“The righteous will flower like the date palm, will thrive like the cedar of Lebanon” (Psalm 92:13).
There are two kinds of tzaddikim. There is the tzaddik that returns others to the service of G!d, and this one is called “like the date palm,” for its branches spread out this way and that, blossoming and creating fruit. And there is another that is “like the cedar of Lebanon,” that grows tall [but does not bear fruit]. And this explains the saying from Masechet Berachot 34b, “In the place that ba’alei teshuvah stand, completely righteous ones cannot stand,” for the completely righteous cannot stand with those who bring the world to repentance.
1) Tzaddik means “righteous one,” as in the verse from Psalm 92, but in Hasidism of course it also refers to the leader of a group of Hasidim.
2) Ba’alei teshuva is the term used for those who return to a life of Torah, mitzvot, and service of G!d, but Reb Zusya is reading it literally, as “masters of return,” that is, those masters who lead others to return.
By the time of Reb Zusya, the tzaddik had become an institution (interestingly it was his brother, Rebbe Elimelech of Lizensk, who is most credited with fully developing the concept), increasingly based on heredity rather than merit, and some tzaddikim were giving up the outreach of the Baal Shem Tov and withdrawing into their own world of holiness and purity. This teaching seems to be a dig at this new kind of tzaddik, and one of the earlier voices in the continual conversation within Hasidism on the nature and role of the tzaddik.
Those of us living outside of traditional orthodoxy most likely do not have a rebbe or a rav in the sense of the tzaddik, for better or (I would say and) worse, but we can still take part in the coversation of what makes a righteous person and a righteous community. As many modern Jews have alloted less and less time to their religious lives, there has been a necessary prioritization in observance. This often takes the form of a contest between ritual mitzvot and ethical mitzvot as individuals and communities focus on what they consider the essentials.
Rebbe Zusya offers a different perspective. To him, dividing the mitzvot into ritual and ethical would have been unthinkable, since Torah is a perfect whole. Experience seems to be bearing him out, too, as the Reform movement, which all but expunged ritual mitzvot, has come to reappreciate their power in building lives of holiness, and the Conservative movement, which was focused on preserving some sort of traditional Judaism in the face of modern secularism, is putting more energy into service projects. Both movements have shown, in their respective massive social experiments, that holiness and morality are inseparable.
Rebbe Zusya suggests, instead, that the two poles are not ethical and ritual but extroverted and introverted. We can grow tall and lofty, concerned with our own identity, our own survival, or we can remain modest yet fruitful, sharing our fruits — both ethical and ritual — with those around us. There is no question which Reb Zusya favors.