April 21, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

After the publica­tion of my book, I gave a copy to R’ Paysach Krohn, who was kind enough to discuss it with me dur­ing the planning stag­es. In return, he gave me a CD of one of his talks. It wasn’t necessary, but out of appreci­ation for his gift, I listened to it right away. In it, he shared a fascinating thought that reso­nated with me. He quoted Rebbetzin Kanievs­ky, z”l, who said this in the name of her father-in-law, the Steipler Gaon, z”l. The idea is that a person has a certain amount of suffering, ag­gravation, and grief in this life. When he shares someone else’s burden, feeling pain for what his friend is going through, that qualifies as his own suffering. This means that being empa­thetic can greatly improve our own lives and save us from troubles and travails.

I was amazed by how kind and benevolent the Almighty is, but when I shared this with some friends, one person responded in what I felt was a very negative way. His response was that it was, “stupid.” Now that we know this, in­stead of feeling bad when someone else suf­fers, we’ll rejoice because we’re saving our­selves from pain. We’re defeating the purpose, according to his logic, and making the recipi­ent even more beleaguered than before be­cause nobody will truly “care.”

He made the case that we should be em­pathetic simply because it’s the right thing to do, essentially stating that if we are rewarded by having our own suffering reduced, we lose the mitzvah. I tried to counter that of course we are discussing someone truly sharing the other person’s burden, and that the benefit is solely in the background. As I thought more about it, though, I wasn’t sure it had to be that way at all.

There’s a story about a boy who went to church. He saw the priest there and asked his father, who paid him? His father re­sponded that nobody paid him. He lived at the church and helped people simply be­cause he wanted to help. Responded the lit­tle boy, “So you mean the priest is good for nothing?”

While a Gadol HaDor, the leader of a generation like Moshe or Shmuel had to lead without being paid. But the rest of us do not have to live on that level. In fact, we are not encouraged to live on that level. Yes, we do want to do mitzvos and learn Torah l’shma simply for the sake of the mitzvah, but when it comes to other people, we pre­fer that the kindness be done with ulterior motives than not be done at all.

R’ Yochanan famously explained to his nephew the posuk Aser Taaser, you shall surely tithe, to mean, Aser b’shvil she’tis’asher, “Tithe, so that you shall be­come rich.” Not only that, we are encour­aged to test HaShem’s promise of materi­al blessing by caring for others. Shouldn’t we instead be more altruistic like my friend suggested? Apparently not.

You see, the point of being altruistic and caring about another is so that we emulate HaShem Who is completely a giver. However, if we don’t care for others until we are complete­ly selfless, it will never happen. How do you learn to be charitable if you don’t give charity? The way to get ourselves in the habit is to do it, and we give ourselves the incentive to do so by recognizing how it benefits us.

Tzedakah saves one from death; doing business with a Talmid Chacham is a segu­lah for getting a good shidduch; spending money on nice food for Shabbos and Yom Tov has that money returned to you, and empathizing with another saves you suffer­ing because HaShem wants us to do those things.

There’s an old parable about a town whose water was muddy. After tasting a cup of tea they offered him, the local noble spit it out and told them they must filter and boil the water before they use it. When there was a fire, the town burned down be­cause they were first cleaning the water. He cried, “I meant you should clean it before you make a cup of tea, but when there’s a fire, you use whatever you have on hand!”

So, too, when people are in trouble and need us to lend a hand or simply an ear, if knowing we get some benefit will make us quicker to do it, then, by all means, it’s worth it. HaShem has no problem rewarding us to do good, and much of our beliefs are based on that. If we were to hold off on taking action until we were purely motivated, we would find ourselves helping much less, rationalizing that we can’t help because it will detract from our own needs in some way. That’s why HaShem gives us so many chances to do good and en­joy benefit at the same time. The intent is that we help others, not merely sanitize ourselves until we can help them without a thought to our own desires. Even were we to reach that point, it would likely be only short-lived be­cause our natural instincts would kick in and one can only keep that behavior up for so long.

In essence then, despite what my friend suggested, if we don’t act right away when others need help, we’re simply good for nothing.

Now in bookstores, The Observant Jew, a compilation of some of Rabbi Gewirtz’s best articles, is receiving critical acclaim. With short, inspirational, and funny selections, this book is the perfect summertime com­panion. Look for it in your favorite Jewish Book Store or visit Feldheim.com.

Jonathan Gewirtz is an inspirational writer and speak­er whose work has appeared in publications around the world. He also operates JewishSpeechWriter.com, where you can order a custom-made speech for your next special occasion. Sign up for the Migdal Ohr, his weekly PDF Dvar Torah in English. E-mail info@Jewish­SpeechWriter.com and put Subscribe in the subject. © 2014 by Jonathan Gewirtz. All rights reserved.

By Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz

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