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Why were you not Zusya?
4 min read

Why were you not Zusya?

One of my favorite stories comes from the Hasidic tradition about a Rabbi on his deathbed. It goes something like this:

The esteemed Rabbi Zusya was dying, and several of his students came to his bedside to share their love for him and to hear his final teachings.

When the students gathered round, they were surprised to find the Rabbi distressed at the prospect of dying and God’s final judgment.

Curious as to why, one of the students asked,

“Great Rabbi, are you afraid that when you die and meet the Lord, he will ask you, ‘Why you were not more pious, like Joseph?'”

Zusya responded,

“No, for if I die and meet the Lord and He asks, ‘Zusya, why were you not like Joseph?’, I shall say, ‘Oh Lord, all-powerful, if you had wished me to be more like Joseph, you should have made me more like Joseph!”

Another student piped in, asking,

“Well, are you afraid then that the Lord will ask you, ‘Zusya, why were you not kinder, like Rachel?’”

Zusya again responded,

“No, no, for if the Lord asks, ‘Zusya, Why were you not more like Rachel?’, I shall say, ‘Oh Lord, Creator of the world, if you had wished me to be more like Rachel, you should have made me more like Rachel!’”

Finally, a third student asked,

“Well, great Rabbi, what are you afraid of?”

Zusya, gray in the face, answers,

“My fear is that when I die and meet my maker, He will ask me, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Zusya?' And to that, how shall I respond?"

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What does it mean to live a good life?

Every major religion is in some way a response to that question, and each one offers a slightly different answer. *

Religious scholar Stephen Prothero offers a model we can use to explore these answers. In his framework, religious ideologies can be broken down into 4 parts:

  • Problem: a proposed core problem of life
  • Solution: a proposed solution to that problem
  • Path: a defined path people can follow to move from problem to solution
  • Exemplars: archetypal figures from history who have shown what it's like to walk the path

Through this lens, we can look at Christianity:

  • Problem: sin
  • Solution: salvation
  • Path: faith, follow the gospel
  • Exemplars: saints and apostles

Or Buddhism:

  • Problem: suffering
  • Solution: letting go, being with reality as it is
  • Path: mindfulness and heart practices, 8-fold path
  • Exemplars: bodhisattvas and the historical Buddha

Prothero makes the case that while the mystical core of each religion may be the same, the belief system and lived experience of the everyday practitioner is vastly different from one religion to the next.

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The problem-solution-path-exemplar framework can also be useful in exploring non-religious belief systems.

In fact, some religious scholars have argued that, rather than labeling ideologies as “religion” or “non-religion,” we may be better served by thinking of both as belonging to the broader category of worldviews.

From this perspective, ideologies like nationalism and socialism can be explored in the same way as Christianity or Buddhism. For example, we can analyze the worldview behind the American Dream in much the same way as the religions above:

  • Problem: class immobility
  • Solution: free markets, laissez-faire capitalism
  • Path: sacrifice, work hard, take risks, and achieve success
  • Exemplars: Andrew Carnegie, Mark Cuban, Oprah Winfrey

Similarly, here is a problem-solution-path-exemplar breakdown of the ideology running through the venture-backed startup ecosystem:

In many ways, YCombinator founder Paul Graham’s essays (linked above) function as a sort of sacred text for the startup world, laying out a clear ideology and opinion on a well-lived life.

To be sure, few people in tech would identify as “Graham-ites.” However, even if one does not explicitly ascribe to a belief system, it is possible to infer one’s worldview by looking at one’s behavior.

While there is nothing wrong with intentionally adopting someone else’s ideas -- I still refer people to Graham’s essays as some of the most distilled public thinking on startup life -- trouble can arise when one or two ways of thinking broadly permeate a culture to the exclusion of other viewpoints.

For example, if you work in tech, you likely hear Graham’s thinking reflected in the tech press, from your CEO, and in the aspirations of your colleagues. Or, if you’ve picked a different watering hole, you hear the IndieHackers crowd telling you that VC is evil and the real answer to living a good life is to bootstrap a SaaS company.

Whether you resonate more with Graham or the bootstrapper crowd, the more time you spend in a mono or duo-culture, the easier it becomes to mistake these worldviews as simply facts of life.

We become fish, and these worldviews become the water we swim in, unaware as our original values and goals fade away and are replaced by the cultural standard.

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I think of the above as “worldview drift” -- when we unintentionally adopt someone else’s myths, path, and prescriptive goals as our own.

This is especially common with secular worldviews, as they are often implicit. Based on our peer environment and exposure to different success narratives, our internal compass can shift dramatically without us ever realizing it.

Which brings us back to the story of Zusya, or to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson,

“How to be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else?”

Ironically, when viewed through the lens of Prothero’s framework above, this is just another interpretation of “the great problem” of life.  

To flesh out the full “be thyself” worldview:

Viewed through this lens, the term “spiritual growth” becomes not about anything supernatural, but about reflecting more intentionally on what it would mean for each of us to “be more Zusya” in our lives.

Of course, much like the other worldviews above, “be thyself” is an aspiration; we may get closer and closer, but we’ll never fully reach our destination.

Still, perhaps this framework can help those of us who don’t affiliate with a traditional religion become aware of how we are living out our own answers to these questions, and notice when our worldview inevitably begins to drift.

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Invitations for reflection:

  • How does the problem-solution-path-exemplar framework resonate?
  • What does my behavior implicitly say about my current worldview?
  • How would I name the "problem" and "solution" of life?
  • What would it mean to live in such a way as to be more you?