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The Lesson

by Doug Lipman

When Reb Zusya was a young rabbi, a local merchant denounced him publicly. The Hasidic movement, the merchant said, was a dangerous innovation. Those who propounded it were fools at best and scoundrels at worst.

When his followers came to Reb Zusya with the news of this slander, Reb Zusya merely smiled. They pleaded, "Aren't you going to counter his accusations?"

"Yes," he said. "I'll keep doing what I've been doing."

Some time later, one of Reb Zusya's followers, known as Moishe Lieb, heard a commotion in the marketplace. A crowd had gathered around the merchant, who was spreading his opinion of Reb Zusya to any who would listen.

"He defiles the worship services! I saw him! He dances around, delays the prayers past their proper time, and insults our dignity!"

These affronts to his rabbi were too much for Moishe Lieb. He pushed his way to the center of the crowd. "I will teach you a lesson about Hasidism, you liar!"

The merchant pointed at Moishe Lieb and roared, "There is one of the fools now! See how he insults me!"

Enraged, Moishe Lieb spat at the merchant. The merchant lunged at Moishe Lieb. Had the crowd not restrained them, they would have come to blows.

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A few days later, Reb Zusya approached Moishe Lieb. "Would you help me with something?"

"Of course, Rabbi. For you, anything."

"Will you come with me on a three-day journey? Just the two of us."

"Just me, Rabbi? I would be honored."

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On the appointed morning, Reb Zusya led Moishe Lieb, on foot, out of the city. By the end of the day, the two of them had left the main road and were walking on a small, faint path through dry, uninhabited hills. Again and again, Reb Zusya had to tell Moishe Lieb, "Watch out - the path goes to the right here. No, it's this way."

As darkness fell, Reb Zusya pointed to a sheltering rock at the base of a large hill. "We'll sleep under there."

When it was still dark, Reb Zusya shook his companion awake. "Come, Reb Moishe." The rabbi led him up the hill. When they reached the top and could see the narrow valley on the other side, Reb Zusya stopped and sat down in the path. He began staring intently into the valley before him. "Let's look, Moishe," he said.

Reb Moishe sat down next to him and stared, too. In the first light of day, he saw a parched valley below them, with two small fields of grain. Next to each field was a shelter built from rock. Down the center of the valley, a tiny creek trickled through the first farm and into the next. As the light broadened, he saw that, in contrast to the brown scrub around the fields, the two farms were lush with green.

For a long time, nothing happened. Then, just as the sun appeared in the sky, the door of the farther house opened. A man emerged, carrying a homemade, crude wooden bucket. He went to the tiny creek - scarcely more than a moist strip with a trickle of water down its center - and put the bucket where it could collect the few drops that ran into it. After many minutes, the man picked up the full bucket and began sprinkling the precious water on his field.

They watched the man water his field in this slow way until the sun was precisely overhead. Abruptly, the man looked up in the sky, stopped his work, and walked toward the farm which lay above his. As though on signal, a man came out of the near stone shelter and, without a word, embraced the first man - who silently gave him the bucket and returned to his stone hut.

For the rest of the day, Reb Zusya and Reb Moishe Lieb watched the second man patiently water his farm, just as the first man had. When the sun set, the upstream farmer walked to the downstream shelter, silently hugged the occupant, handed him back the bucket, and returned to his own shelter of stone.

At that, Reb Zusya stood up, turned around and began to walk the way they had come. Moishe Lieb followed him.

After a time, Moishe Lieb spoke. "Teacher, why did we come here?"

Reb Zusya said, "Sit down. I will tell you what I know of those two men." He began to tell the story.

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The first time I came here (he said) I saw very much what you saw today - the two green fields in this arid place and the two men who watered them so patiently. Curious - and, besides, it was nightfall and I needed a place to sleep - I approached the first shelter. My host smiled and gestured me to enter. I soon discovered that he spoke no word of my language and I spoke no word of his. So, after a short time, I went to the shelter of the second farmer. To my amazement, he appeared to speak yet another language. He could not converse with me nor with his only neighbor.

Eventually, by way of signs and grunts, I learned their story. The "upstream" farmer, fleeing empty-handed from a war somewhere, had settled here alone. Even though he had no tools of any kind and he saw the aridity of this place, he hoped that the stream would moisten his field enough for him to grow a crop. He struggled to survive, scouring the surrounding area for berries and wild grains to eat and plant here. He carried water in his cupped hands from the trickling stream to his field.

At the end of the first winter, he was nearly starved and exhausted. One day, he saw another man enter this valley, carrying a large cloth sack over his shoulder. For a while the first man hid, fearing that he would be forced to return to the war he had deserted. When at last he emerged and spoke to the man, he learned that they spoke no common language. In spite of this, he soon realized that the other man wanted to settle here, too. The first man was about to drive him off when the other opened his cloth sack and took from it a wooden bucket. Overjoyed, the first man embraced the stranger as a friend and rescuer. Soon, by sharing the bucket, they were able to water both fields and live here in peace.

I left them, amazed at the simple, tranquil life they had carved from this dry valley.

A year or two later, I passed by here again. You can imagine my amazement when I discovered that the fields were brown, their crops were nearly dead, and a wall had been built between the two fields. When they saw me coming, they both came to greet me. But when each saw the other, they growled and shook their fists. Neither would approach me, lest he come too close to the other! I visited them one at a time in their shelters. By miming questions and watching how they acted out the answers, I was able to piece together what had happened since I came here last.

Somehow, they had quarreled over the bucket. Neither seemed able to describe the cause of their quarrel, but each seemed equally furious. Evidently, the "downstream" farmer had finally refused to share the bucket at all, leaving the upstream farmer with no way to gather the creek water. Then, in retaliation, the upstream farmer dug a ditch and diverted the water from the downstream field, into a pile of loose stones where neither could reach it. Now they were both unable to water their crops.

One night, determined on revenge, the upstream farmer sneaked into the other's house to steal the bucket. The downstream farmer, however, had taken to wrapping his body around the bucket as he slept, and woke up in time to chase the empty-handed upstream farmer away. But the next day, he began dragging stones between their fields, forming a wall that neither could cross.

That was how I found them: slowly starving to death, neither able to use the water that still flowed slowly into their valley.

What could I do? I took the bottle of Sabbath wine from the sack I carried. I opened it, carried it to the first farmer's shelter, and walked backward holding the wine out toward him, enticing him up the hill as you might lure a stray cat. I signaled him to stay there, then led the second farmer with the same promise of wine. They each stayed a considerable distance away from me, one above me on the hill and the other below. They showed no willingness to get too close to each other, yet they both appeared to understand that I meant to offer them each wine.

I took out a tin cup from my sack and filled it with wine. I extended it first toward one of them, then toward the other, offering the cup to them both. At last they understood that I meant for them to drink from the same cup. Suspiciously, they each approached. I brought their hands together, put the cup in their joined hands, and stood back to let them drink.

They continued to eye each other as they brought their mouths closer to the wine. Then one of them tried to pull the wine away. The other pulled back. In a short while, they had spilled the entire cup of wine over each other and the ground. They both looked at me imploringly.

I retrieved the cup, filled it again, and set it on the ground between them. This time they each managed to drink a mouthful before starting to tussle - and spilling the rest.

I filled the cup several times. At last, they had learned to drink from the same cup. By now, the wine was gone, but the two men remained facing each other on the path. The first one pointed at the wine stains on the other's shirt and laughed. Then the second one pointed back. When the first one looked down and discovered similar stains on his shirt, they both laughed.

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Rabbi Zusya looked at his companion. "That's how I left them a year ago," he said. "Laughing on the path. As you can see, they must have stopped trying to retaliate."

Moishe Lieb nodded. "I see. You taught them without teaching them. Just like you taught me."

"What did I teach you?"

Moishe Lieb sighed. "That I didn't help you by 'fighting over the bucket' with the merchant."

Reb Zusya put his arm around his companion. "I know you meant to help. You couldn't bear to see me attacked."

"Did I hurt your work?"

"Yes, a little. But maybe now you know other ways to help him learn?"

The next morning, the companions began the walk back home. Reb Zusya did not have to tell Moishe Lieb where to walk. By now, he knew the way.



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This page was last updated on Monday, March 10, 2003
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