The goal of becoming a talmid chochom, a Torah scholar, is very different than mastering another category of knowledge. For example, if you want to become proficient at advanced calculus, all you need is a good teacher, a reasonable head on your shoulders, and sufficient time. This is not enough when it comes to Torah. In the sixth chapter of Pirkei Avos, the Mishna teaches us that one has to utilize forty-eight kinyonin, acquisitions, to fully acquire the Torah. The thirty-second of the forty-eight tools needed on the path to Torah greatness is, “Nosei b’ol im chaveiro – To be empathetic concerning the plight of your fellow.” In other words, in order to properly absorb the holy Torah, one has to actively share in one’s companion’s hardships – and, when possible, take steps to help alleviate the situation.
Empathy is the first quality that the Torah reveals to us about our great leader, Moshe Rabbeinu. The Torah tells us, when Moshe was a young man living in the luxury of Pharoh’s palace, “Vayetzei el echav vayar b’sivlosom – Moshe went out to his brethren (as they were enslaved in Egypt) and saw their suffering.” Rashi elaborates, “Nasan einav v’libo lihyos meitzar aleihem – Moshe took pains to notice their suffering and gave heart to suffer with them.”
This trait of empathy has always been the hallmark of our Jewish leaders. When the late Bobover Rebbe, Reb Shlomeh, zt”l zy”a, was escaping from the Nazis, he came to America by boat. The ship encountered a storm and everyone was dreadfully seasick. One of the Rebbe’s disciples managed to get hold of some kosher sucking candies which provided relief from the terrible nausea. The Rebbe refused to take them, saying that while Jews were killed in the death camps, he would not put a tsikirel, a sweet, in his mouth. In a similar vein, Rebbetzin Kotler would not put sugar in her tea or coffee during the years of the Holocaust and Rebbetzin Dessler would not allow her daughter to enjoy a candelabrum in the window of a pawn shop since it represented someone’s pain at having to part with something precious because they were desperate for money.
When one of Rav Pam’s children found a five dollar bill on the street, he came with excitement to his saintly father, “Totty, I learned in Gemora that when you find money in the street without a simon, an identifying feature, you can keep it.” Rav Pam took the five dollars and put it on his shelf. He then gently told his son, “You are correct, but let’s wait a few days before using it because right now the owner is sad about losing it. Let’s wait till he forgets about it, and then you can enjoy it.” When Rav Hutner’s, zt”l, z”ya, plane was hijacked by terrorists, world Jewry moved heaven and earth to effect his rescue. When he was released, a huge crowd of Jews went to greet him at JFK International Airport. Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, zy”a, was among them. When Rav Hutner emerged, a band started playing music. Rav Moshe went over to one of the musicians and quietly told him to stop the band, explaining that as long as there were still Jewish hostages, we should not be playing music.
Similarly, all the occupants of Noach’s Ark abstained from intimacy throughout the Great Flood for, while the world was suffering, one shouldn’t engage in personal enjoyment. Yosef, and his wife Asnos, also abstained from relations during the years of the terrible famine in Egypt.
The trait of empathy is so vital that Hashem exhibited it Himself to Moshe Rabbeinu. This is why Hashem appeared to Moshe Rabbeinu in a burning bush. The flaming bush depicted the suffering of the Jewish people and Hashem’s appearing in the burning bush symbolized, “Imo Anochi b’tzara – I (Hashem) am with you (Yisroel) in your distress.” So too, the Torah reveals a vision of the Throne of Glory with a sapphire brick. The brick was there so that Hashem should always see a vision of a brick and remember the suffering of hundred of thousands of Jews building six hundred bricks a day in Egypt.
Of course, Hashem doesn’t need reminders. There is no forgetfulness before His Throne of Glory. Rather, the vision was for us, that we should learn to have before us our friends’ hardships at all times. In the merit of heightening our empathetic reply to our friends and relatives, may we be blessed with long life, good health, and everything wonderful!
Mrs. Yocheved Ingber took dictation of this article. Sheldon Zeitlin edits Rabbi Weiss’ articles.
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