In my previous two columns I mentioned three actions recommended by our sages to evoke Heavenly Mercy and grant us protection in the days of crisis that mark the period of ikvesa deMeshicha, the footsteps of Mashiach.
Let us focus here on gemilas chasadim, the mitzvah of kindness that encompasses so many aspects of Jewish life. The Jewish community is exemplary in this regard. There are gemachs or free loan societies for those who are financially strapped; groups that provide many basic necessities for a bride and her wedding; organizations that donate home furnishings to newlyweds; and volunteers who visit the elderly and the ill and the housebound. And that’s just a cursory description because it would be impossible to list the vast array of chesed activities in the space allotted.
Time and again I have stated whenever we are in doubt regarding any decision or course of action we need only follow the instructions of our Torah. “Turn the pages, for everything is in it,” our sages tell us.
But where in the Torah should we look? What page? Which parshah? The answer is that we look for the first place a particular subject is mentioned.
Today, we as Jews are being assailed from every direction. Where in our sacred Torah do we find the first mention of a crisis that threatened the entire Jewish nation? Our bondage in Egypt. The situation of our people at that time appeared dire. Every gate was closed to them. There was no one in Egypt or the outside world who was willing to help.
The teaching of King Solomon that “There is nothing new under the sun” is as valid today as it was yesterday. Sadly, though, we keep repeating the same mistakes despite having so many examples of greatness, nobility, generosity, and kindness in previous times of darkness that could and should inspire us. Why can’t we take the cue from our forefathers and see how they triumphed over their suffering in Egypt?
In Parshas Va’era we read that G-d declares “V’gam Ani Shomati…” – “And I have alsoheard the cry of the Jewish people” calling out in agony for redemption from their brutal Egyptian bondage.
Our sages ask, “What is the meaning of the word gam – “I have also heard”? Who else could have heard? What is the true intent of the passage?
When Hashem sees us responding to the cries of our brethren and reaching out to one another with chesed, He proclaims “I have also heard.”
Our 21st century culture is entirely self-focused. We have been conditioned to focus on our own needs and downplay or dismiss the needs of others. Yes, we might stop for a moment to express our horror and our sympathy but then we go on with business as usual. We throw up our hands, convinced we are free of further responsibility. What else can we do? We say, “I have my own trials and worries. I can’t help right now.”
So what do we learn from the word gam referred to above? First and foremost to be sensitive to the plight of our brothers and sisters and to reach out to them with a loving and helping hand, even in the face of our own suffering or lack of resources.
My saintly father, HaRav HaGaon Avraham HaLevi Jungreis, zt’’l, taught that if Hashem inflicts upon us some manner of suffering it is so that we may be more sensitive to the suffering of others, to identify with them, to help them.
Unless you feel the pain of your brother you cannot quite relate to his suffering. People who have never experienced darkness can find it all too easy to give glib advice and flippantly dismiss the concerns of others.