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Feeling Others' Pain

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“You may ask, ‘What will we eat in the seventh year if we do not plant or harvest our crops?’” — Leviticus 25:20

The Torah portion for this week is a double reading, Behar-Bechukotai from Leviticus 25:1–27:34. Behar means “on the mountain,” and Bechukotai means “my decrees.” The Haftorah is from Jeremiah 16:19–17:14.

In the 18th century Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl was renowned for one particular good deed that he made his mission — the directive to rescue those who had been kidnapped for ransom or unjustly imprisoned. Unfortunately, for many Jews of Europe at that time, this was not an uncommon occurrence. Redeeming these innocent Jews was considered so great because it fulfilled the biblical commandments of helping the poor, saving lives, and loving our brethren. For the rabbi of Chernobyl, there could be no greater act of kindness.

Rabbi Nachum dedicated his life to raising money and going from town to town in order to redeem Jews. He was incredibly successful and saved many lives. Then one day, the rabbi himself was thrown into jail on some made-up charges. How could this be? The man who dedicated his life to getting others out of prison was himself incarcerated?

Jewish tradition records that a righteous man came to visit the rabbi. We don’t know who he was, but we do know what he said. He told the rabbi that the Patriarch Abraham also had a favorite good deed. For Abraham, nothing was more precious than providing hospitality. Abraham, with his open tent and open heart, lived to host others and serve them. He was always looking for ways to perform this great deed even better. What did God do? He sent Abraham from his home on a long journey to a place that he did not know. Along the way Abraham, the host, had to become Abraham, the guest. And because of that experience, Abraham became a much better host once he was settled again.

So, too, the man explained, God had placed the rabbi of Chernobyl only temporarily in this precarious position so that he might become even more motivated and inspired to work on behalf of others once he was free.

Empathy is born out of experience.

This is one reason why God implemented the law of shmita which required the entire nation of Israel to stop working the land and making a living in the seventh year. For six years, the poor man would worry and look to God every day for sustenance. In the seventh year, the wealthy had to do the same. After experiencing the dependency and the worry of the poor person, the wealthy were well equipped with greater empathy to ensure charitable giving for the following six years.

Friends, let us recall and learn from our own difficult experiences so that we might be more giving to others. Were you once lonely, needy, ill? Don’t bury those unpleasant memories. Instead remember them and let them guide you toward helping others and healing God’s world.

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