Jews came from far and wide to the modest Bnei Brak apartment of Rav Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, zt”l, the Steipler Gaon, to consult and discuss Torah topics, and seek the blessings and advice of the one of the generation’s great sages and poskim (guides) in halacha. As the renowned author of the multi-volume “Kehillos Yaakov on the Talmud,” the Gaon was recognized not only as one of the great Torah minds of our time, but as a sensitive, caring heart.
By the end of each day, there was a large stack of kvitlach (prayer notes) piled on his desk, handwritten notes with names of petitioners and specific requests to daven for. One evening, the Steipler noticed an overly curious family member perusing some of the kvitlach, and firmly admonished him, “Kuk nisht, don’t look!”
As the family member—embarrassed that he had acted inappropriately—slunk away, he heard the Steipler say under his breath, “You will not be able to handle the pain!”
As part of retribution for suffering at hand of the Egyptians, our sedra recounts makas choshech, the plague of darkness, cast a heavy darkness over the land: לֹא־רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת־אָחִיו וְלֹא־קָמוּ אִישׁ מִתַּחְתָּיו שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים וּלְכָל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיָה אוֹר בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָם—“No man could see his brother, nor could anyone rise from his place, but for Bnei Yisrael there was ohr ba-moshvosam, light in their dwellings,” (10:23).
Rebbe Yitzchak Meir of Gur—the Chidushei haRim—taught that there is no greater darkness than one in which “a man saw not his fellow;” in which we are unaware, blind or oblivious to one others’ needs. Enveloped in darkness and unable to see each other, we become distanced from our neighbors and friends, self-absorbed and stuck in our own personal issues and pursuits.
As in the physical plague of darkness, “nor could anyone rise from his place … ” When we are unable to see our fellow Jew, the result is lo kamu, we “cannot rise from our place,” we are not able to elevate ourselves and grow. Makas choshech, therefore, represents a spiritual darkness in which we are stuck in ourselves—unable to move—unable to see beyond our own needs.
It is natural to wince and want to avert our eyes from witnessing something scary or unpleasant. It can be difficult to see and relate to the pain others are living with and to open our eyes and heart to their difficulties. Our experience in Mitzrayim recounted in makas choshech reminds us to do our best to see others and their experiences, needs and feelings—in the same way that we want to be seen. To be “nosei b’ol im chaveiro—help carry the yoke of one’s fellow” goes beyond just noticing them; it is also lovingly making space for them to share what they are going through, and to shoulder the weight of their pain so that they can unburden themselves.
Cultural anthropologist, Dr. Susie Greene, has stressed the central role of “seeing one another” in establishing intimacy and strengthening relationships. She suggests that eye contact sends a powerful, non-verbal message that “I see you, I acknowledge you, I connect with you … ”
Living in the redemptive light of ahavas Yisrael, we are able to turn toward our friends and fellows with deep connectivity, recognize them and convey, “I see you.”
May we be blessed to open our eyes and hearts and bask in the light and joy of revealed good, and may all of Am Yisrael merit ohr ba-moshvosam, light in their dwellings.
Rav Judah Mischel is executive director of Camp HASC, the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. He is the mashpiah of OU-NCSY, founder of Tzama Nafshi and the author of “Baderech: Along the Path of Teshuva.” Rav Judah lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife Ora and their family.