bundle himself up in his coat and hat and scarf so that it was practically impossible to recognize him. But even this fear of being detected wasn’t strong enough to stop him from determinedly trudging his way through the snow-covered streets.
Finally, the rav arrived at the broken-down hovel that Rav Zusha called home, and Rav Zusha invited him to come inside. Despite Rav Zusha’s warm welcome, the rav shivered even more when he stepped inside and saw the dreary, damp-stained walls, the broken furniture, and the empty fireplace. He therefore lost no time in coming straight to the point.
“How is it that you are always so happy and content,” the rav asked, “while I am always bitter and depressed?”
“It’s no great secret,” Rav Zusha replied. “But the reason is easier to explain by example, so let me tell you a story.”
Now the truth is that the rav would have preferred a simple answer to his question, and feelings of anger were already beginning to well up inside him. However, since he had come so far, he wasn’t about to get up and leave so quickly.
“Do you remember the wedding of Reb Moshe’s daughter?” asked Rav Zusha.
“Of course I do,” the rav replied in a huff.
“Do you remember what happened when the special messenger arrived at your door with your personally delivered invitation?”
The rav looked at Rav Zusha with disbelief. How could Rav Zusha possibly know what had happened?
“You demanded to see the guest list,” Rav Zusha said, “because you wanted to see where your name appeared on the list. When you saw that you were only fourteenth on the list—that there were thirteen other people before you—you became so angry you almost crumpled up the piece of paper in your hands. Is this correct?”
“But I am the rav of Hanipoli,” the rav protested. “Because of my position, I deserve to be shown honor.”
“True, but did you happen to notice that the people ahead of you were Reb Moshe’s relatives and close friends? Your name actually headed the list of those people outside of the family circle. But because you didn’t see this, you became so angry at Reb Moshe that you began to plot your revenge. Do you remember what you decided to do?”
The rav remembered it well. He had decided the family didn’t deserve the honor of having him attend the chuppah. He would show his displeasure with them by only arriving in the middle of the meal.
“By the time you arrived, of course, the hall was packed,” said Rav Zusha. “The whole town was at this wedding and there wasn’t an empty seat to be found. You wandered from table to table, getting jostled left and right, until Reb Moshe finally spotted you. Can you tell me what happened next?”
The rav didn’t want to answer, but he knew he had no choice. If he didn’t tell Rav Zusha, then Rav Zusha would tell him.
“Reb Moshe escorted me to the head table, but…”
“Nu? What’s the ‘but’ this time?”
“There wasn’t any room for me at the head table,” the rav complained. “They had to squeeze me in between the people who were already sitting there. It was insulting. Don’t they know who I am?”
“So who are you, Eliyahu HaNavi, that people should always leave an empty place for you at the table?”
“But what about the waiters?” countered the rav. “Explain their rude behavior, if you can.”
“It was a wedding. There were so many people and so much noise—everyone calling for more this, more that. True, the waiters didn’t see you, but someone else did. Isn’t that right?”
The rav slowly nodded his head in agreement. He now remembered a detail about the wedding that he had forgotten. As soon as his host, Reb Moshe, had noticed that he was sitting with an empty plate, the wealthy philanthropist immediately went to the kitchen himself to get the rav some food.
When Reb Moshe returned, he apologized profusely to the rav. All that was left in the kitchen was a small piece of chicken and a few vegetables. The rav angrily refused the plate his host offered him, and he told Reb Moshe exactly what he thought of the abominable treatment he had received at this wedding. Reb Moshe apologized once more, and then he went back to his own seat at the table.
“For the rest of the evening, you sat in an angry sulk,” said Rav Zusha. “Your whole being radiated such strong feelings of displeasure that no one dared to approach you—not even to say mazel tov. So is it any wonder that you were not asked to lead the Grace After Meals at this simcha?”
The rav now saw the whole evening in a totally different light. He was no longer angry about what had happened, but he was still far from happy. The mystery of how to be joyful still had not been solved.
“Now let’s see what happened to Zusha at this wedding,” continued Rav Zusha, who always referred to himself in the third person.
“When Zusha opened his door and saw there was a special delivery messenger standing before him, he couldn’t believe his eyes. To think that Reb Moshe, one of the wealthiest men in the town, should invite Zusha to share in his simcha—and send a messenger to personally deliver the invitation. Such honor! Such kindness! Unbelievable!
“Zusha was so overcome with joy for the family that when the happy day arrived he rushed to the hall two hours before the chuppah to see if he could help with the preparations. Zusha thought he might be asked to chop up some potatoes or season the chicken, but what happened? Reb Moshe asked him to officiate at the chuppah!
“After the ceremony, Zusha hoped he would be able to find a seat at a table. But if not, he would be happy to stand in a corner and eat his meal there. He was just about to go look for a seat anywhere, when Reb Moshe took him by the arm and personally escorted him to a fine seat at the head table.
“Waiters suddenly came from this way and that, heaping chicken and potatoes and kugel on Zusha’s plate. Zusha was so overcome by all this kindness that he just had to get up and thank his host. He blessed the bride and the groom with all his heart and was about to go back to his seat when Reb Moshe stopped him.”
Rav Zusha stopped for a moment in the telling of his tale to brush a tear from his eye. He then shook his head, as if to say that he too couldn’t belief what happened next.
“Reb Moshe then said such kind words to Zusha,” Rav Zusha said, as he wiped yet another tear from his eye. “‘Rav Zusha, you’re so filled with simcha for my family,’ Reb Moshe said, ‘will you please honor me by leading us in Grace After Meals?’
“Zusha went home so happy that night. But you, honored rav, went home angry and in despair—and the reason why is simple. You expected everything, and so you got nothing. I didn’t ask for anything, but I got it all.”