Greatness of a person - empathy

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R' Yehonason Gefen (Vayera)

Parshas Va’eira describes in great detail the first seven of the ten plagues that brought Egypt to its knees. A major feature of the plagues is the behavior of Pharaoh in reaction to the destruction of his nation. When Moses and Aaron bring about the first plague of blood, the Torah tells us that Pharaoh was not impressed because his sorcerers could also turn water into blood: “..And Pharaoh hardened his heart and he did not listen to them..” The next verse states that, “Pharaoh turned and went to his home, and also did not pay attention to this.[1]” The commentaries ask, what does the Torah refer to when it says that ‘he did not pay attention to this’ - the previous verse already stated that Pharaoh did not listen to the arguments of Moshe and Aaron. The famous commentator Netsiv explains that the second verse is telling us that Pharaoh was also unmoved by the pain that his people were suffering through the plague, and did not seek out any ways in which he could ease their pain.

The plague of blood was the only plague in which the Torah alludes to Pharaoh’s indifference to the suffering of his people - why is this the case? The Medrash HaGadol provides the key to answering this question: “The wicked Pharaoh was not afflicted by the plague of blood.[2]” The plague of blood was the only one, which did not harm Pharaoh. It was in this plague where he was most immune to the suffering that it caused his people because he did not experience the pain himself and so it was this plague where his apathy to the pain of his people was most pronounced.

We see a stark contrast to Pharaoh’s cruel indifference in the reaction of Moses to the pain of the Jewish people. Moshe grew up in the home of Pharaoh, separate from his people and unaffected by the slavery. Nonetheless, he went out and looked at the suffering of his brothers and empathized with their pain[3] - he even persuaded Pharaoh to give them a day of rest[4].

The verses in the Torah that describe Moshe’s tremendous concern for his people are preceded by the words, “vayigdal Moshe.” This would normally be translated as, “and Moses grew up”, however this cannot be the case because an earlier verse already stated that. The commentaries explain that it refers to becoming a great person - and the indicator of that greatness was his concern for others[5]. Why does the trait of empathy in particular represent greatness? Rav Shimon Shkop explains that a ‘Gadol’ is a person who expands his definition of self to include others - he is not considered a mere individual, rather part of a larger whole, and consequently he himself becomes a ‘bigger’ person[6]. The Gemara as being a very small person, in contrast, describes Pharaoh[7]. The commentaries explain that this refers to his spiritual standing - he was on a very low level[8]. Perhaps one aspect of his lowliness was his apathy to the pain of his own people, he only cared about himself, and therefore he did not expand his self-definition beyond his own self and remained a ‘small’ person.

How can a person avoid the apathy of Pharaoh and emulate the empathy of Moses - it is particularly difficult to empathize with people who are in a situation that does not affect us. When the verse says that Moses saw the suffering of his people, Rashi elaborates; “he focused his eyes and heart to feel pain for them.[9]” My Rebbi, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits explains that first he looked at their faces to see the pain that they were in. He then ’focused his heart’ by trying to relate to their pain, to feel what they were feeling. So too, when we hear of a person in difficulty we should first try to notice their facial expressions in order to make real the pain that they are in. Secondly, we should try to feel what it must be like to be in such pain. In a similar vein, Rav Noach Orlowek suggests for example, that when we hear of a terrorist attack in which people are killed, we should take out a few moments to imagine what the victims and their families must be going through. It is not enough to merely sigh and move on - we must strive to avoid becoming immune to other people’s pain.

It is also instructive to make some kind of gesture to show that the suffering of our fellow Jew truly concerns us even if we cannot directly help them. During the Holocaust Rav Chaim Soloveitchik was the Rabbi of Brisk, half the city was burnt down leaving hundreds of Jews homeless. Rav Chaim promptly moved out of his home and slept on a bench in the study hall. When asked why he was doing so he exclaimed, “how can I sleep in a comfortable bed when so many people do not have a roof covering them?![10]”

However, we also learn from Moses that it is not enough to merely feel bad for those in pain. The Medrash says that Moshe “would pitch in and help each of them, ignoring his rank, he would lighten their burdens while pretending to be helping Pharaoh.[11]” Similarly we must strive to help those in difficulty in any way that we can. Rav Yissachar Frand suggests that the next time we hear that our friend is in a difficult situation we should see if there is any feasible way in which we can help him. If, for example, he lost his job, we can think if we know any contacts that may help him find new employment, or if he is looking for a marriage partner then think of any possible matches for him.

Even if we cannot actively solve the person’s problem we can do a great kindness by being there for him and showing him that he is not alone in his pain. Rav Shach excelled in this area; on one occasion having heard about a widower who was depressed to the point that he had stopped functioning, Rav Shach decided to pay him a visit. Receiving no response to his knock Rav Shach let himself in and found the man lying motionless on the couch. “I know what you’re going through,” he said as he put his arm around the man. “I’m also a widower. My world is also dark and I have no joy.” The man‘s eyes lit up for the first time in months. Someone understood him. “On Friday I’m going to make cholent and send it over, and on Shabbos I’ll come over and we’ll eat together.” “I can’t possibly allow you to trouble yourself like that,” protested the man. “Well, then you think of something. But either way I’m going to be back tomorrow. We need to spend some time together.[12]” Rav Shach gave this man hope because Rav Shach showed him that someone else understood the pain that he was going through - this in and of itself is one of the greatest acts of kindness we can do for someone in pain.

The main characters in the parshios of the Exodus, Moses and Pharaoh, show us how greatness is defined by caring about others and smallnes is a reflection of selfishness. May we all strive to emulate Moses.

[1] Va’eira, 6:22-23.

[2] Medrash HaGadol, Shemos, 7:29.

[3] Shemos, 2:11.

[4] Shemos Rabbah, 1:27. This comparison of Moshe to Pharaoh was heard from Rav Moshe Zeldman Shlita, senoir lecturer for Aish HaTorah, Yerushalayim.

[5] Shaarei Simcha; also heard from Rav Yissochor Frand Shlita.

[6] Hakdama to Shaar Yosher.

[7] Moed Katan, 18a.

[8] Iyun Yaakov, ibid.

[9] Shemos, 2:11.

[10] Heard from Rav Yissochor Frand Shlita.

[11] Shemos Rabbah, 1:27.

[12] Kaplan, ‘Major Impact’, p.56.


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