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Torah Attitude: Parashas Tazria/HaChodesh: Sharing our fellow's pain and happiness
The next thing the Mishnah mentions, that one needs to acquire Torah, is to share the yoke of one's fellow. The Torah was given to all Jews of all generations. In the time of the Temple, the king was commanded to read the Torah on Succos of the first year of every Shemitah cycle for the entire nation. This was known as "hakheil" ("gather"). G'd revealed to the Jewish people how He shares their burden. G'd revealed Himself to Moses in a low thorn bush rather than in a magnificent, tall tree. At the time when he lived as a prince in the palace of Pharaoh, Moses used to go out and literally share the burdens of the Jewish people. Moses sat on a stone rather than on comfortable pillows, as he said, "Since the Jewish people are in distress, I shall also suffer with them." At a time when Jewish soldiers were in the trenches, suffering from hunger and cold, and facing the danger of death, the Chofetz Chaim could not sleep comfortably in his bed. "Although we may not know the individual soldiers", said the Rabbi Levenstein, "we are all one family." "At the time when our brothers and sisters are languishing in concentration camps, how can I sit down and enjoy a piece of meat." The Torah obligates us with the commandment of "you shall love your fellow being as yourself", to feel for them and share their pain. Just like we are obligated to share the distress and pain of our fellow beings, we must also rejoice with their happy moments and successes. The study of Torah can only be accomplished as a group effort. The period between Pesach and Shavuous is observed as a time of mourning because the students of Rabbi Akiva perished at that time. As we prepare for Pesach, we should make sure to clean ourselves as well from the challenges of our personal chametz.
Share our fellow's yoke
The next thing the Mishnah mentions, that one needs to acquire Torah, is to share the yoke of one's fellow. At first sight, it seems strange how this would enable a person to acquire Torah. It looks more like a recommendation how to deal with one's fellow being. The Maharal explains that when someone is ready to share his fellow's burden, besides being a good person, it proves that he considers himself part of the wider community. This, says the Maharal, is a pre-requisite for acquiring Torah. For the Torah was given to the entire Jewish nation, and not just to individual scholars who choose to study it.
This is evident from the fact that G'd instructed Moses to address both the women and the men and prepare them for the giving of the Torah (see Rashi Shemos 19:3). But it goes even further. The Kabbalists explain that all the future souls of all generations of the Jewish people were present when G'd revealed Himself at Mount Sinai. Accordingly, the Torah was given to all Jews of all generations.
In the time of the Temple, the king was commanded to read the Torah on Succos of the first year of every Shemitah cycle for the entire nation. This was known as "hakheil" ("gather"). As it says (Devarim 31:12): "Gather the people, the men, the women, and the small children … so that they will hear and they will learn, and they will fear HASHEM your G'd, and they will observe to perform all the words of this Torah." This again teaches the importance of including everyone so that they have a direct personal relationship with the Torah, each one on their individual level. This explains why we find that both the written and oral Torahs can be studied on multiple levels. The young child and the mature scholar can study the same parasha of the Torah, or the same tractate of the Talmud, and both will be able to learn something on their level of understanding. There is no other text in the world that is suited to be studied in this manner.
G'd shares burden of Jewish people
Only a person who is ready to share the burden of another person, says the Maharal, is fully equipped to acquire the Torah, to study it and live according to its commandments. The late Mashgiach, Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, points out that G'd showed the Jewish people how He shares their burden. At the time of the revelation at Mount Sinai it says (Shemos 24:10): "And they [the Jewish people] saw the G'd of Israel and under His feet was like brickwork of sapphire, and it was like the actual Heaven in purity." Rashi quotes from the Midrash Rabbah (Vayikra 23:8) that this brickwork was laid out, so to say, in front of G'd during the entire time of the bondage of the Jewish people in Egypt. It served as G'd's constant reminder of the distress of the Jewish people while they were enslaved to perform heavy brickwork. Obviously, G'd does not need a reminder. He is well aware of the plight of the Jewish people. But G'd wanted to show them this image just before He gave them the Torah. In this way, He taught the Jewish people that sharing the burden of one's fellow, and taking an interest in his well-being, is a pre-requisite for the receiving and acquiring the Torah.
Already the first time that G'd revealed Himself to Moses did He teach Moses the importance of sharing the burden of others and to feel their pain. Rashi (Shemos 3:2) quotes the Midrash Tanchuma (14) that asks why G'd revealed Himself in a low thorn bush rather than in a magnificent, tall tree, more fitting for a Divine presence. The Midrash answers that G'd did so to fulfill what it says in Tehillim (91:15): "I [G'd] am with him in distress." Therefore, G'd revealed Himself to Moses in a setting suited to the low and "thorny" state of affairs of the Jewish people. In this way, G'd taught Moses an important lesson even before saying anything to him.
Moses shared the burdens
The truth is that Moses had already proven that he understood the importance of this conduct. At the time when he lived as a prince in the palace of Pharaoh, he used to go out and literally share the burdens of the Jewish people. The Midrash Rabbah (Shemos 1:32) relates how Moses pretended to assist the Egyptian slave masters but in fact lowered his shoulders and carried the heavy bricks together with the Jewish slaves. The Midrash Rabbah (Shemos 2:6) explains that it was this quality that made Moses worthy of becoming the leader of the Jewish people. For when G'd saw how Moses conducted himself He said: "Someone who goes out of his way to share the distress of the Jewish people is worthy to be their leader."
Moses also suffers
Later (Shemos 17:10-12), when Amalek attacked the Jewish people, Moses instructed Joshua to go out to battle against them. Moses himself went up on a hill, together with Aaron and Hur, and prayed to G'd with raised hands. When Moses' hands became heavy, Aaron and Hur gave him a stone to sit on and they supported his hands so that he could continue to pray undisturbed. Rashi points out in the name of the Talmud (Taanis 11a) that Moses sat on a stone rather than on comfortable pillows, as he said, "Since the Jewish people are in distress, I shall also suffer with them."
This is how great sages, and even regular Jews, have conducted themselves throughout the ages. One night during World War I, the Chofetz Chaim was not in his bed, and his wife searched all over the house for him. She found him sleeping on a wooden bench without any cushions. When she asked him why he had not come to bed, he answered that at a time when Jewish soldiers were in the trenches, suffering from hunger and cold, and facing the danger of death, how could he sleep comfortably in his bed.
Similarly, during the wars in Israel, the Mashgiach of Ponevez Yeshiva, Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein, would constantly speak to his students about how they must be extra diligent in their studies so that this could be a merit and protection for the soldiers in the battlefields. At the same time, he would elaborate on the obligation to share the burden with the soldiers, and feel their pain and the pain of their families. "Although we may not know the individual soldiers", said the Mashgiach, "we are all one family."
Mrs. Hannah Kahn
Even regular, rank and file members of the Jewish people have shown how to rise to the occasion and share the pain of their fellow Jews. My aunt, Mrs. Hannah Kahn, of Jerusalem, was among the Danish Jews who found refuge in Sweden in October 1943. During her stay in a refuge camp in Sweden, she refrained from eating any meat as she said, "At the time when our brothers and sisters are languishing in concentration camps, how can I sit down and enjoy a piece of meat."
Love your fellow as yourself
The feeling of sharing someone else's burden is not restricted to times of war. In our daily lives, we constantly hear about people suffering different ways such as health issues and financial difficulties. The Torah obligates us with the commandment of "you shall love your fellow being as yourself" (Vayikra 19:18), to feel for them and share their pain. My late father would say a short prayer when he saw a fellow Jew in pain or distress. And he often expressed that he himself experienced pain when he encountered someone who was sick.
Rejoice with others
The famous Mashgiach of pre-war Mirrer Yeshiva, Rabbi Yerucham Levowitz, points out that at the same time that G'd revealed the brickwork of sapphire to the Jewish people they also saw the "actual Heaven in purity". The Midrash explains that this was a symbol of G'd's joy at the time when the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt. This teaches us, says Rabbi Levowitz, that just like we are obligated to share the distress and pain of our fellow beings, we must also rejoice with their happy moments and successes. This is not always so easy. For example, if a person wins the lottery he will be very happy. If he wins the lottery a few times in a row, his happiness will increase accordingly. However, if his friend wins the lottery, he will be happy for him the first time. But if his friend continues to win the lottery a few times, his feeling of happiness for his friend will diminish somewhat. If we really love our fellow beings as ourselves, and truly share in their events, our joy for them would increase as much as if it had happened to us. It is a lot easier to feel bad for someone else than to rejoice with them, but the Torah expects us to do both.
All our inter-personal relationships should be built on the commandment of loving our fellow beings as ourselves. Rashi quotes from Toras Kohanim (4:12) that Rabbi Akiva used to say that this commandment is the most fundamental rule of the Torah. Only a person who develops a love for his fellow Jew, and is ready to share both his burdens and his joy, will be able to fully observe the commandments of the Torah. And only such a person will be able to acquire the wisdom of the Torah. For the study of Torah cannot be successful if a person studies on his own. It can only be accomplished as a group effort (see Talmud Berachos 63b).
Listen and appreciate
Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner, in his commentary on this Mishnah, explains that sharing another person's yoke has a special meaning when it comes to Torah study. Here it means the readiness to listen to and appreciate another person's way of thinking. When two people study together with this attitude, they will both grow in their understanding of the teachings of the Torah.
Rabbi Akiva's students
The period between Pesach and Shavuous is observed as a time of mourning because the students of Rabbi Akiva perished at that time. The Talmud (Yevamos 61b) explains that they were punished due to their lack of mutual respect. The Midrash Rabbah (Koheles 11:5) adds that they exhibited a lack of tolerance for each other's Torah teachings. This clearly shows that their lack of mutual respect affected not only their inter-personal relationship, but also their ability to study and grow in Torah learning. This period is supposed to be a time when we prepare ourselves for a renewed acceptance of the Torah. G'd punished the students of Rabbi Akiva, who had taught that loving one's fellow being is a fundamental commandment of the Torah, for not living up to their mentor's teaching.
Prepare for Pesach
As we prepare for Pesach, we all want to make sure that our houses are free of chametz. But let us at the same time remember that the chametz symbolizes our evil inclination. With this in mind, we should make sure to clean ourselves as well from the challenges of our personal chametz. In this way, we get ready to sit down at the Seder table and express our love for our fellow beings as we say, "Whoever is hungry shall come and eat. Whoever is in need shall come and participate in our Pesach celebration." This will be the first step towards our personal preparation to our renewed acceptance of the Torah on the Festival of Shavuous and will enable us to acquire the Torah on a higher level.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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