Feeling Their Pain

As the bnei Yisrael suffered unspeakable persecution at the hands of the Egyptians, one twelve-year-old boy was ensconced in the comfort of the royal palace of Pharaoh. Nearly anyone else in his position would have presumably stayed put in this unlikely safe haven.

But Moshe, his heart filled with concern about the fate of his brethren, didn’t.

He left the palace to see for himself how they were faring.

It was not his immediate family that he went to check up on. Both his father, Amram, and his mother, Yocheved, stemmed from the shevet of Levi, who were exempt from the backbreaking labor forced upon the rest of the Bnei Yisrael. To Moshe Rabbeinu, all descendants of Yaakov were his brothers.

He witnessed the brutality of the Egyptian overseers and recognized the depth of his brothers’ suffering. But seeing alone did not suffice for Moshe. Chazal tell us that he took the heavy burden each of them was carrying and placed it on his own shoulders, so he could physically relate to what they were going through.

Last Thursday, speaking at the national convention of Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Yaakov Bender, Rosh Yeshivah, Darchei Torah, addressed the convention theme of Shomrei Acheinu Anachnu: Our responsibility to one another in times of challenge.

A resident of Far Rockaway himself, Rabbi Bender spoke about the devastating toll of Hurricane Sandy — and the incredible response of the Jewish community.

He heaped lavish praise on the generosity and genuine concern exhibited by so many, but also stressed that there is much that still needs to be done for the storm victims.

How can Jews living only a few minutes away from scenes of utter destruction  enjoy their day-to-lives while so many of their brethren are still homeless, Rabbi Bender wondered.

He told of the time that Hagaon Harav Avraham Yaakov Pam, zt”l, Rosh Yeshivah of Torah Vodaas, discovered a five-dollar bill on the street. At that time — decades ago — this was considered a decent sum of money, but withiout any way to prove or track the owner, the money halachically belonged to the finder. Rav Pam’s young children, excited with news of the find, busily planned what would be purchased with the money.

Rav Pam had a different view.

“A person lost this money,” he told them. “How can we enjoy it while he is in pain?”

He put away the money away. A few weeks later he took it out. “By now the person probably forgot about the loss,” Rav Pam said. “Now we can purchase something with it.”

This attribute of hishtatfus b’tzaar, feeling the pain of another Jew, is an ideal that each of us would do well to internalize.

Hagaon Harav Baruch Teumim Frankel, zt”l, known by his classic sefer Baruch Taam, once entered the kitchen and found his daughter and a hired helper enjoying a light moment together.

With deep wonder the Baruch Taam cried out at them, “Don’t you know that Mordechai the bathhouse attendant is sick?”

Being a bathhouse attendant was at that time the least-respected position in town, yet the Baruch Taam could not fathom how one could smile if another Jew — no matter who he is — is ill.

Large sums of money have been raised for the hurricane victims, but the needs are much greater. The more we work on ourselves to genuinely feel the pain of those in need, the easier it will be for us to dig deeper into our pockets and strain ourselves to give more.

It isn’t only money that is needed. Volunteers have been playing a crucial role in helping victims as they struggle to rebuild their lives and homes. It is extremely difficult for a family who has literally lost all their possessions to do this alone. In the midst of a crisis, concentrating on the numerous decisions that have to be made is itself a grave challenge. Project Nivneh, an organization affiliated with Achiezer, helps pair volunteers with affected families to help guide them.

Many of the shuls and organization located in the afflicted areas have set up their own relief efforts; Rabbanim and local askanim  will be very glad to help point would-be volunteers in the right direction.

It begins with a single phone call.

Unfortunately, hurricane victims aren’t the only ones in need of assistance. Ten days ago, a vicious fire ripped through three houses in Kensington, leaving seven families homeless.

Those who lose everything in hurricane floodwaters or in the ravages of blazing flames may have the greatest need, but all around us are families who are suffering. Far too many former breadwinners are now unemployed or significantly underemployed. Far too many families, despite their best efforts, have overextended their credit at the grocery and are months behind on rent payments.

We are all obligated to do everything we can to come to their assistance, with both financial and moral support.

Instead of going online, shop at a local store and help the owner pay bills and keep his employees. When picking up a phone to call a car service, remember that this is an opportunity to help a member of our community pay his son’s tuition at a local yeshivah.

While the ability to undertake any specific hishtadlus depends on each individual set of circumstances, there is one thing all of us can do: Pour out our hearts in tefillah on behalf of all of those who are struggling.

When Moshe Rabbeinu saw the suffering of his people, his heart filled with enormous compassion, and he began to weep:

“Woe to me! Would that I would die instead of you!”

Subsequently, the Ribbono shel Olam said to Moshe, “You put aside your position [in the palace of Pharaoh] and went to witness the tzaar of [bnei] Yisrael and exhibited to them brotherhood; I will put aside the upper and lower realms and speak with you!”

The reward is very great.

All that is left for us is to act.