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(Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, Schocken Books, 1947, pp.246-247.)

"Lord, I love you so much, but I do not fear you enough! Lord, I love you so much, but I do not fear you enough! Let me stand in awe of you like your angels, who are penetrated by your awe-inspiring name." And God heard his prayer, and God's name penetrated the heart of Zusya as it does those of the angels. But Zusya crawled under the bed like a little dog, and animal fear shook him until he howled: "Lord, let me love you like Zusya again!" And God heard him this time also.

NiSh’ma: Pachad Yitzchak

Jeremy GordonBy Jeremy Gordon:

Jeremy Gordon: Be careful what you wish for. This terrific tale reminds me of the time I smuggled my teenage self into a horror movie that still haunts my sleep. Standing before God, we should feel yirah — awe, fear. It’s the essence of the High Holidays, HaYamim HaNoraim, literally, the Days of Awe. We are standing, being judged by our Creator, who knows the inner workings of our heart. This should be enough to send us under the bed. But I’m not convinced that we should encourage a Reb Zusya response — pleading to be absolved from the experience of yirah.

Zusya’s late-seventeenth-century contemporary, Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, recommends we carry two slips of paper in our pockets. One is inscribed with fearful words; “I am but dust and ashes”; the second slip has a gentler inscription, “For my sake was the universe created.” Sometimes, we need the experience — and the ability to share — love. Sometimes, we need the opposite. An early commentary on Creation (Bereishit Rabba 12:15) suggests that God initially wanted to create the world using only love, but God knew that such a world would collapse. The midrash asserts that God then considered creating a world built purely on the basis of judgment, but God knew that such a world couldn’t survive. So, God “mixed hot water and cold water,” and we find ourselves in a world of both love and fear.

NiSh’ma: Pachad Yitzchak

Hanan HarcholBy Hanan Harchol:

The story of Zusya praying to God, from Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim captures the complexity of the relationship between love and fear. I agree with Rabbi Jeremy Gordon that both love and fear are necessary in our lives. But while we might interpret the lesson of the story as “be careful what you wish for,” I suggest that this tale contains another lesson: that fear is, paradoxically, an integral and even necessary part of the process of building a real and meaningful connection. Fear leads to true love.

When we meet another person, we fearfully face “otherness.” What many of us do initially is fill in what we don’t know about the other person with what we want the other person to be. A midrash (Genesis Rabbah 8:1) recounts that Adam and Eve were originally one being facing away from each other. God, unhappy with that position, divided them so that they could turn to face and know each other.

Fear holds the key to growth. Instead of avoiding the otherness, instead of running away from the fear, we should try to embrace it. Try to exist within that uncomfortable, unknown space, the in-between, facing each other. By embracing the fear, we can reach a deeper, sustainable love where the fear and the love are intertwined as one. Maybe that is one way to interpret the concept of echad —the space where opposite forces, love and fear, exist simultaneously as a unified whole.

Zusya could tell that his love, at least as he was experiencing or understanding it, was not enough; his love was missing a counterbalancing force. Once he experienced fear, he wished to love “like Zusya again.” Indeed, his understanding and experience of love was deepened in the process. I think this story is showing us that acknowledging fear is a necessary part of recognizing and gaining a fuller and deeper appreciation and understanding of true, unconditional, and infinite love.

NiSh’ma: Pachad Yitzchak

Ilana KaufmanBy Ilana Kaufman:

While Zusya loves God with confidence and authenticity, Zusya asks God, with self-judgment, to know awe by aligning his God-loving experiences with those of angels. To his fulfilled request, Zusya responds with cowering fear. Zusya quickly returns to loving God in ways familiar and sincere to Zusya — confidently and with authenticity.

In response to the tale of Zusya, Rabbi Jeremy Gordon reminds us that, during the Days of Awe, we are “judged by our Creator, who knows the inner workings of our heart.” God hears and sees inside our hearts through selichot — petitionary prayers recited before Rosh Hashanah, when we ask, with sincerity, for forgiveness.

Acting with sincerity, authenticity, and confidence is our native state — our way of being of origin, in contrast to the self we become as we are pushed and pulled by forces of influence, including self-judgment and doubt. This way of acting enables us to experience open, awe-possible love for God. On the other hand, acting with self-judgment and cowering fear closes us to loving in sincere ways. When Zusya asks to return to his former state of loving God, God receives him by listening, seeing, and forgiving, which reminds us that our authentic and sincere ways of loving God are perfect.

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