It is hard to imagine someone else’s pain and react as if we really understand. My first job as a rav was in a nursing home, where I learned powerful lessons on how to react compassionately to the needs of others. Every Erev Shabbos, a woman came to spend the afternoon with her mother, who was suffering the devastating impact of dementia. Upon seeing her daughter, the mother would ask who it was. The daughter would patiently answer, “It’s me, your daughter, Sarah.” The mother’s eyes lit up and she would say, “Sarah, you made my day.” Sarah would spend 15 minutes telling her mother humorous stories about her grandchildren, when abruptly her mother would ask, “Who are you?” Her daughter would once again say, “It’s me, your daughter, Sarah,” and her mother would again beam with delight at seeing her daughter. The cycle continued for long periods of time. When one of the nurses asked Sarah how she had the patience to continue with this charade for so long, Sarah said it was her pleasure to be able to give her mother so many “first time” visits in one afternoon. “Besides,” she continued, “can you imagine how hard it must be to live in her state of mind; the least I can do is temporarily end her confusion and bring some happiness into her life.” As frustrating as it must have been for Sarah, sacrificing for others means understanding their needs and mustering the resources to help provide a solution.
We grow from our responses to difficult situations. When we make the proper decisions and use our potential to help others, we fulfill our purpose in this world. Esther was also known as Hadassah, as the verse tells us (Esther 2:7) “And he reared Hadassah, she is Esther.” The name Hadassah comes from the myrtle plant Hadas, which has an olive color similar to Esther’s complexion. The hadas plant is used by many as the besamim, spices, for Havdalah, as it has a beautiful sweet fragrance. This unique smell can only be released from the myrtle when it is squeezed hard and crushed. This symbolically represents Esther’s inner strength which emerged when she was being crushed by the pressure of Haman’s plans and the risking of her life to save Klal Yisroel.
We often hesitate to respond and react when we see others in trouble, in order to avoid the accompanying pressure and stress. The greatness of a Jew, however, is in being able to see others in difficult situations and respond by feeling their plight – and not remaining silent. The Talmud (Sotah 11a) tells us that Pharaoh had three advisers: Yisro, Iyov (Job) and Bilaam. Although Iyov did not want Pharaoh to destroy the Jewish people, he remained silent and neglected to voice his opposition to the plan. Perhaps he had a good reason for doing so; perhaps he was waiting for a more opportune time to intervene. Nevertheless, some say that he was punished for his silence because if he really felt their pain he should have screamed. I cry out in pain if someone steps on my foot; I should also cry out in pain if someone steps on my friend’s foot.
There are many possible reactions we can have to the many situations or little tests that occur over the course of a day. Each scenario is a nisayon, or test, that presents us with an opportunity to make choices and achieve growth. There are three levels of responses that could occur.
We could act out of habit or rote, without thinking, a response that generally does not allow us the opportunity to infuse meaning into our interpersonal interactions. For example, the feeling that so many are left with when we ask, “How are you doing?” and move on without waiting for a response, leaving the other party with the feeling that we don’t really care. Instead, we should give a warm and personal greeting and wait for a response to our caring inquiries.
Or we could do what we are supposed to be doing, but without the zerizus, alacrity, and exuberance.
However, the third and highest level of motivation occurs when the action is performed with a palpable level of excitement, enjoyment and meaning. For example, the same basic greeting will be performed at this level when we meet our future daughter-in-law for the first time.
This choice of “meaningfulness of response” can be seen each time we have the opportunity to do an act for others that requires our time or resources. Chazal tell us that we can increase the level of the mitzvah of charity by giving with a smile or warm comment, instead of simply, silently handing over the money. Many people in need of financial assistance would prefer receiving a little less while being treated with warmth and respect.