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The first thing the Torah tells us about Moshe’s personality is “וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו, וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם”, he went out to observe his brothers and he saw their suffering. Rashi explains that he focused on their pain and kept their suffering in his heart. We clearly see Moshe’s great humility from his introduction. In Birchos Hashahar 5 Reb Nosson brings a midrash (Vayikra Rabba Ch. 37) that Hashem said, “because you cared about your brothers’ suffering, you will merit to be taught the laws of vows”.

The obvious question is, what’s the connection between the two things? I understand that it’s a great reward to be taught any law from God, but why is Moshe’s empathy for his people rewarded with being taught the laws of vows? Reb Nosson gives his own answer (ibid).

I was thinking as follows: One of the most interesting type of vows is the Nazir’s vow. A nazir is someone who voluntarily vowed to abstain from all alcohol derived from grapes. (He also can’t cut his hair or become ritually impure). When the Torah introduces this idea it says:

“אִישׁ אוֹ אִשָּׁה כִּי יַפְלִא לִנְדֹּר נֶדֶר נָזִיר”

“If a man or woman sets themselves apart by making a nazarite vow” 

The word יַפְלִא, to set himself apart, says the Even Ezra stems from the root פלא (wonder). Meaning that he did a wondrous thing by making a vow. Here the whole world is running after their desires and this person is a marvel, in that he sets himself apart and abstains from his desires. The same is true for many vows. If someone vows to give charity or vows to do a mitzvah, this is truly a wonder; something so rare.

I think that this is why Moshe merited to be taught the laws of vows for his compassion. The same way that it’s a phenomenon for someone to want to abstain from his desires, when the rest of the world is stuck in the mud of bodily desires, so too it’s equally a rarity for someone to care about another person. The same selfishness that entraps people to follow their lusts, hooks them to be narcissistic. The Torah says that יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו, a person’s natural tendency is to be preoccupied with himself. Children only care about themselves and, unfortunately, too many people never grow up. If the first thing the Torah tells us about Moshe was that he was compassionate for others, that means it was an essential value of his. The more selfless you are, the greater you are, because you are more like God himself, who is totally selfless. Sadly, it’s not common enough to see true altruism, just like it’s not that common to witness people abstain from the desires of this world.

May we merit to truly be selfless and dedicated to the service of Hashem and our fellow people.

2 thoughts on “The greatness of empathy

  1. Thank you for posting this. I really needed to read something like this today. There are so many moments when I get stuck in the mire of that natural tendency to be selfish. And it’s so tricky because my יצר הרע knows me so well, and seems to really put in my mind that the way I’m acting actually IS selfless, even though it’s anything but.

    Just this morning, I woke up and got the kids ready for school and headed into work early, thinking, in that moment, that I’m doing this all because I wanted to make my wife happy and let her get some extra sleep (our youngest didn’t sleep all that great last night and she was up with her every few hours).

    I felt like a big macher. “I’m a pretty good husband, I got this shalom bayis thing down!”

    Then, the first text I get from my wife was her venting about the things she had to do today and how she’s already feeling stressed. Don’t get me wrong, she said “thanks” but it was followed by all that other stuff.

    And I got offended. I thought, “Where’s my big thank you!? I put in extra effort, selfless super-husband deserves something more than a perfunctory “thanks.” She should be so much happier, and why should I do these things anyway if it isn’t even going to put her mind at ease?”

    I kept all this to myself of course (I’m occasionally able to follow the Rav Arush “no comments” rule, in spite of myself). But I was stewing all morning about how my selfless act of kindness was not appreciated.

    And then I came across your post here (I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now, after enjoying some of your articles on the BRI website).

    It was like getting dropped into a freezing cold mikvah.

    Wow. I wasn’t being selfless at all. I was being wholly and completely selfish, in every single way, down to the smallest detail. I obviously was doing all of these “nice” things for my wife, because I wanted, and expected, her to make me feel good by showing her appreciation and being happy so that I could feel like a “good husband.”

    I was expecting a reward from my wife for doing what I thought was a nice thing.

    Fortunately, HKBH has made it so that smackdowns to my ego like this make me feel so much better because they also fill me with אמת. I felt like a big man, husbanding expert before, but it was a lie so that feeling was so…fickle. Now, though, I see what was really going on…where my thoughts (and, consequently, I) truly were.

    So now that I’ve been properly kicked down a few notches, all because of your writing here, I know I can start climbing up again and working harder to truly be good to my wife without any expectation of anything back, even emotional validation.

    I’m sure I’ll mess this up again, likely even before the end of the day.

    But you’ve helped me have some moments of honesty and clarity on how to grab a few mitzvot, right now, (which is one Reb Noson’s teachings closest to my heart) with something approximating the right intentions.

    Thank you from the depths of my heart. With this one piece of writing and what its done for me, you’ve embodied בחינת צדיק לגבי חברו. It’s more appreciated than you can know.

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