June 18, 2024
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Our parsha records that by the giving of the Torah, Moshe and his companions received a prophecy, and as it states (24:10), “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.” 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.”

Hashem keeping this sapphire brick in front of Him during the enslavement is a demonstration of the midah of joining in the distress and suffering others are experiencing (Noam Hamussar, Mishpatim), and as Rav Yerucham Levovitz says, the midot that the Torah ascribes to Hashem are meant to teach us to emulate Him.

Yet, the question that can be raised is that Bnei Yisrael have already been freed from the bonds of Egypt; so why is Hashem revealing this vision of His empathy that was demonstrated during the enslavement, if Bnei Yisrael have already left Egypt?! Rav Nosson Wachtfogel explains that this shows us that the midah of joining in and bearing another Jews sufferings also applies to the past—to previous sufferings even though they are no longer being tolerated currently, and even to the sufferings of previous generations (ibid).

We can perhaps learn from here that empathy, and emulating Hashem in this regard, includes remembering and empathizing with the hardships and suffering that our brethren – including those from previous generations—have lived through in the past.

One might ask, is it really possible to relate to, understand and feel the pain and distress that people—and especially previous generations—have experienced in the past if they are no longer in those difficult conditions?

In regards to bikkurim, the farmer who gives the Kohen his first fruits pronounces a declaration, which includes a mention of the past of how Lavan sought to annihilate our forefather Yaakov, and the bitter experiences in Egypt. Regarding the declaration, the pasuk emphasizes that he should “speak up and say” (the declaration); the Gemara (Sota 32) derives from this that he should say it in a loud voice, thus publicizing his troubles to others [i.e. the troubles that were endured regarding Lavan and in Egypt (Rashi)]. The Gemara explains that the reason it is publicized to others is to make other people aware of his distresses (that he has lived through), in order that they have compassion on him and pray for him.

The seemingly blatant question is that this person who is bringing bikkurim is certainly not Yaakov who experienced distress from Lavan, nor was he of those who have suffered in the exile of Egypt! So what does the suffering of previous generations and people in the past have to do with him? Why is it considered his own distress, and hence why would other people pray for him?!

Rav Henach Leibowitz explains that this shows us that it is within one’s ability to feel as if he himself endured the sufferings from Lavan and from the enslavement in Egypt, and that one is capable of being as greatly pained when he mentions the distress that Yaakov experienced under Lavan and the distress of Bnei Yisrael in Egypt, similar to the degree of pain he feels when he mentions the sufferings he has personally gone through. Therefore, the person bringing bikkurim mentions the past troubles with Lavan and in Egypt, which causes him to feel much pain, and by saying it in a loud voice, this makes others aware of his pain so that they pray for him (Chiddushei Halev, Ki Tavo, 26:5).

Its perhaps evident from here that it’s within our ability to empathize and feel the pain that our people have lived through in the past and even from previous generations, even though they are currently no longer in that state of suffering; and that one can tap into feeling their degree of pain similar to the degree of pain felt when one reflects upon his own personal previous times of distress.

The above mentioned pasuk concludes that the sapphire brick “was like the essence of the heaven in purity” which Rashi explains that this imparts the idea that “once they (Bnei Yisrael) were redeemed (from Egypt), there was light and gladness before Him (Hashem).” On the one hand, Moshe and his companions are being shown the idea of empathy for Bnei Yisrael’s past hardships in Egypt, while on the other hand, at the very same time they are also perhaps being shown the idea of being joyous for Bnei Yisrael’s current state of redemption and salvation from Egypt. Although this may seem like a dichotomy of emotions, I want to suggest that we see from here that it’s also within our ability to be happy for another person’s current state of success and his redemption and alleviation from his struggles and pain, while also—maybe even simultaneously—not forgetting that person’s difficult past, and thus being empathetic for the suffering they have endured in the past.

Even more so we can suggest this from the experience of bringing the bikkurim: The person bringing the bikkurim is empathizing with what Yaakov endured under Lavan and what his brethren endured in Egypt, and he’s in tremendous pain from it. Yet, the experience of bringing bikkurim is, perhaps, also a time of great joy for this person, for it may mark his agricultural success and his profound sense of gratitude and appreciation for what Hashem has given him. We see from here that it’s also within one’s ability to be in a state of happiness for his own personal successes and salvations, while also being empathetic and pained by the difficulties his brethren—be it in this generation or generations earlier—have endured in the past.


Binyamin is a graduate of RIETS and WSSW.

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