Harav Mordechai Dov (“Reb Motele”) of Hornisteipel, zy”a, had a heart condition. Once, a severe bout of hiccups put his weakened heart in danger. The gabbai rushed the Rebbe to a doctor. The cure entailed heating an iron poker until it was red hot, then touching it to the patient’s spine. The shock of the heat cured — or killed — the patient.
The doctor heated the poker and touched it to the Rebbe’s spine. The Rebbe didn’t flinch. The doctor was baffled and thought maybe he didn’t heat it up enough. So he put the poker back into the fire. Then he touched it to the Rebbe’s spine again.
Once again, the Rebbe sat motionless. The doctor, more shocked than the patient, threw down the poker and screamed at the gabbai in Russian, “Tell your Rebbe he’s an angel, not a human being! The peasants here jump out the window in pain before I even come near them! This is not human!”
The Rebbe, who didn’t speak Russian, asked the gabbai, “What is he saying?”
The gabbai repeated the entire outburst. Then the Rebbe said, “Tell the fool that if I don’t jump out the window in pain when a Jew comes to me for help … and I can’t help him … I’m not going to jump out now!”
This week, a woman in New York told her son in Yerushalayim that she can’t read the news anymore. It upsets her too much.
And that’s why she keeps reading it. “If I can’t do anything, at least I can cry. We have to feel the pain.”
Chazal tell us one of the foundations of acquiring Torah is to be nosei b’ol im chaveiro — to carry your friend’s burden. This doesn’t just mean to help with baggage or unloading a donkey. It’s also in the sense of “Imo Anochi b’tzarah — I am with them in their time of trouble.”
One of the ugliest side effects of terrorism is that it dehumanizes us.
Some people became afraid to pick up hitchhikers in Israel, even soldiers. They are afraid the “soldiers” might be terrorists in disguise. And just as we can be made afraid to do a kindness, we become callous to catastrophes. This is not a criticism. If doctors or emergency first responders would go to pieces at every disaster, they wouldn’t be able to function.
But we pay a price for protecting ourselves. The high price of immunity is inhumanity.
An iconic American aphorism has it, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
We could go further than that. The worst thing we have to fear is indifference — the nameless, numbing, however justifiable, detachment that freezes our minds and souls.
A man came to Rav Mendel, the “Mittele Rebbe” of Vorka, zy”a, to beg Reb Mendel to pray for his son, who was so sick that the doctors had given up on him.
Reb Mendel sadly shook his head. “I wish there was something I could do. But the Gates of Heaven are closed. I cannot help you.”
The broken man could barely ride his rickety wagon back to his village. As he plodded along, he suddenly heard horses galloping behind. He turned around to see a wagon with a team of huge white horses bearing down on him.
The wagon pulled up and down came Reb Mendel. He told the startled father, “I told you I couldn’t pray for your son. That is true. Heaven has blocked my prayers. But there is one thing I forgot … I can cry with you.”
And, at that, Reb Mendel fell down on the ground and began to cry. He cried and cried … in great heaving sobs. Finally he stopped, calmed himself, and told his assistant, “Bring a l’chaim. We broke through!”
It’s never easy. Caring carries a price. Reb Mendel’s nephew, Harav Menachem of Amshinov, zy”a, carried on his father’s and grandfather’s work of running from town to town, helping an almanah here, a yasom there, and a prisoner yet somewhere else. The strain finally took its toll and he had a heart attack at 58. The family brought in a professor from Vienna to treat him.
“How did you develop this heart condition?” asked the doctor.
“From Yiddishe tzaros,” Reb Menachem answered.
The doctor and Rabbanim ordered him to stop his askanus. But he wouldn’t, or couldn’t. And he gave his life for the klal.
We are not asked to give up our lives. But the minute we let the numbness set in and stop caring, we give up our chiyus.
The Gate of Tears is never locked. But we have to pound on the door.
And even if we can’t get in, we can still cry.