Imagine the awe-inspiring scene of a courtroom. You are the defense counsel for a defendant on trial for an alleged crime of whch he stands accused. You come prepared, ready for battle, to attain a verdict of acquittal.
But let’s face it, whether your client is acquitted and walks free, or if he is convicted and hauled off in handcuffs, you know that you will going back home where a hot dinner and other comforts await you. Your client, however, has no such assurance.
Now let’s suppose that you are led to the same destination as your client, meaning that if he is to be loaded onto a paddy wagon in leg-irons after a guilty verdict, you will be joining him - not as his counsel, but as his fellow prisoner! Certainly, your arguments on his behalf would be just a tad crisper, better prepared, and charged with more energy and emotion. Because a cold prison cell is the last place on earth in which you want to spend your life.
Now, let’s switch the scenery. Instead of New York State Superior Court, I find myself in Shul, advocating before the Judge of judges on behalf of a fellow Jew who is suffering. I am pleading for Heavenly mercy for Mr. and Mrs. R. who have not been blessed with children for several years. If it is “just their problem,” sure – I will put in my “good word” in the Silent Prayer, the Shemoneh Esreion their behalf.
But at the end of the day, I return to my pleasant home, to a Shabbos table surrounded by my wife and lively children who eagerly read from their Parsha sheets and sing songs, zemiros, with me. Certainly, the emotional energy during my prayers will not begin to compare to the level of upheaval of someone who personally experiences the fate of this childless couple. If I would picture myself walking home alone after Shul to a painfully quiet home without the lively sounds of children, devoid of colorful Parsha projects to regale the family, my prayers would likely be charged with far more emotional urgency and desperation.
HaRav Aharon Leib Steinman, zts"l, once rhetorically asked Rabbi Shlomo Bochner, the founder of Bonei Olam (helping couples who struggle with infertility), “Shloime, why do we need Bonei Olam? If Hashem wants someone to have children, then they will have. If He doesn’t, then they won’t. So vos iz di ganzte shpiel (what's the whole deal)?”
And then Rav Steinman answered his own question: “Maybe, Reb Shloime, maybe you’ll feel the tzaar and pain of another and make it your pain, and that itself opens new gates and creates new merits, new zechusim. Maybe that’s what you’re doing.”
When we feel the pain of another Jew, this itself has the power to change his or her fate in a most positive manner. Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon explains, by being nosei b’ol im chaveiro, empathizing and identifying with our friend’s suffering, we open the Heavenly channel for Divine empathy (the Divine middah of L’Shearis Nachlaso, in Sefer Tomer Devorah, Chapter 1) to flow down toward mankind. Putting myself into the metaphorical shoes of my fellow Jew when I plead his case before the the Lord, the Ribbono Shel Olam, opens a window in the gates of Heaven to favor those who are suffering.
The Sabba of Kelm writes: “It is impossible to reach the level of feeling another’s pain … unless we abundantly utilize mental imagery - visualizing ourselves, Heaven forbid, experiencing the pain, hardship or illness that another person is suffering.”
Thus, to be a nosei b’ol im chaveiro, we “transplant” ourselves into the person who is in pain, imagining ourselves experiencing that person’s situation and associated feelings. This “transplantation” is even more important when we pray on behalf of that person as the Chasam Sofer explains, “The entire Jewish people are partners with a single body and soul. When one person is in pain, his friend also feels it and suffers alongside him. When we pray on behalf of an ill friend, we view ourselves as if we are also the choleh (ill person).”
We become that person’s co-defendant (Chasam Sofer, ibid), so that his or her struggles become our own when we advocate on their behalf in prayer. This nosei b’ol (empathy) quality empowers our prayers to open a Heavenly window and induce Hashem’s blessings to flow down to those in need.
About four years ago, I published a poem to inspire people to pray on behalf of people whose Shabbos is especially lonely, including couples without children and singles who need a Shidduch. A woman named Mrs. R. who was struggling with infertility, responded in a subsequent issue of that magazine. In her letter, Mrs. R. explained that although her pain recedes to the background during the busy week, her anguish roils to the surface on Shabbos when everything that she and her husband yearn for and miss, is most starkly felt.
One line in the poem afforded her some solace: “See the hole in their heart on every Leil Shabbos – no spouse to greet with sparkling eyes and no sweet children to kiss and bless.” Mrs. R explained: “I felt that here was someone who understood … This Friday night after lighting the candles, I felt the familiar tug at my heart … I then started reading the letter, and felt validated, and finally accepted myself.”
Certainly, I have no window into another person’s heart, at least no more so than any other member of Klal Yisroel. Every one of us has this ability, to find a few words to advocate before the Ribbono Shel Olam on behalf our fellow Jews who are struggling, if we just imagine what is going on in their hearts and minds. After all, we are their “co-defendants,” and their plight is our own.
Rabbi Yechiel Spero points out an astounding observation: One of the greatest nosei b’ol personalities in Jewish history was the Matriarch Rochel, Rochel Immeinu! How so? Rochel gave the “signs” to her sister Leah to enable her to marry Jacob, and to spare her the shame of being discovered as an imposter! How was it possible for Rochel to reach such an unimaginable level of self sacrifice, mesiras nefesh for her sister?
Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman answers, Rochel visualized Leah’s pain and shame when she would be unable to answer Jacob’s query about the “signs”. Rochel said, “I cannot bear my sister’s pain and shame.” Accordingly, says Rabbi Spero, perhaps this explains why only Rochel succeeded in arousing Hashem’s mercy for the Jewish people in exile after the Patriarchs and Moshe Rabbeinu failed (Eichah Rabbah, Pesichta).
“Maybe the Jewish people do not deserve mercy,” argued Rochel, “but how can You bear the pain of Your children’s suffering? Look how I pushed aside my own wishes and needs because I could not bear my sister’s pain.” Thereupon, Hashem responded to Rochel, “For your sake, I will return Israel to their home.”
All because of the merit of Rochel’s empathy - her visualization of Leah’s pain – this merit alone is guaranteed to save the day for the Jewish people! From our Mamme Rochel we learn the merit of being nosei b’ol im chaveiro alone elicits Hashem’s mercy and salvation, even when all other avenues of hope are lost.
HaRav Chaim Shmuelevitz, ZT”L, the legendary Rosh HaYeshiva of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Jerusalem, was well known for his keen sensitivity to the suffering of others and his awesome level of nosei b’ol im chaveiro.
Rabbi Paysach Krohn describes the following scene during the 1976 Entebbe hostage crisis: The Mirrer Yeshiva scheduled a gathering to recite Tehillim, psalms. When Rav Shmuelevitz attempted to enter the Beis Midrash and saw the huge tense crowd waiting to say Tehillim, he could go no further; he grabbed onto a chair and began to sob uncontrollably for several minutes. Finally, the Rosh Yeshiva composed himself enough to walk to the front of the hall to speak to the yeshiva students. Through his muffled sobs, the Rosh Yeshiva managed to force out only one sentence in a barely audible voice choked with pain: “Imagine how you would be saying Tehillim if it were your father or mother, your brother or sister, who was there.”
Clearly, Rav Shmuelevitz was urging his students to visualize the suffering of the hostages as if they were personally victimized, to ensure that their prayers would arise from the depths of their souls. We now know the “rest of the story”, how their prayers were answered when nearly all the hostages were rescued alive in a miraculous and daring raid by the courageous IDF. When we visualize our fellow Jew’s pain and then channel our shared anguish into heartfelt prayer on their behalf, the opportunities for salvation are endless.
Mrs. R. ended her letter with a plea: “Hashem should help that I shouldn’t need to be validated any longer. We, and all those who are waiting, should soon build beautiful homes where joy reigns on Friday nights and always … Don’t pity us, do something for us, Daven for us.”
Her request must become our battle cry, to charge us with the mission of carrying her burden on our shoulders through prayer. I suggest a very attainable goal – dedicating two minutes after lighting candles on Erev Shabbos, to reflect on the anguish of people who lack the basic happiness that we take for granted when we celebrate Shabbos with our families, such as couples struggling with infertility, singles, widows, divorcees and their children.
Visualize a childless couple at a Shabbos dinner - how their hearts ache for the very simple joy of giving a beautiful, precious child a sip from Kiddush and a slice of delicious Challah.
Picture a Jewish wife who has been yearning to be a mother for years, as she lights candles and recites the prayer, “Grant me the merit to raise children and grandchildren ... who love Hashem ... who illuminate the world with Torah and good deeds ... Please hear my supplication at this time.”
Imagine the aching heart of a young woman who has been trying to find a shidduch for long lonely years without success and pray for her basherte to be revealed to her in the near future.
Feel the sadness in the hearts of children who cannot have both parents at their Shabbos table, either because of divorce or Heaven forbid, the death of a parent. How they long to reclaim their previous happy times – and yet – like sand through their little fingers, those days are gone forever.
After “transplanting” yourself into their situation for a moment, turn your attention to the Borei Olam, the Creator of the world, and beseech Him to bring happier times to these people, to fill the void in their lives and bless their Shabbos table with the happiness they desperately seek. These prayers, emerging from a heart filled with empathy, will open a Heavenly window and elicit Hashem’s mercy for people in need.
After all, we are all Mamme Rochel’s children, and embracing her legacy of opening Heavenly gates is in our spiritual genome!
Dr. Avi Lasdun attended Telshe Yeshiva in Wickliffe Ohio, graduated with a bachelors in Biology from Touro College in 1985 and a Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences from City University of New York in 1990. Avi worked for over twenty years in the pharmaceutical industry as a scientist. He is currently adapting scientific analytical and writing skills gained during his career to help develop Torah teaching tools that he hopes will activate a fuller array of intellectual and emotional capacities to enable a more holistic learning experience for students.
1Mishpacha Magazine: Born of Hope, Rabbi Yisroel Besser. October 21, 2020: Issue 832.
2Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon: Matnas Chayim (Mamarim, vol. 1), Ma’amar “Sod Ichud HaNefashos”.
3Michtevai HaSabba Mikelm, ZT”L, Ma’amar “Nechmad VeNaim”.
4Shaalos U’Teshuvos Chasam Sofer, Orach Chaim, Siman 166.
5Mishpacha Magazine, Inbox, 2017: Issues 637 and 638.
6Feeling the Pain of Another: Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, Tisha B’av 5778 Program.
7In the Footsteps of the Maggid: Rabbi Paysach J. Krohn. Artscroll-Mesorah Publications, 1992, pp. 138-140.