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Parshas Shemos (5769)


In this week's Torah portion, we read how young Moses went out among his brethren, the enslaved Jewish people, to see their suffering at the hands of their tormentors: "He saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, of his brethren. He turned this way and that and saw that there was no man, so he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand" (Exodus 2:11-12).

Some commentators explain that Moses looked "this way and that" to see if anyone cared enough to do something about this injustice, but, alas, there was no one "man" enough to take action - so he went into action himself and saved his fellow Jew.

In the following verse the Torah relates how Moses went out the next day and saw two Hebrews fighting with each other. When he attempted to stop them, one of them said, "Who appointed you as a dignitary, a ruler and a judge over us? Do you propose to murder me as you murdered the Egyptian?"

Isn't it interesting how we find three very different reactions to this incident in which a Jew is being attacked by an Egyptian? On one extreme, we have Moses who stood up to defend his brothers, while, on the opposite extreme, we find the Jew who considered Moses' seemingly noble act of defense as a provocation and an act of murder! And then there are all the rest of the people in the middle who did absolutely nothing at all.

Funny how history repeats itself ... For the past eight years, Hamas terrorists who smuggled their weapons from Egypt into Gaza, have been pounding the south of Israel with Kassam missiles, and now Grad rockets, jeopardizing the lives of so many innocent Jews. And again we see three different reactions: The State of Israel has decided to take military action in Gaza to defend its citizens from this constant barrage of deadly rocket fire. Still others - sadly, some Jews are in this group as well - have called Israel's seemingly justified action in Gaza a provocation and an act of murder and are planning all kinds of protests and boycotts ... while the rest of the world remains unmoved by the Jewish people's plight and does nothing.

What can we make of this? What lessons can we draw today from this strange phenomenon? Certainly we can appreciate that there are some seriously misguided Jews and non-Jews in the world who simply have a warped sense of justice and morality and can call good evil and evil good. But it is the other two groups that need to be understood. What is it that motivates some people to act for the greater good when injustice occurs and innocent people suffer, while others are apathetic? What propelled Moses to take action when "there was no man"?

I believe the answer to this enigma can be found in the beginning of the verse quoted earlier: "It happened in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brethren and observed their burdens". Rashi, the preeminent Bible commentator, quotes a Midrash which explains these words to mean that Moses "set his eyes and his heart to be distressed over them". In other words, he didn't just "notice" the Jewish people's suffering - much the same way we might read about our fellow Jews' plight in the morning newspaper over breakfast. Rather, Moses "set his eyes and his heart", i.e. he tried to do whatever he could to actually feel the distress that they were feeling, to put himself in their place, to share their burden. The Midrash teaches that although Moses was exempt from any servitude due to his special status as a member of Pharaoh's household, he often sneaked away from the palace to join his fellow Jews and would carry bricks and mortar on his shoulders alongside them - just to feel all the pain that they were feeling.

So it's not that Moses was necessarily more "moral" and "pro-justice" than any of the other people around him. The real difference - and what made him act in defense of the Jew who was being attacked by the Egyptian when nobody else would - is that when he saw someone else in pain, he used all the powers of his imagination to get into that person's reality and live it with them - and when you're that sensitive and real with other people's suffering, it is impossible not to act.

And the same is true in Israel today. Only those who are nosei be'ol im chaveiro and can actually feel the pain of the many thousands of men, women, and children in southern Israel who have been living with constant fear of missile attacks for the past eight years, will be moved to act in their defense, or, at the very least, will justify and fully support Israel's response in Gaza. The rest of the people, who, for all I know, are living in total safety and comfort somewhere in North America or Europe, and have not taken the time to focus on the plight of these innocent Israelis and to feel what they are going through - they are the ones who are likely questioning why Israel is taking such drastic measures to bomb "innocent" Gazans. And they certainly aren't offering any support to Israel.

This special ability to feel the pain of others is referred to in the classic texts of Jewish ethics as the middah (character trait) of nosei be'ol im chaveiro (lit. 'bearing the burden with his friend'). Rabbi Noach Weinberg, in his 48 Ways to Wisdom, elaborates on this very important trait and how to attain it:

The first step in sharing the burden is to see others as real people, not as objects. It's accepted social behavior to greet people with a hearty, "How are you!" -- but the last thing we want is for them to actually tell us! Be observant. Is this person happy or sad? Weak or strong? Afraid or confident? Appreciate that others' problems, hopes, dreams, and aspirations are just as real as yours. Focus by asking yourself: "What is their burden?" Use your imagination to feel how it is weighing them down.

Put yourself in the other guy's shoes. How does it feel to be elderly? Weak? Hard of hearing? Without teeth? To lose a parent? How is he feeling his first day on the job? What's it like moving into a new neighborhood? Ask yourself: If I was him, how would I feel? The clerk in the post office has a tough job. What's he going through? Or if someone cuts in line -- notice how he's under tension.

Focus and make it real. When you speak with an elderly person, for instance, try to imagine him as creative and dynamic, who was once as young as you. To appreciate the problems encountered by a blind person, try blindfolding yourself for a day. Or go to the hospital to visit patients who have lost limbs. This makes you real with the suffering of others, and you'll be more responsive when others need help.

I just want to conclude with a beautiful story about a rabbi who understood very well the power of being nosei be'ol - and how it can move us to do the right thing - just like Moses did way back when in Egypt:

Rav Eliyahu Chayim Meisels, the Rabbi of Lodz, Poland in the late 1800's, would raise money for the poor widows and orphans of his city. During one particularly freezing winter, he went to visit one of the prominent members of his community, Reb Isaac, a banker who served as the president of the community council.

Bundled in a coat and scarf, the Rabbi approached the banker's mansion and knocked on the door. The valet who answered the door was shocked to see the great Rabbi Meisels standing outside in the bitter cold. He immediately asked him to enter the home where he said there would be a hot tea waiting. Rabbi Meisels refused. "It is not necessary. Please tell Reb Isaac to see me by the door."

The banker heard that the Rabbi was waiting near the portal and rushed in his evening jacket to greet him. Upon seeing the Rabbi standing in the frigid weather, he exclaimed. "Rebbe, please step inside. I have the fireplace raging, and my butler will prepare a hot tea for you! There is no need for you to wait outside!"

"That's alright," countered Rav Eliyahu Chayim. "It won't be long, and all I need could be accomplished by talking right here. I'm sure you won't mind. Anyway, why should I dirty your home with my snow-covered boots?" By this time, Reb Isaac was in a dilemma. The frigid air was blowing into his house. He did not want to close the door and talk outside in the cold, and yet the Rabbi did not want to enter! "Please, Rabbi, I don't know about you, but I am freezing," cried the banker. "I don't mind if your boots are wet! Just come on in!" But the Rabbi did not budge, He began talking about the plight of some the unfortunate members of the community as the banker's teeth chattered in response. "Please, Rebbe, just tell me what you need! I'll give anything you want, just come inside!"

With that, Rav Eliyahu Chayim relented. He entered the man's home and followed him to the den, where a blazing fire heated the room. Then he began: "I need firewood for 50 families this winter." The banker smiled. "No problem, I commit to supplying the wood. Just one question. You know I give tzedakah, so why did you make me stand outside?" "Reb Isaac," smiled Rav Eliyahu Chayim. "I know you give, but I wanted to make sure you understood what these poor people are going through. I knew that five minutes in the freezing cold would give you a different perspective than my initial asking while basking in the warmth of your fireplace."

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