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Vayichi: Empathy

Miriam Aflalo

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

“ … his teeth whiter than milk” (Bereishis 49:12)

Rabi Yochanan says: “Better to show the whites of the teeth to his friend, than to pour him milk. There is no Jew that has not been placed, in some way or another, in jail — in solitude.”

Rav Shlomo Wolbe describes it like this:

A person is hit with middas hadin, whether it’s with sickness or some other issue, and he’s struggling with his problem futilely. Someone who is imprisoned cannot free himself. And he sits in solitude. And this loneliness hurts even more than his yissurim. (Alei Shur, Chelek alef)

Suddenly, in the middle of everyday life, a person finds himself in jail, cement walls closing in on him, and wire fences surrounding him. He searches in shock for the door, but finds that it has disappeared behind the screen of darkness that befell him.

From the barred window, he can hear clearly the voices of those who are passing. Talking and laughing, going about their daily business. And he was just there. Yesterday, he was as carefree as they were. And now he finds himself imprisoned, cut off from everyone, submerged up to his neck, and imprisoned in the bowels of the dungeon.

Sometimes it’s physical ailments, sometimes it’s debts, lack of success, or even heartache.

Every suffering in its place. On its level. And the person suffers according to the depths of his loneliness.

“A maskil of David, when he was in the cave.… [I] look to the right and see no one who knows me.… no one who looks out for my soul …” (Tehillim 142:1–5)

He was alone in the cave. Subterranean. There were no acquaintances and no one to inquire after him. His soul was locked. Closed and gated. In pain and suffering; he couldn’t flee. (Alei Shur)

Wallowing in loneliness threatens to make him lose his mind. The voices of people walking peacefully outside shatters his heart. And his personal pain engulfs him in waves. Threatens to drown everything.

And then a small line of light infiltrates the room. The door has opened. The door? Is it possible that there’s an opening? The crack widens and the cell is suddenly flooded with light.

Someone is coming? Yes, someone is coming to sit by your side in the cell. Coming so you won’t be alone. Someone is thinking of you. Worried about you. The walls aren’t impenetrable after all.

Suddenly, the dark dungeon is less so. The laughing voices from outside manage to reach his heart; and the day of release seems tangible …

A person who squeezes himself into the cell of another, to assist him in carrying his burden, to share his pain, is breaking the chains of loneliness. Is there any reward comparable to this?

In his hand is the key to the treasures of life, because he has revealed the true essence of the world.

A few weeks ago, I was coming home from the doctor’s office. All around me, everyone was bustling with Chanukah energy. Kids were coming home clutching homemade menorahs. The smell of sufganiyot was in the air. But I trudged, oblivious to it all. Prescriptions tucked in my purse, I prayed that finally, this time the fever would abate, the infection would go away. I felt so isolated. Cut off from the gaiety around me.

Don’t think that this mission of sharing the pain of another is immediate. No. Saying “Good morning” or “Hello” can also brighten the face of another.

A person may leave his house angry. With his whole heart, he’s wishing for a simple gracious “Good Morning.” From anybody. A passerby can be the object of this mitzvah and literally revive a soul. As a result of a cheery greeting, which will take a second and a half, he will turn this man’s heart around for good, and all the pain and anger that was brewing in him a moment before will disappear. Isn’t it worth it to make this small effort to redeem this prisoner from behind bars? If he’s not a prisoner, who is? (Tuvcha Yabiu, Rav Yitchak Zilberstein)

I reached home, weary and bone cold. Cold from within. Cold in my heart. About to put my key in the lock, I suddenly heard a voice behind me, “We missed you at the Chanukah N’shei event. I heard your daughter wasn’t feeling well. Hope she has a refuah shleimah.”

I turned and saw my neighbor. The care and concern on her face was almost more than I could bear. I felt her warmth enter my heart, spreading throughout, and her smile reached my face.

I turned to thank her and I could feel the doors of my prison creaking, opening wide, letting the light inside.

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