During the 18th century, Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol was traveling through the Ukraine on an important mission. He was carrying a significant amount of money with which he planned to release captive Jews held prisoner by Cossack militias. On his way he stopped at an inn for the night. The rabbi walked through the public rooms and, in one, saw a large cage containing birds. Studying them carefully, he realized the creatures wanted to be free.
Rabbi Zusya spoke to himself: “Here you are walking to free prisoners, but what greater ransoming of prisoners can there be at this present moment than to free these birds from their prison.” So he opened the cage and the birds eagerly flew out into freedom.
When the innkeeper returned and saw what the rabbi had done, he became enraged, screaming: “How could you have the stupidity to rob me of my birds and make worthless the good money I paid for them?” Rabbi Zusya remained so calm that the infuriated innkeeper threw him out of the inn.
Rabbi Zusya was an early and highly influential Hasidic rabbi. Though he never authored a book, his teachings were recorded by his students, who appreciated his ability to glean lessons from all aspects of life – the good and the bad. On one occasion when he learned that a synagogue had been burglarized, Zuysa met with his students and used that incident to teach them seven spiritual lessons from a thief.
1. BE DISCREET A thief works quietly without others knowing, and developing one’s spiritual life requires activities which are largely solitary: prayer, meditation, study, meeting privately with a spiritual teacher. When time is not made for these spiritual practices, there will be no spiritual advancement.
2. BE FEARLESS Just as a thief is willing to take risks and place himself into an uncomfortable situation, spiritual evolution requires courage to overcome hesitation and fear. It means becoming a spiritual warrior and tapping into inherent courage.
3. BE MINDFUL Just as a thief pays attention to specifics, it is being mindful to the smallest of details that can result in the largest spiritual gains. Thich Nhat Hanh writes: “Mindfulness, the capacity to be here, to witness deeply everything that happens in the present moment, is the beginning of enlightenment.”
4. BE PATIENT Just as a thief can take months evaluating and preparing before seeing results, spiritual growth is a gradual, cumulative experience. Patience is a sign of wisdom, just as the ability to wait for a desired result is an indicator of spiritual maturity
5. BE ENTHUSIASTIC Just as a thief is eager, excited by the results his activity will produce, commitment to spiritual evolution must be combined with enthusiasm for the process.
6. BE OPTIMISTIC Just as a thief is completely confident he will succeed in his endeavor, pursuing spiritual expansion ought to be based on a strong foundation of self-confidence and trust that the teachings are a reliable guide on our journey.
7. BE PERSISTENT Just as a thief tries again and again when one attempt doesn’t work out, the same perseverance must be applied to spiritual growth, especially when the process feels dry and empty. Persistence is a powerful virtue, one consistently acknowledged by spiritual teachers.
Rabbi Zusya’s lessons from a thief are a powerful reminder that the world is our teacher. We are here to learn from everything life brings us and through those experiences grow, evolve, and experience freedom.