Rabbi Zusya, a pious and revered sage, was lying on his deathbed, weeping. His students stood by him confused.
“Rabbi, why do you weep?” one of them ventured to ask, “Surely if anyone is assured a place in the world to come, it is you!”
The sage turned his head toward his beloved students and began to speak softly: “If, my children, when I stand before the heavenly court, I am asked ‘Zusya, why were you not a Moses?’ I shall have no hesitation in affirming, ‘I was not born a Moses.’”
“If they ask me, ‘Why, then, were you not an Elijah?” I shall speak with confidence, ‘Neither am I Elijah.’”
“I weep, friends, because there is only one question that I fear to be asked; ‘Why were you not a Zusya?’”
The question is, how each of us can be, most authentically, who each of us is or is supposed to be.
I do not want to minimize the difficulty that we can have figuring out who we are and what our true path in life should be. Unlike Jonah, we do not usually have G-D tell us exactly what we should do. Indeed, even if we think we have heard a divine call, we are sometimes mistaken. But let us assume that we have a sense of who we should be or, at least, in what direction we should move.
Jonah knew what he should do, who he should be. Yet he ran away. He did not want to save the people of Nineveh, the capitol city of our enemy, Assyria. He knew what he should do: call the people of Nineveh to repentance. He knew who he was: a Prophet and servant of G-D. Yet he ran. He did not want to be who he was called to be.
Some of us have found ourselves in Jonah’s position in the following way. We know we should do something, change something, be somebody. But we also know that answering that call will be uncomfortable; some people will be angry with us and we may hurt others we care about. But not to answer the call means stuffing our ears to a truth that is crying out to us and living in conflict with who we are.
What happens when we ignore the call to be our authentic selves? Jonah fled on a ship. The storm sent to stop him endangered those around him and his own life. Only by owning up to his mission and what he was supposed to do and leaving the ship was Jonah able to calm the storm.
When we try to ignore a call to be our authentic selves, we too generate storms. The storms of our own simmering discontent, the gloom of deceit, when we pretend to things we do not feel and desires we do not have. The ever falling rain of the despair of recognizing our own empty role playing. Make no mistake, sometimes seeking to follow the call to authenticity will generate storms, but they will be the storms of creation and growth.
As Jonah was swallowed by the great fish, we sometimes will find ourselves in periods of darkness, whether in doubt over our direction, in sadness for the pain we might cause others by doing what we must do, or merely the darkness and fear inherent in any period of transition.
The kicker is that seeking to live authentically will not guarantee happiness or even contentment. Look at Jonah in his booth. In fulfilling his destiny, Jonah found misery. But this was his choice. He could have found satisfaction in being who he was supposed to be but chose to be angry and resentful instead.
No path in life can promise us happiness. Every road we travel will have its share of pain, sadness, and disappointment. It is up to each of us to cultivate a spirit of gratitude. We can seek to find what little joys and beauties are offered up in each moment of existence.
We are, each of us, walking steadily to death. But as a man walking beneath the sun to the gallows, we can weep over our mortality and lost time and opportunity or we can note the brightness of the day, the cool hint of autumn in the breeze, the song of a distant bird floating in the air. We can chose.
I cannot say that life is made easier or happier by trying to live an authentic life. I can say that by heeding the call to be who we are, our eyes can see the beauties of the world more clearly and hear the song of existence more sharply. Whether to take joy and comfort from that is up to each one of us.