by Rabbi Nancy Kasten
This story is told of the 18th century scholar and rabbi, Zusha of Hanipol:
Reb Zusha was lying on his deathbed surrounded by his disciples. He was crying and no one could comfort him. One student asked his Rebbe, “Why do you cry? You were almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham.” Reb Zusha answered, “When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won’t ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham?’ Rather, they will ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you Zusha?’ Why didn’t I fulfill my potential, why didn’t I follow the path that could have been mine?”
The current war, perpetrated by Russia on Ukraine, is a recent example of an injustice for which we feel called to respond, but don’t know what to do. We feel helpless and inadequate, unsure of why anything we could do would make a difference. We are already overwhelmed by the challenges of responding to injustices closer to home—racial discrimination and the resulting violence; immigration policies that make it unnecessarily hard to welcome and serve the stranger; threats to democracy that are rooted in misinformation and disinformation; the high numbers of children in cities like Dallas who are food insecure, lack health insurance, and might even live in neighborhoods without running water. It sometimes feels like too much to bear. It sometimes takes all our energy just to get out of bed in the morning.
Dr. Paul Farmer’s untimely passing might contribute to our resignation or despair about being able to truly make a difference. The world needs more Paul Farmers, and now he is gone. His example seems unattainable. The amount of impact he had in his 62 years of life was the result of a combination of unique gifts of heart and mind with a willingness to sacrifice privileges that most people are not willing to give up.
The story of Reb Zusha—who lived, died, and is buried in Ukraine—reflects a conviction that each and every one of us has a role to play in the redemption of humanity. Each of us was created with unique gifts of heart and mind. Each of us sacrifices privileges for things that give meaning and purpose to our lives—our family, our work, our community. And I dare say that each of us has experienced our own version of redemption when we use our gifts and when we make those sacrifices.
Deciding where and how to do that so that we don’t self-destruct in the process requires internal discernment and self compassion. And it also requires friends. Dr. Farmer once said in an interview, “…to be horrified by inequality and early death and not have any kind of plan for responding—that would not work for me. So then the question becomes: How do you shape those plans to be part of other people’s plans? Poor people’s plans?” He also said, “With rare exceptions, all of your most important achievements on this planet will come from working with others—or, in a word, partnership.”
As our society emerges out of forced isolation, it may be an effort to resist chosen isolation. But now is not the time to abdicate power as God’s partner on earth. Each of us has been endowed with innate qualities that can fill the gaps that others cannot fill. And every other person fills a gap that we cannot fill. As Dr. Farmer taught “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” And as Reb Zusha taught, none of our lives matter less. God needs us all.