I usually try to separate the divrei Torah I send to my shul every week from these Yated columns. However, I would like to share with my readers a thought about recent events that began last week.
I sent my mispallelim a thought from the Ayeles Hashachar explaining that one aspect of Yosef’s and Binyomin’s greatness was that they surmounted their own emotions upon their pivotal meeting and thought only of their future ramifications for Klal Yisroel. In Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman’s words, “their only life’s purpose was understanding their divine mission. They never relented from this goal no matter what emotions were raging inside them.”
I then added that “therefore, when Yosef and Binyomin looked deeply into each other’s eyes, what they saw was the Mishkan and Bais Hamikdosh. Chanukah and Asarah B’Teves are two sides of a coin. They represent the triumphs and tragedies of Jewish history. Each of them beckons us to rise above ourselves for a day or a week. They alert us to the fact that there is more to each of us than our personal concerns and joys. The uniqueness of the early giants in our history is that they lived every day – indeed every moment – on this celestial level. Hashem only asks to achieve this self-expansion once in a while.
One way in which we must enlarge our horizons is to empathize and feel the joy and pain of our brothers and sisters in Klal Yisroel. There were two such opportunities in the past weeks. During Chanukah, a horrific tragedy engulfed a beautiful family in Brooklyn with the death of a mother and three children, and the father and other children fighting for their lives r”l. At the end of Chanukah, we experienced the euphoria of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin being freed suddenly from prison. The extent to which we cried with the Azan family or rejoiced with the Rubashkin family indicates how connected we are with every Jewish soul, whether or not we know them personally. Only after we achieve that level can we seek to join Yosef and Binyomin in connecting with Klal Yisroel of the past and future as well.”
With our readers’ permission, I would like to continue this conversation in these pages. Every Yated reader should be proud to be part of a newspaper whose editor led the crusade to free Sholom Mordechai. The cause was joined in columns and arguments composed of pure ahavas Yisroel. The eloquent words and ringing paragraphs should have moved us all to action or at least tefillos. Why didn’t more of us respond? Let us explore together a possible reason that may help us toward greater empathy in the future, hopefully only for sharing joy and gratitude.
It is actually the wisest of all men who said that no one can fully understand someone else’s problems or happiness. Shlomo Hamelech (Mishlei 14:10) teaches that “the heart knows its own bitterness and no stranger will share in its joy.” Rishonim (see Daas Zekeinim Mibaalei Hatosafos, Shemos 18:13) quote a Medrash that is of the opinion that Yisro joined Klal Yisroel after Mattan Torah. It explains that the reason he did not merit being part of the great event is that he did not suffer along with Klal Yisroel. Many gedolim, including Rav Mordechai Hakohein, one of the Arizal’s talmidim (Shach Al Hatorah, Yisro), Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman (Ayeles Hashachar, Yisro, page 152, and Yemalei Pi Tehilosecha, “Mattan Torah,” page 543) and Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi (Mussar, page 180) suggest that personal suffering was a prerequisite for the monumental zechus of receiving the Torah. However, the most basic explanation of this Medrash is that since Yisro – great as he was – had not suffered in Mitzrayim, he would not be able to understand or appreciate the many mitzvos that are zeicher l’Yetzias Mitzrayim, in memory of the pain and suffering we endured before we were redeemed.
We may thus conclude that as much as we may try, it is virtually impossible to artificially empathize with someone’s anguish or joy unless we, too, experienced the occurrence.
So perhaps I was wrong to adjure my congregation to cry and rejoice with those they have never met. Yet, we know that gedolim have told us that this is exactly what we should do.
Rav Shlomo Auerbach zt”l, in his powerful hesped upon Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l (printed in the “Mussaf Shabbos Kodesh of the Hebrew Yated, 23 Cheshvan 5762, page 32), said of the great author of the Avi Ezri: “There was probably no other heart that felt the pain of Klal Yisroel, the pain of [lost] kavod Shomayim, the pain of [lost] kavod haTorah and its lost grandeur.” He described seeing Rav Shach weeping in his private chambers (“Kodesh Hakodoshim”) over some attack on the Torah, even when no one else had yet perceived the severity of the assault. So apparently it is possible. But what is the secret? What about Shlomo Hamelech’s wise warning?
Actually, Rav Shlomo Zalman did not ignore the posuk in his eulogy. He dealt with it directly, quoting the explanation of the Gaon of Vilna (commentary on Mishlei 14:10). The Gaon states that when Moshiach arrives, all the organs will ask the heart why its joy at the geulah is so much greater than theirs. The heart will answer that its anguish, too, was infinitely deeper, so concomitantly, its celebration is greater as well.” It is at that point that he references the noble heart of the Rav Shach. Rav Shlomo Zalman goes on to remind us that “Rachmana liba ba’i – The Torah (or: Hashem) requires [that we have] a heart” (Sanhedrin 106b).
Perhaps we may understand Rav Shlomo Zalman’s profound words best with an adage from an early Chassidic rebbe. The rebbe, Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (quoted by the Likkutei Yehudah on his ancestor, the Sefas Emes, “Tefillah,” page 194) declared that “there are those who [only] think they have a broken heart. However, they still don’t have a heart at all.” The author also quotes his uncle, Rav Meir Alter, who died al kiddush Hashem, that the correct quote was actually “when someone claims to have a broken heart, we must first check if has a heart at all.” He continues that with this concept, Rav Bunim explained the posuk of “Harofei lishvurei lev umechabeish le’atzvosam – He is the Healer of the brokenhearted and the One Who binds up their sorrows” (Tehillim 147:3). It would seem that if Hashem is healing the broken hearts, why would there still be sorrows? Rav Bunim answers that indeed Hashem first removes the sorrow, although there is still a broken heart. A person can have a broken heart and still be full of simcha.
What exactly do these cryptic words mean? Perhaps, now that we, too, have experienced weeks of conflicting emotions, we can begin to understand. Acting upon Rav Bunim’s admonition, we must labor mightily to “have a heart,” and develop our hearts, so that we can feel other people’s pain. We must do this when we are not “under the gun” to react to breaking events and news. Yet, at the same time, we must leave room in that expanding heart for the joy of someone who has been healed, released, given birth or achieved some kind of salvation. A great heart doesn’t find contradictions in these events, only an ongoing empathy and love for others and whatever they need at the time. Rav Bunim teaches that this is part of a great human process, which does not conveniently end or completely go away.
Perhaps, too, that is why the Vilna Gaon evokes the Yemos HaMoshiach in explicating this sensitive matter. Only then will we be able completely put aside our sorrow and be completely besimcha at all times, bimeheirah beyomeinu. In the meantime, let us find it in our hearts to care enough to cry or laugh with others when they want to know that we care.
Interestingly, my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l (Maamorei Pachad Yitzchok, Pesach 54:2, page 198) reveals a tradition from the Chachmei Ha’avodah that “true empathy with someone’s simcha is a greater form of commiseration than sharing his pain.” He notes that “this matter is very profound” but offers one “superficial” aspect of this distinction: “when someone empathizes with another’s pain, there is also a touch of rachamanus – pity – involved.” This explains the Chachmei Ha’avodah’s preference for sharing in someone’s joy, for then the desirable middah of total identification with someone else’s emotions is totally pure and unadulterated by other traits, no matter how laudable they are. May we be zoche to share in many simchos with acheinu bais Yisroel.