Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sharing the load...

Last week, Reb Ally wrote a gut-wrenching post about the death of a former student at his yeshiva. He began the post with a poignant quote from William Blake:
“Can I see another's woe, and not be in sorrow, too? Can I see another's grief, and not seek for kind relief?”
In general, the tone of Reb Ally's post - the way he approached someone else's pain - was dignified and beautiful in its sensitivity. It was very apropos for that week: earlier in the week, we celebrated the yahrtzeit (anniversary of death) of Reb Moshe Leib Sassover. Reb Moshe Leib was known for his singular dedication to the unique mitzvah of redeeming Jewish captives; he was indefatigable  when it came to raising funds on behalf of those poor Jewish souls who found themselves in the clutches of the government, and he advocated for them with all his might.

Where did he get the strength to devote himself to this mission? From his approach to Ahavat Yisrael (love for the Jewish nation). Reb Moshe Leib once told his followers how he learned to really love his fellow Jew - it wasn't in a sefer or from another rebbe. He learned that important lesson from two drunken peasants in a bar one night.

Reb Moshe Leib related that he once found himself in a pub, where these two older Russians were sitting, trading toasts. They would toast their mutual healths, and their enduring friendship, and down a shot of vodka. As they continued with their nightly ritual and got progressively more drunk, one fellow turned to the other.

"Vlad," he slurred, "do you love me?"
Vlad blinked in surprise. "Vasily, we've been best friends our entire lives! Of course I love you!"

Satisfied, they toasted each other again, and poured another drink. But a few drinks later, Vasily turned back to Vlad and asked him again whether he loved him. Vlad was incredulous, and tried to convince his comrade that he loved him like no other, that he would die for him, and that their loyalty was the stuff of legend. Vasily remained unconvinced. "You don't love me Vlad," he insisted. Exasperated, Vlad turned to his friend and asked him why he kept saying such a thing.

Vasily turned back to him, and with deep sorrow etched in his face he answered "Because if you were really my friend, if you really loved me? You would know what's hurting me right now."

Reb Moshe Leib turned to his chassidim: "I learned that night what it means to really love a fellow Jew. It's not enough to join him in his happiness and times of joy; one must especially be there when his friend is hurting, when he's in distress, when he is going through a difficult time. We have to help carry the burden - that is true love!"

The ability to empathize with others is so important, and we must strive to make it a practice in our interpersonal dealings.

"I am with him in his pain" - this is no less than an attribute that God displays for the person who suffers, and it would behoove us to emulate Him, as always. We cannot afford to view someone else's pain as their own, we must internalize it, feel it, share in it, and heal together - it's a prime example of unity. In this week's parsha, we will read about the Jewish nation gathering around Mount Sinai in anticipation of receiving the Torah. Rashi explains that the word used for "encampment" in this verse is in the singular, to signify that the Jewish nation gathered "as one man, with one heart" - the ultimate description of unity, a sum total worth more than its individual parts.

This is the idea of Knesset Yisrael in both the metaphysical sense and the concept as laid forth by Rav Soloveitchik in On Repentance; this is the idea behind Rav Shlomo of Radomsk's interpretation of the verse "Gal Einai". We must work on this middah; it is impertive for the survival of our people.

This is part of the reason that I believe I was struggling with my schooling this past semester. I'm majoring in psychology because I know that I want to help people. I want to help them through their struggles, and if I'm more than a little honest, I want to help myself too. I don't know if I can give good advice, but I can give them another precious commodity: time. I can listen to them, hear them out, and give them an outlet if they need it, and I'm willing to share in their pain because everyone needs to know they have support.

But very often what I'm learning in school seems to go against that idea. We're taught to maintain distance, not to "get caught up" in the "consumer's" (I hate that term) issues but rather to offer a detached, objective view. That seems so incongruent with what the Torah seems to tell us about helping someone through their struggles, and it gets very frustrating. For a while I considered calling it quits and switching tracks to law school, which is how everyone thinks I should be spending my time anyway.

Thankfully, I had the chance to speak to a professional and ask him if he felt the same way when he was going through the same period that I am, and he agreed straight away. He recalled how difficult it was to slog through all the irrelevant lectures on topics that had no bearing on where he was headed, and he bolstered my strength with some words of encouragement.

All it took was a little validation, and some empathy, and I felt better already. It really works!

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