By Daniel Bortz
In 18th century Eastern Europe there lived two brothers who were Hasidic Masters with great followings, Reb Elimelech and Reb Zusha. They would travel anonymously to scattered towns and villages to inspire their inhabitants. Reb Zusha was known to say, that upon his death and entrance into the heavenly court, he wouldn’t be asked: “Why weren’t you like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?” He would be asked: “Why weren’t you like Zusha? Why didn’t you live up to your individual potential?”
As often happened to Jewish citizens of Europe in those days, on one of their journeys the brothers were unfairly arrested and thrown into prison. With faith that G-d orchestrates everything in life, the brothers accepted their fate in good spirit. But during the first day of imprisonment, Elimelech noticed that his brother appeared downcast.
“What’s the matter Zusha? You know this is all for the best!”
“It’s not that,” Zusha answered in anguish.
Pointing to the communal toilet bucket in the shared prison cell, he explained: “We can’t pray here. Jewish law states that one is forbidden to recite holy words of prayer next to such foul areas. How can I enjoy any moment of my day when I can’t be serving G-d properly?”
“But my brother,” Reb Elimelech replied gently. “The same G-d that so desires your prayers, also desires that in this situation you not pray. By not praying you are serving Him!”
Reb Zusha’s frown turned into a wide grin.
“You’re absolutely right!” Grabbing his brother by the arm, Reb Zusha began dancing around the room, singing with great joy. Attracted by the festive dancing and singing, the other prisoners ran to join.
The vicious prison guards rushed to the scene and asked the first prisoner they saw for the reason behind the celebration. With a laugh, he pointed to the waste bucket.
“If that’s the case, we’ll get rid of their joy immediately!” The guards grabbed the bucket and tossed it out of the room.
There are two classic sayings of the Sages: “Joy breaks through all barriers” and “Think good and it will be good,” in the original Yiddish, “Tracht gut vet zein gut.”
Far from a naïve notion, quantum physicists explain that our minds and consciousness can actually affect the physical circumstances around us, as seen in the famous double-split experiment. In modern medicine, many argue the power the mind has on the health of the body, citing the placebo effect and other studies. By approaching life with optimism and joy, regardless of the situation thrown our way, we are able to affect an openly favorable outcome. This age old Jewish concept of the power of positivity to affect one’s reality has recently gained notoriety as the Law of Attraction. Recently, this concept was adapted into a self-help book and movie called The Secret and eventually sold 19 million copies.
If we approach life’s challenges with optimism like Reb Zusha and Reb Elimelech, we may yet see the open and revealed good that comes from looking straight at darkness with a big smile.