June 25, 2024
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When Hashem details the steps Noach is to take in preparation for entering the teiva, He tells him, “And you shall enter the ark—you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you” (Bereishit 6:18). The pasuk here segregates the males from the females, whereas after the flood when they are to leave the teiva, Hashem tells Noach “Go forth from the ark—you and your wife, your son’s and your son’s wives,” and here the pasuk lists them as couples. The Gemara (Sanhedrin, 108) learns from this that during the time in the teiva, marital relations were forbidden. Rashi (7:17) explains that the reason they were prohibited from this is because the world was in a state of pain and distress.

It seems that this limitation was imposed on Noach and company, minimizing their comforts, in order for them to have a connection to the pain and difficulty the world was undergoing. The world is being destroyed; People’s lives are being taken, because they have failed to live up to their potential; How can one be fully comfortable? Noach and his family were therefore given this restriction to connect to, and have empathy for, this worldwide pain.

At first glance, one might think that empathy is necessary solely in a situation where through empathy a benefit can be achieved for the other. After all, in order to help another person, one may need to see the other person’s life through their lens, and through empathy one can achieve that and better understand how one can help. However, it seems from here that the world is being destroyed no matter how empathetic they are. So what benefit for the other will result from Noach and company feeling their pain?

We perhaps see from here that identifying with and feeling the pain of another isn’t necessarily for the benefit of the other—it’s for you. It’s to sensitize the person themselves. As Rav Chaim Mintz (“Etz Hachaim,” Bereishis) explains, a person is to be a “ba’al hergesh”—a sensitive and emotionally attuned person. It would emerge from this that Hashem wants us to be refined people who are sensitive to the difficulty of others, who haven’t become indifferent to people’s sufferings. Whether or not we can benefit others through our empathy is irrelevant, for the goal of developing this refinement is for your own growth.

We can learn a couple fundamental ideas from this:

1) The importance of making a concrete change in order to feel another person’s pain, much like Noach and company had a shift in their lifestyle being restricted from marital relations. So too, it’s important to make a practical—even small—change in minimizing some aspect of comfort to help one identify with the pain of others.

2) This applies even if this act of empathy doesn’t seem to cause a practical help for the one you are empathizing for—and even if the person does not know that you’re making efforts to feel their pain. The people being destroyed in the flood were not practically helped by Noach’s empathy, nor did they know of it. Hashem wants us to be sensitized to people’s pain for its own sake; to feel the pain they are undergoing to some degree.

During World War II, Rav Aharon Kotler’s rebbetzin did not put sugar into her tea. She knew what was going on in Europe and wanted to identify with the suffering of her brethren, so for the entire period of the war, she did not sweeten her tea. She made a concrete change in order to identify with and feel the pain of others even though this act of empathy seemingly did not spur any actual help for them, nor, presumably, did they know of it.

When it comes to empathy, an ideal perhaps is to come to a level where we naturally identify with the pain of others, and as a result feel it incompatible to live with our total comforts, and thus do something to minimize them in some way. During World War I, the Chafetz Chaim’s wife woke up in the middle of the night to find her husband not in his bed. She went looking for him and found him sleeping on a bench. She asked for an explanation, to which he responded: “The Jewish people are in the middle of a war. There are people who have lost their houses. Whole communities have been dispersed. There are many Jews out there tonight who do not have beds. How can I sleep in my own bed under such circumstances?”

How can one reach the first part—to be naturally moved to feel the pain of other Jews? One way is, as Rav Chaim Mintz says, is to understand that as Jewish people, we are one. We’re connected—like family. That’s why, he says, for example, when a person finds out that his ancestor was killed in the Holocaust, he can relate to and feel that pain for he’s connected to him. Likewise, when we understand the close connection we have to every Jew, and establish the ties between ourselves, your pain will be my pain and vice versa—both in the present and in the past.

The Gemara (ibid) says that not everyone obeyed this directive of desisting from marital relations in the teiva. In fact, there were three who violated this prohibition—the raven, the dog and Cham. Fascinatingly, the Maharal (“Chiddushei Aggadot,” Sanhedrin 108) says that at their core, these three carry an inherent disconnect from others, and as a result they are isolated from society. The raven is cruel and is thus disconnected from other beings. People dislike dogs and therefore distance from and shoo them away. Cham was prone to reach the impending curse which would result in his descendants becoming disconnected from other people. Therefore, says the Maharal, because these three all carry an inherent disconnect from the general society, they did not refrain from marital relations.

It would seem from the Maharal that those who were disconnected from others couldn’t feel the pain of the world and went on with their regular lives. But those who didn’t contain this internal disconnect were able to join in the suffering of others and feel their pain. We can learn from here that the greater a person’s connection and ties with others is, the more he can become sensitized to their plight and join in their pain.


Binyamin is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon, and Wurzweiler School of Social Work.

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