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PARASHAS VA’EIRA Empathy: The Essence of a Jew

va'era year 1 issue 21
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In the Parashas of Shemos, Va’eira, Boi, and Beshalach, we read about Golus Mitzrayim and the miracles of Yetzi’as Mitzrayim. There is so much that we read and learn from Midrashim and Meforshim. What was the point, why did we need to be in Mitzrayim, what was the lesson that was supposed to be learned, the growth that was needed for Klal Yisroel that necessitated them going through this process? Based on the Zohar, Meforshim say that it was to purify Klal Yisroel. This process enabled us to become Klal Yisroel. But what were the lessons we were taught by Golus Mitzrayim?

I would like to introduce a lesson that we were taught in Mitzrayim that I think is usually overlooked. We spoke here previously about the inyan of being Noseh Be’ol Im Chaveiro, to have empathy for the problems of others. To carry their troubles along with them. The Meforshim address the issue of Noseh Be’ol Im Chaveiro as we read about Moshe when he was in the palace with Par’oh. It says, ‘Vayetzei El Echav Vayar Besivlosam,’ he goes out to his brothers and he sees their struggles. Chazzal say that the words Vayar Besivlosam mean ‘Nosan Einov Velibo Lihiyos Meitzeir Aleihem.’ He gave his eyes and his heart to feel the pain of his brothers in their hard work. As we’ve mentioned in the past, we don’t know much about Moshe as a person other than some isolated anecdotes: going out to his suffering brethren, killing a Mitzri who was fighting with a Yid, and helping the daughters of Yisro. Who was Moshe Rabeinu? Why was he chosen to be the consummate leader, the one to take Klal Yisroel out of Mitzrayim? We don’t see anywhere that he was the ‘Best bochur in Mitzrayim’. …

Rashi says that Moshe had tremendous meilehs; when he was born, the house filled with light. Basya noticed that Moshe was a Jew; how did she know? Rashi answers that she saw the Shechinah radiating from him. However, it doesn’t mention this in the Torah; that was actually not the most important and impressive aspect about Moshe Rabeinu. The stories that the Torah mentions teach what was, indeed, the most noteworthy about him: the fact that he was able to feel empathy for his brothers. The Ba’alei Musser explain that these illustrate who Moshe Rabeinu was and why he was chosen. If the Torah only chose these few stories to describe Moshe, we need to understand that this is what defined Moshe and made him who he was, and that’s why he was chosen.

The Alter from Kelm points out that there two sides of the story. The first time he went out, he showed empathy to KlalYisroel as a whole. He carried their stones and said, 'I wish I could take your place.' The second time, he went out and saw a Mitzri hitting a single Jew, and he cared. From here we can see that he cared not only for the Klal but also for each individual. His love was for every single Jew! Many people have big projects to help Klal Yisroel, but when an individual comes for help, they can’t find the time. … Klal Yisroel is many individuals that make up the Klal. The empathy and caring cannot only be for the rabim but must also be for the yochid; this is what we see in Moshe’s actions.

I have a picture hanging in my home of my great-grandfather, the Beis Aharon. It is a historic picture of the Knesses Gedola in Vienna. To his left is R’ Meir Shapiro, and to his right is the Hamburger Rav. It was taken by a news reporter; I got a copy from the Holocaust Museum. The picture has something unique when you study it: my grandfather’s hat is crushed at the rim. I thought that it was a little strange; when someone goes to such an event, one would expect them to wear their best clothing. After a while, I came across a certain book. The author brings historic literature of the Knesses Gedola, and he explains the crushed hat! My great-grandfather was speaking in front of the huge crowd. An individual broken soul that needed parnassa wandered in, and, being a broken man, he started screaming, ‘I need money, I have no money…’ It was completely out of place. The people in charge started carrying this man out by force, but my grandfather stopped them and asked, ‘Why are you carrying this person out? The reason we’ve gathered here is to discuss the good of KlalYisroel, to do positive things to help everyone. This individual is part of Klal Yisroel. This is the yochid. He is Prat Yisroel. Many pratim together make the Klal.’ My great-grandfather took off his hat, put money inside it, and sent it around as a pushka to collect money for the man. In the process, the hat got crushed. Sometimes, we look for the good of the general populace and try to do big things, but what about individuals? Moshe showed Noseh Be’ol Im Chaveiro, how much he cared about each individual.

Why is this the middoh we look for when selecting a leader? A leader needs to care about his subjects. If you want to be a Rebbe, you must care and love your Talmidim with all your heart. Without this, it does not work. R’ Yerucham says that there is a much deeper explanation. Noseh Be’ol is not just a technical requirement; rather, it’s a measure of greatness in Ruchnius. One’s spiritual status can be measured by how much a person cares for others.

One of the 48 ways to achieve greatness in Torah is to be Noseh Be’ol Im Chaveiro, showing that it is not only about leadership or being a good Rebbe. What’s the connection between the two? R’ Yerucham says that we see from this that the greatest measure of spiritual heights, Ruchnius, is from Noseh Be’ol. Moshe needed it to become Moshe Rabeinu, the Rebbe of Klal Yisroel, but it also attests to his greatness.

What’s the Gadlus Ruchanis of being Noseh Be’ol? Why is this the measure a Jew? Why can the Torah not be achieved in any other way?

Let’s focus on the words ‘Noson Einov Velibo Lihiyos Meitzer Aleyhem.’ Moshe goes out and sees the Jews’ affliction. It says Einov Velibo; it seems repetitious. R’ Yerucham explains that Einov is physical, the eyes have to see. Liboh refers to the spiritual aspect of the person. That’s what teaches us Noseh Be’ol Im Chaveiro. It encases both the physical and the spiritual. It is deeper than an act of Bein Adam Lechaveiro.

I saw a book that brought up a tremendous point from the Klausenberg Rebbe, documenting his days in Auschwitz and the DP camps afterwards. Page after page, it relates how he spent all his energy on his empathy for the people around him. We think Noseh Be’ol means the ability to see someone’s pain and feel for them, even though you yourself never experienced such pain. But what about the other way around? What if the person who is being Noseh Be’ol is going through a problem even worse than the person who is coming for the chizzuk? Too often, a person might say, ‘Why are you bothering me with these smaller problems when I have worse problems?!’ It’s much rarer for one to say, ‘Yes, I have worse problems, but I will set them aside and deal with another’s.’ The Klausenberg Rebbe lost all his family, and he himself needed lots of chizzuk. But he did not focus on his own needs; he was busy supporting others. And the book repeatedly emphasizes this.

Moshe was Noseh Be’ol; he himself did not go through what Klal Yisroel were going through. But when he realised what was going on, he took the stones and carried them, crying. He made himself part of their experience. Not just from the outside, but making it his reality. It all goes back to the Yid, to the neshomoh.

Let me tell you a beautiful pshat from R’ Yerucham. He says that Moshe Rabeinu awoke to his middoh of Noseh Be’ol. But did he work on it? When people have good middos, they’re usually the result of a lifetime of work. The Alter from Kelm begins by saying that you must have lots of friends, and the more you have love for others, the more you can be Noseh Be’ol for others. Beyond this though, it is not just a physical exercise; through Torah, you can come to be Noseh Be’ol. Just as Noseh Be’ol is one of the ways to acquire Torah, the opposite is true as well: through learning Torah, one can attain the middoh of Noseh Be’ol Im Chaveiro. The Gemara says that a prospective Ger came to Hillel and wanted to learn the entire Torah on one foot, so Hillel said, ‘Ve’ohavto Lerayacho Komocho.’ Many ask, why did Hillel choose this lesson for the Ger as encapsulating the whole Torah? There are many different answers. Rav Yerucham explains that the emphasis of the message was Komocho. Could there even be such a thing as loving others like yourself, Komocho?! The nature of a person is to love themselves more than others. He says that the pshat of Komocho is ‘as if it would be you,’ the ability to put yourself in the other’s shoes, as if he were you. This ability must come through the Torah, which teaches a person that there’s something more important than himself.

Now we begin to understand: Moshe was chosen as the manhig because of his ability of Noseh Be’ol, since this is the entire base of the Torah. Without this middoh, you can never fully attain greatness in Torah. Noseh Be’ol is the measure of one’s greatness. Beyond needing it as a Rebbe and a leader, it indicated his level of Ruchnius. As a Jew who was going to accept the Torah and give it to the next generation, Moshe needed to have an exemplary ability to be Noseh Be’ol Im Chaveiro.

Parashas Mishpatim includes the mitzvoh of Shilu’ach Avadim, releasing Jewish slaves every seven years. This parasha was taught when we left Mitzrayim, but it only came into effect when we entered Eretz Yisroel. If so, why were we taught this right after Yetzi’as Mitzrayim? The answer is that when we left Mitzrayim, we were able to identify with a slave and empathize with him. The Torah is saying, remember this feeling and identify with these people.

There is a very famous story about the Chofetz Chaim. He once went door to door collecting tzedokoh for a widow who was cold and needed money for firewood. The Chofetz Chaim knocked on the door of one of the rich men in town, and he invited the Chofetz Chaim in. He answered ‘No, I want to speak to you outside where you can feel the cold. That way, you will identify with the widow and give her money for heating.’

In Parashas Ki Siso, the posuk says ‘Ve’atem Yidatem Es Nefesh Hager Ki Geirim Heyisem Be’eretz Mitzrayim.’ You should not oppress the Ger; why? You know the pain of a Ger; you were Geirim in Egypt. Why does it not just say, don’t oppress the Ger because he is weak and sensitive? R’ Yerucham says that we should understand it ourselves, this does not need to be specified. Instead, the posuk says that if you are not empathizing with the other person, that itself is grounds for punishment. It means you are missing something. Don’t hurt the other person because he is already getting hurt; you were hurt in the same way, so you know what it feels like. The sin is greater and the punishment is more serious.

Basya sees Moshe in the basket in the water crying. She then says, ‘Who gave birth to this Jewish child?’ How did she know he was Jewish? We mentioned Rashi’s peirush that she saw the Shechinah. I want to give you another pshat. The word Na’ar is not a baby; it usually describes someone a little older. Moshe’s crying was probably a deeper cry. This is a mum. He was a Kohen and a Levi, so how could he be a Ba’al Mum? It could be that perhaps he was only like that when he was young and healed later. The Ba’al Haturim explains that the one crying was not Moshe, but rather Aharon. He was watching his brother carefully and crying. Aharon was only three and he still empathized so much for his brother that he cried. Only a Jew does something like this! When Basya realised this, she wanted to become a Jew.

The term Noseh Be’ol comes exactly from what Moshe did. It was a perfect description. What good did it do that Moshe helped the Jews carry a few rocks? What did he or anyone else gain? The answer is that sometimes it is not what you gain; just showing others that you identify with their problem, that you understand what they are feeling, is what makes the difference. Sometimes we can’t solve people’s problems, but we can still show them that we care and understand. The Gemara says that Iyov went through great hardships, but according to one Man D’Amar, the entire story never happened. R’ Yerucham Gerelig asked, why did Chazzal say that it never occurred? The poshut pashat is that this Midrash was Halacha Le’Moshe Mi’Sinai, along with the rest of the Torah. An alternative explanation arises from Iyov’s statement that he had three very devoted friends. To have one great friend is not surprising; to have two is unique. Three is already impossible! Therefore, the whole story is thrown into question.Rav Yerucham Gerelig adds that Iyov is the paradigm of suffering, but his greatest hardship was that someone came later and said that his story never happened. In the same way, Holocaust deniers contribute to the suffering caused by the Holocaust. Validation is an imperative part of the person’s experience! Many survivors never spoke of what they’d endured because they believed no one would fully understand what they had gone through—and that can cause tremendous pain. Nosan Einov Velibo—beyond paying attention, give him your heart; give him validation for his pain.

Now let’s go back the Shi’ibbud Mitzrayim. We started the shiur by saying that the Shi’ibbud was necessary to form Klal Yisroel. It was a Kur Barzel to train us, teach us, perfect us, and cleanse us. It was also, however, to give us empathy so that we would be able to fully understand one another. The posuk is clearly saying that this was a significant reason that the Jews had to go through all that suffering.

There is a beautiful Yavetz: Par’oh threw all the babies into the Nile since he was afraid of the redeemer for Klal Yisroel. Shevet Levi was free and were not included in the Shi’ibbud; why? Was this a gesture of good will? The Yavetz says that Par’oh knew that the saviour would come from this Shevet. Therefore, he did not want them part of the Shi’ibbud, since he knew that only someone who was Noseh Be’ol Im Chaveiro would be able to redeem Klal Yisroel. That is the extent of the matter, and Par’oh understood this. Par’oh, however, underestimated the power of a Jew, and that even though Moshe was not enslaved, his empathy was as strong as if he was.

We break the middle Matzoh on Pesach because it represents Levi, who was not part of the Shi'ibbud, to teach us that they still needed to be part of it. I would like to amend this. It’s not because Shevet Levi needs to be Noseh Be’ol, but rather that they included themselves in the nation’s suffering: they were Noseh Be’ol.

My grandfather once said that 4/5 of Klal Yisroel never left Mitzrayim and died before the Ge’ula. What was their sin that justified such a punishment? When the Makkos started, there were upper-class Jews in Mitzrayim. These were the people who did not want to leave. However, there were lower-class Jews who were still afflicted. Those that wanted to stay because their life was good were not thinking of their brothers, not being Noseh Be’ol. Therefore, they could not leave Mitzrayim! They hadn’t internalized the lesson of the Shi’ibud.

What we learned today is that the meileh of Noseh Be’ol Im Chaveiro identifies the Jew’s qualities—not only as a middoh but also spiritually, the depth of Lev, empathy of the heart. The Shi’ibbud’s purpose was to teach us this empathy. This is the quality that Moshe needed to portray to be able to lead Klal Yisroel out of Mitzrayim.

There was a Yid, R’ Abba Zayins, who was born in Brisk. He would come to his hometown each year to spend Sukkos with the Brisker Rav. One of the highlights of chag was that the Rav would ask two men, both named Berel, to repeatedly sing a song called Tirtza. During the song, the Brisker Rav would cry, lost in thought. He would ask for the song to be sung again and again. It turns out that the song was written by the Brisker Rav’s grandfather, the Beis Haleivi, about the following story: There was a woman in Brisk named Tirtza, and she came to the Beis Haleivi, opening her heart to him and telling him about her pain and suffering. The Beis Haleivi responded by giving her words of encouragement, and he made those words of chizzuk into a song. Years later, the Brisker Rav was trying to understand every word to try to perfect his ability to be Noseh Be’ol Im Chaveiro.

Noseh Be’ol Im Chaveiro is Torah. We need to learn how to have proper empathy and put depth of feeling into all our interactions with every individual in Klal Yisroel.

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