A frum oncologist once told me that he had to stop attending the funerals of his patients. He had tried for many years, but it became too destructive, too debilitating for him to be upbeat and positive with his other patients, who needed an optimistic physician. And so I validated his decision and agreed that his obligations to the living take precedence. Yet, we all want to not only commiserate, but to be nosei be’ol, heeding the words of Chazal (Avos 6:5) and sharing the burden with those in pain. What are the guidelines for how to do this sufficiently without compromising our own simchas hachaim and ability to function cheerfully?
It seems, at first, that the paradigm for this important middah is Moshe Rabbeinu. At the very beginning of his “career” as the leader of Am Yisroel, the Torah testifies that “he dedicated his eyes and his heart to care about [the Bnei Yisroel]” (Rashi to Shemos 2:11). Rav Yerucham Levovitz zt”l, the pre-war Mirrer mashgiach (Daas Chochmah Umussar 1:11-12) quotes the Alter of Kelm (Chochmah Umussar 1:2), who says that Moshe Rabbeinu went beyond the natural feelings of pity and compassion that every decent person would experience. He “put his shoulder to the burden to actually suffer with them.” The Medrash (Shemos Rabbah 1:27) actually states this specifically when it relates the various stories of Moshe Rabbeinu going out to his brethren. The ultimate result was that “Hashem said, ‘You left all of your affairs to go discover the sufferings of the Bnei Yisroel and acted toward them in a brotherly way. I will leave my involvement with the above and below and come speak with you.’”
The Meshech Chochmah (Devorim 10:20) teaches that the very first prototype of being nosei be’ol is, kevayachol, Hashem Himself. Rav Meir Simcha shares with us an extraordinary aspect of learning this middah from Hashem. When Hakadosh Boruch Hu feels our pain, He feels even more than the one who is suffering. On the posuk of “Vayeida Elokim” (Shemos 3:25), Rashi comments similarly to what he stated about Moshe Rabbeinu: “Hashem gave his heart to them and did not avert His eyes.” According to the Tomar Devorah, this is referred to amongst the middos of Hashem as “lishe’aris nachalaso,” meaning that Hashem considers us His flesh and blood, and so should we feel about each and every Jewish soul.
One can see this middah on a practical level in the famous story of the Ponovezher Rov’s decision to learn in Radin. He was actually on his way from Telshe to Novardok, when he stopped off, what he thought was briefly, in Radin to receive a brochah from the Chofetz Chaim. The family asked him to wait for a few moments, so he sat down with a Gemara and suddenly jumped up when he heard heartrending cries from the attic above. “What is wrong?” the young bochur cried out, while everyone else seemed to be going serenely about their business. The rebbetzin answered tranquilly, “There is a woman in town who is in the middle of a difficult labor and the Chofetz Chaim is davening for her.” At that moment, the future rov of Ponovezh decided that if this tzaddik is able to so identify with an unrelated woman and her pain, he must stay and learn more from him.
We might extrapolate from the Meshech Chochmah that the Chofetz Chaim had cried even more profoundly than the husband himself, fulfilling the Meshech Chochmah’s interpretation of the level of Hashem’s nosei be’ol.
There is an incredible practical result of this aspect of being nosei be’ol which has only recently become possible. Should one donate a kidney to a distant relative or friend? We are not speaking of the ishto kegufo relationship of a spouse or the mitzvah responsibility of a child to a parent. What about a stranger?
Rav Yechezkel Levenstein zt”l (Ohr Yechezkel, Avodah, page 213), regarding a different issue, cites the well-known Medrash (Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer, chapter 19) that Adam Harishon gave up 70 years of what would have been a thousand-year life span and “donated” it to Dovid Hamelech. The Ponovezher mashgiach concludes that nosei be’ol means that a person must feel toward another just as if the concerns are exactly his own. Therefore, he can actually give years of his life away to another. We may perhaps extrapolate that by the same token, one can give a kidney to a total stranger.
Rav Chatzkel was not just a theoretician or an inspiring speaker. Rav Michel Yehudah Lefkowitz zt”l recalls visiting someone who was quite ill with Rav Chatzkel (Binas Hamiddos, page 18). “After the visit, Rav Chatzkel recalled in detail every moan and groan, every specific ailment, every aspect of the man’s suffering. That was a vivid example of what it means to be nosei be’ol,” concluded Rav Michel Yehudah.
Another aspect of emulating Hashem in this middah may be discovered in a story told by Rav Moshe Aharon Stern zt”l, the mashgiach of Kamenitz, about Rav Chaim Shmulevitz zt”l (Bais Hillel Journal, No. 4, page 70). He went to daven at Kever Rochel and ended up standing right next to the mechitzah, where he overheard a childless woman speaking to Rochel Imeinu: “Mamma Rochel, you, too, were bereft of children for many years, so you understand my pain and anguish. Eventually, Hashem gave you a child, so could you please be an interceder for me so that I, too, could be granted a baby?” Rav Chaim was so touched by these words that he called out to the woman, identifying himself, “I am certain that Hashem has accepted your tefillos. Next year, you will give birth to a baby boy and I will be the sandek.” We can only imagine the ongoing tefillos that Rav Chaim added to those of the woman so that she had the baby and he indeed was the sandek.
Rav Chaim, too, was na’eh doresh and na’eh mekayeim – he practiced what he preached. A son was born to him in Eretz Yisroel in the midst of the War of Independence in 1948 and the bris was held in the hospital. Since bombs and debris were falling every few moments, one had to run from building to building in the short moments between bombs. As Rav Chaim was running with a relative, he spotted an injured child who was almost completely bandaged. The great rosh yeshiva strangely stopped running to contemplate the child and cry over his injuries. His relative begged the rosh yeshiva to run for cover, to no avail. The rosh yeshiva later explained: “Foolish people think that being nosei be’ol only means offering practical help when you can. No, the essence of this middah is to share his pain. In case you wonder of what use is this sharing, you must know that sharing the pain diminishes it for the one who is injured” (Sefer Moach Veleiv).
At Rav Chaim’s levayah, a man who was completely blind arrived, although no one knew who he was. Asked about his presence, the man related that when he had told Rav Chaim a number of years before that his blindness was incurable, the rosh yeshiva had cried bitterly for twenty minutes (Sefer Bnei Chayil 2:505).
Another maaseh rav that proves nosei be’ol does not necessarily mean helping or accomplishing anything may be seen in a story about Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt”l. His grandson, Rav Shneur Kotler zt”l, was leaving Eretz Yisroel to get married in the United States and his grandfather accompanied him down the two flights of stairs, immediately turning around. When asked why he didn’t continue further, the author of the Even Ha’azel replied, “The Gemara (Megillah 28a) relates that Rav Zeira proclaimed that he had never taken pleasure in the downfall of another Jew. Now, who would even think that someone like Rav Zeira would even consider doing such a horrible thing? So what is the chiddush that he did not? The answer is that even if your friend is suffering and you are celebrating a simchah, you must reduce your joy somewhat because of those who are in pain.” Rav Isser Zalman explained that this was soon after Churban Europa and many people were not zocheh to see their grandchildren married. “Therefore, I only accompanied my grandson a bit, in deference to those who could not celebrate such an event at all.” Rav Isser Zalman taught Rav Shneur, and all of us by extension, the meaning of being a nosei be’ol (see, also, Alei Shur 2:211).
Following a tragedy we must use our powers of imagination to identify with the victim. Of course, if we can help them financially, medically or otherwise, we should. we must daven for them with all our heart and soul, as if it was really our misfortune. Because if we truly believe in kol Yisroel areivim, it is our tragedy.
May we share only simchos in the new year, haba’ah aleinu letovah.