And I pleaded with God at that time, saying… Deuteronomy 3:23
I heard Rebbe Zusya explain the saying of our sages, “in the advent of the messiah, fearers of sin will be despised,” to mean that at that time the essence of service will be through love, not fear (1). This is what Moses was pleading for: that the Jews should serve in love, and thereby bring “that time,” the time of the Messiah. This is why it says lemor [here translated “saying”], for lemor also means “to love” (2).
And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. Deuteronomy 6:5
The sages understood “with all your might” to mean that you should bless God for the bad just as you bless God for the good; no matter what portion God gives you, you should give thanks with all that you have (3). It is written in Proverbs, “Give liquor to the lost, and wine to the bitter of spirit” (4). Rebbe Zusya once explained this advice: because truly everything that happens is from God, and not by chance…so when you suffer, it is good to have a drink and say the proper blessing, “Blessed are You LORD our God, through whose word all things come to be,” to remind yourself that everything is God’s will. But if so, why not simply drink water, which uses the same blessing as liquor? Rebbe Zusya answered that it is a sign of your great trust in God, that you drink in celebration…
1) Sotah 49b 2) Thus he would read the verse, “I pleaded with God about the time of the messiah, that they should love…”; the connection between lemor and love is made from Deuteronomy 26:17, where it says et adonai he’emarta, an unusual phrase which has been interpreted many ways, including “you have chosen God as your beloved.” 3) The Talmud is drawing on the connection between meodecha (usually translated “your might” but literally meaning “your very,” a strange formulation that has generated many homiletical interpretations) and other words with a similar root: midah (“measure” or “portion”), moded (“mete out”) and modeh (“give thanks”). The whole passage reads בכל מדה ומדה שהוא מודד לך הוי מודה לו b’chol midah umidah shehu moded lekha hevei modeh lo, “whatever measure God metes out to you, you are to thank Him” (Berachot 54a). 4) Proverbs 31:6
Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg and his brother were always perplexed by this teaching of the sages: how could they bless God for the bad as well as the good, with equal joy? So when they were visiting the Maggid of Mezeritch, they asked him to explain it. His answer was to seek out a man named Zusya, and he would give them the answer they sought. They found Zusya, poverty stricken and sick, lying on a straw mat, and asked him their question. He answered, “You’re asking the wrong person — I’ve never known a day of suffering my whole life!”
While it’s a virtue to see our own troubles in this light, we are forbidden to look at other people’s suffering this way. Rabbi Moshe Leib, a disciple of Shmelke of Nikolsburg, taught that it is even preferable to deny God in that moment (indeed, this is the very purpose of our ability to do so) and help another than to preach faith and forbearance while leaving our fellow to suffer. (For an elaboration on this idea from Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, click here.) Also, I think an overly anthropomorphic idea of God can be dangerous with a teaching such as this — just because everything comes from God does not necessarily mean God is a string-puller the size of the universe. Instead, if we recognize God as the source of everything — even our own ability to hurt others — than we can see God in everything, both the good and the bad, and we can see the potential for connection to and service of God in that thing as well (for more, see this teaching from the Meor Einayim).