On the sad day that Eliezer Lipman, Reb Elimelch and Reb Zusha’s father, passed from this world, his children gathered for the week of mourning. At the conclusion of the shivah the sons divided their father’s inheritance in the following way: Avraham received the cash and the house was given to Nosson. The jewelry and housewares went to Elimelech and the outstanding debts were to be collected by Zusha.
The division had thus been contrived for Zusha, who was very clever at disguising his ways and who appeared to have plenty of time on his hands. With all that time to spare, it only seemed fitting that he should be the one to go out and collect the debts.
Zusha, however, was in no way suited for this mission, and without a penny from the inheritance was left destitute. Bereft of any means of support, he decided to travel to his uncle, an assistant to the Maggid of Mezeritch.
Lodging with his uncle meant constant exposure to the maggid and, in no time, Zusha became an ardent chassid of the master.
After his stay with his uncle in Mezeritch, Zusha departed for his brother, Elimelech, who had moved to his wife’s hometown of Shineva. The very long and arduous journey to Elimelech took its toll on Zusha’s already very modest attire. His worn-out tatters were far shabbier than those that clad the poorest of beggars.
Ever vigilant of the honor of his in-laws, Elimelech was ashamed to allow his dreadfully-appearing brother into his home. He therefore arranged accommodations for him at the home of a local baker, without providing a heads up that this would be a tenant different from any they had hosted before.
Zusha’s night was not earmarked for mundane sleep. Those precious hours were devoted to learning, prayer and the loud recitation of tikun chatzos. Zusha’s nocturnal agenda effectively brought about an end to his tenancy at the baker’s house and Elimelech had no other recourse but to invite his brother into his own home.
It was there that he was able to observe Zusha’s ways firsthand, which convinced him that they were not as weird as they had initially appeared. This also sparked within him a desire to draw close to the Maggid of Mezeritch. At the very same time, Reb Zusha convinced his older brother to join him in a self-imposed exile that they would devote to elevating the people that they would encounter.
Attired in the clothes of exile, they would travel from village to village to persuade, direct and inspire the people to desist from sin and return to their holy roots. The exile would also, as the Talmud teaches, purify their souls. And… just maybe, Reb Zusha had an added agenda in proposing the exile.
He understood very well his brother’s remarkable and singular talents and spiritual capabilities – but they were still dormant potential. A future leader for those times would not blossom if he were locked inside his books and the four amos of halacha. The situation required an individual who intimately knew his people, their afflictions, and their suffering.
This was the example the Baal Shem Tov had set, for he did not go from the study hall to shepherd his flock. He spent years traversing the land in order to learn and understand the people and their needs. Thus, when he assumed the mantle of leadership, he was no stranger to his brethren – nor were they to him. Likewise, before Reb Dov Ber, who succeeded the Baal Shem Tov, was restricted to crutches, he would travel the countryside as an itinerant maggid.
Dispatching Reb Elimelech to uplift the people, Reb Zusha likely reasoned, would be his apprenticeship for the leadership of chassidus.
Thus, across the length and breadth of the Polish landscape the brothers wandered, bringing the word of the Lord to those that were either unfamiliar or needed to be reminded. The holy brothers, as they came to be known – in a manner all their own – made focusing upon God a central part of people’s lives.
Wherever the holy brothers went on their self-imposed exile, they generated a spirit of repentance. Their standard routine was to admonish themselves out loud for their supposed crimes, when in fact their “sins” were precisely the ones that the villager within earshot needed to rectify.