April 13, 2024
Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.
April 13, 2024
Search
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Concrete, Continuous Empathy

Shortly after leaving Egypt and being saved at Kriyat Yam Suf from the Egyptians who chased after them, our parsha relates that Bnei Yisrael were threatened by yet another enemy — Amalek — who came to wage war against them.

The battle began, and the Torah tells us that “When Moshe raised his hand, Israel was stronger, and when he lowered his hand Amalek was stronger. Moshe’s hand grew heavy, so they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it, and Aharon and Chur supported his hands … ” Apparently Moshe became tired and needed to sit. But why did they give him a rock to sit on as opposed to something more leisurely and comfortable?

The Gemara (Taanit 11) teaches that, in fact, it was Moshe himself who preferred to sit on a rock rather than on something more comfortable like a mattress or pillow. For thus said Moshe, “Since [Bnei] Yisrael are steeped in distress, I also shall be with them in distress.” It’s apparent from this Gemara that Moshe wanted to join in Bnei Yisrael’s suffering. But wasn’t he already aware of what Bnei Yisrael were going through? Shouldn’t that knowledge itself have enabled him to also be distressed and thus to join in their pain? Why did he seemingly need this rock in order to bring him to join in their sufferings?

Rav Yerucham Levovitz (Da’at Torah, Mishpatim 24:10) explains that to join in and bear another person’s difficult plight does not necessarily suffice merely through seeing and contemplating their painful conditions, but rather to feel the pain with one’s physical senses. Says Rav Levovitz (ibid, Beshalach 17:12), Moshe’s demonstration teaches us that when attempting to join in other people’s pain, one should do a concrete action in order to tangibly and actively feel the distress of those people.

Moshe choosing to sit on a rock — which doesn’t sound very comfortable at all — instead of something cushioned, shows that this action Moshe took to feel other people’s pain was an action that seemingly put him in some pain as well, or at the very least minimized his comforts, perhaps showing us that an ideal way of identifying with the pains of others is to change something in our typical routine that somewhat decreases our full comfortable standard of living. An example of this could be what I saw from Rabbi Yissocher Frand, that during World War II, Rav Aharon Kotler’s rebbetzin did not put sugar into her tea, for she knew what was going on in Europe and wanted to identify with the suffering of her brethren. We see that she made a concrete change minimizing her typical standard of comforts in order to identify with and feel the pain of others.

We may see another instance where Moshe demonstrated this conduct, but to a greater extent. During the grueling conditions of slavery, the Torah says that “Moshe grew up and went out to his brethren and saw their burdens” (Shemot 2:11). What’s the significance of Moshe “seeing” their burdens?

Moshe seeing their burdens was more than just a mere observation. It was profoundly detailed, as the midrash (Shemot Rabbah 1:27) says that the expression that Moshe “saw” their burdens alludes to the fact that Moshe would see their burdens and he would cry and say, “Woe is me on account of you! If only I could die for your sake!” For, continues the midrash, there is no work as hard as working with clay, and Moshe would lend a shoulder and assist each and every one of them. Rav Levovitz (ibid, Mishpatim 24:10) clarifies that the intention of Moshe wasn’t necessarily to help ease them with their actual burdens, but instead that he himself reach a point where he would truly get a tangible sense and feel for the weighty burdens they were bearing.

We perhaps see from here that the concrete action Moshe took in order to empathize and join in the pains of others was an action that consisted of enduring the actual same difficulty that his brethren themselves were enduring.

Along this theme of doing an action to help us empathize with others, we may find a similar idea — this time more specifically — about doing something concrete in order to have a constant reminder about the sufferings of others, thus aiding one to continuously empathize and join in other people’s distress. When the mission of the redemption from Egypt began, the Torah traces the genealogy of Yaakov’s eldest son Reuven until the tribe of Levi. When it traces Reuven and Shimon’s, it introduces their genealogy by stating, “The sons of ….” However, by Levi it is slightly different, for it states, “These were the names of the sons of Levi … ”

The Shelah Hakadosh (Shnei Luchot Habrit, Va’eira) asks: Why are the words, “the names,” only mentioned by Levi and not by Reuven and Shimon? Hence, the Torah is seemingly emphasizing something about the specific names that Levi gave to his sons as the Shelah Hakadosh explains: The tribe of Levi were not part of the slavery that the rest of Bnei Yisrael were in. However, Levi nevertheless wanted to be part of and join in the distress that the rest of Bnei Yisrael were experiencing. Therefore, he named his sons with names that were connected to the galut that Bnei Yisrael were in. For example, one of his sons was named Gershon, which signifies Bnei Yisrael being “geirim” (strangers) in a land not their own. Another son was named Merari, signifying the bitter life Bnei Yisrael experienced in Egypt (as it states “vayemariru et chayeihem” — “They embittered their lives”), etc.

We can suggest that we learn from here that a name is something that has permanence, and thus that Levi perhaps did something more permanently concrete in order to carry with him a continuous, “etched in,” reminder of the sufferings of Bnei Yisrael, so that he (and perhaps his children as well) can continuously be reminded to join and be with them in their distress.

This conduct may be demonstrated by Hashem Himself: By the giving of the Torah, Moshe and his companions received a prophecy and as the Torah states, “They saw the God of Israel, and under his feet was that which had the form of a sapphire brick, and it was like the essence of the heaven in purity” (Shemot 24:10). Rashi explains that this sapphire brick “was in front of Him at the time of the enslavement in order to remember the pain of [Bnei] Yisrael who were enslaved in work of bricks.” Rav Nosson Wachtfogel asks: Does Hashem need a reminder? Rather, as Rav Wachtfogel explains, this comes to teach us the extent that we are to go in the area of joining and bearing the distress of another Jew (Noam Hamussar, Mishpatim). As Rav Levovitz (ibid) explains, the middot that the Torah ascribes to Hashem are meant to teach us to emulate Him.

Hence, we can suggest that Hashem — by keeping this sapphire brick in front of him during Bnei Yisrael’s enslavement — is showing us the conduct of doing something concrete to be continuously reminded of the suffering of others. And thus, perhaps this is how far we are being taught to go in the area of empathy; namely, that we are to emulate Him to not just to do a temporary action to momentarily identify with the pains of others, but to make a concrete change that would last all the while that our brethren are in distress, so that through this we can continuously be reminded to join and be with them in their pain and sorrow.


Binyamin Benji is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan and of WSSW.

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles