Do we feel the pain of our Jewish brethren when they are suffering? There is an inherent kinship and caring among the Jewish people. The sage, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai stated, “When one Jew is injured, all Jews feel the pain.” (Mechilta of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Exodus 6:19). That is a guiding principal behind Jewish unity.
One of the opening sentences in the week’s Torah reading, Va’era, states, “And I (Hashem) also heard the cries of Bnei Yisrael as the Egyptians were persecuting them, and I will remember my covenant.” (Exodus, 6:5). The words of the sentence, “And I also” appears to be redundant. To whom does “And I also” refer? Who else heard the cries of the Israelite slaves? According to the Torah luminary known as the Chatam Sofer (1762-1839), this means the Hebrews also heard the cries and groans of their brethren and felt their anguish. “In reward for their empathy and caring for each other, Hashem also heard their cries and redeemed them from their situation.”
By showing empathy, despite their own suffering, the Israelites hastened their redemption.
Moses exemplified empathy and caring.
From the lofty heights of king’s palace where he grew up, Moses upon reaching adulthood went out of the comfortable confines of the king’s palace and saw the plight of his brothers, the Hebrews, “And it was in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brethren and saw their affliction” (Shemot 2:11). Moses was very affected by what he witnessed. Rashi states, “He focused his eyes and heart to be distressed over them.”
Empathy leads to action.
The Midrash states that Moses, “Looked upon their affliction and wept, saying: ‘Woe is to me for you, would that I could die for you’. Moshe then sought to help.
The Midrash continues, “There is no labor more strenuous than that of handling clay, and he helped shoulder the heavy burdens, assisting each one.” (Shemot Rabah 1:27)
In the last century:
Following the Bolshevik Revolution, Russian Jewry was in dire danger under the Soviet regime, which with the help of Jewish communists, were forcing the closure of Jewish institutions, and the persecution of the Rabbis and teachers of Russian Jewry. The venerable Chafetz Chaim wrote in a letter to world Jewry pleading for action as he expressed his sense of urgency, “My heart faints and hands tremble at the approximately three million Jews in captivity and oppression.” The Chafetz Chaim asked, “Are we going to Chas VeShalom (G-D forbid) sit with our hands folded?”
During the Holocaust, the Warsaw underground, before the uprising, sent the following message demanding action, “If you feel our pain, leaders of Israel, rise up and go to the American representatives and to the British Ministry offices and stay there until they put you in jail and if they arrest you, go on a hunger strike until you die.”
Most Jewish leaders at the time could have done more. They stood by as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not take action. Some even derided activist organizations, the Vaad Hatzalah, the Bergson group, as well as the four hundred Orthodox Rabbis who marched on the White House on October 6, 1943.
Their efforts along with those of the office of Secretary of the Treasury, Robert Morgenthau finally pushed a recalcitrant President to establish a War Refugee Board, which helped save 250,000 lives.
The Jewish people are one nation with one heart. They should act together with concern. To stand by fellow Jews in distress, to aid those in need, to give their full support to Israel if they happen to live in the Diaspora.
The power of empathy and action helped bring redemption closer in Egypt and it helps to bring redemption in our times as well.