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Shemot, 2:11: “It happened in those days that Moshe grew up and went out to his brothers and observed their burdens.”
Rashi, 2:11, Sv. Observed: “He put his eyes and his heart to feel their pain with them.”
Shemot, 17:12: “Moshe’s hands grew heavy, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it...
Rashi, 17:12, Sv. Stone: “He did not sit in a pillow – he said, ‘the Jewish people are in pain, so too I will be with them in pain.”
Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter 2, Mishna 4: “Hillel says, ‘do not separate yourself from the community.”
The Mishna in Ethics of the Fathers teaches that one should not separate himself from the community. Rashi and the Bartenura explain that Hillel is referring to times of difficulty for the community, and he is telling us that a person should not separate himself from the community its pain. This is based on the Gemara1 that makes this point and then exclaims that anyone who separates himself from the community in their times of difficulty, will not see the consolation of the community, which means that they will not merit to share in the happy events of the community.
The Midrash Shmuel adds that God Himself so to speak joins with the community in their times of pain. We see this when God tells Yaakov to go down to Egypt. God tells him that He will go down with you to Egypt, meaning that He will share in the suffering of the Egyptian Exile.
The Vilna Gaon seems to understand the Mishna in a similar way to Rashi and the Bartenura in his commentary on the Ethics of the Fathers. The generally does not write lengthy explanations, rather he simply cites verses that relate to the way he understands the Mishna. On this Mishna, he cites the verse when Yehoshua leads the Jewish people to battle Amalek and the Torah tells us that Moshe remained behind and prayed for the success of the nation. He held his two hands in prayer, and when he got tired, he wanted to sit down but he did not sit down on a comfortable chair or with a pillow, rather he sat on a stone2. This verse is indeed cited by the Gemara to demonstrate that Moshe joined with the community in a time of difficulty.
The question arises, that there would seem to be another verse that better demonstrates Moshe’s willingness to share in the pain of the community – one found in this week’s Torah Portion. While the Jewish people were in slavery, Moshe was growing up as a Prince in the palace of Pharaoh, so he had no connection with the pain that the people were enduring. However, the Torah tells us that he went out to see their suffering3, and the commentaries explain that he made an active effort to empathize with the great travails that they were enduring even though this did not affect his life style at all. The teachers of mussar (personal growth) cite Moshe’s behavior here as a prime example of bearing one’s fellow’s burden. Accordingly, why did the Gemara and the Gra after it, cite the verse about Moshe sitting on a rock as being the ultimate example of sharing in the suffering of the community.
Rav Avraham Yitzchak Barzel4 suggests that Moshe’s actions during the battle with Amalek demonstrate an additional aspect of sharing in the pain of the community. He explains with an analogy: When a General sends his troops to war, he normally stays behind to organize the strategy of the various soldiers from afar. During the battle, the troops are undergoing great difficulty and are obviously in very uncomfortable surroundings – they are likely hungry, thirsty, and could easily be very cold or overly hot. At the same time, the General is in headquarters, directing events, and he is surely in a much more comfortable situation – he has a food and drink, a chair on which to sit, and so on. Nobody would claim that he is not sharing in the burden of the soldiers because he is in more comfortable surroundings – he is performing his vital job of guiding the soldiers, and it is understood that he is doing nothing wrong by being in a far less unpleasant situation than the soldiers. However, if he took an extra measure, and in some symbolic way, made his surrounding less comfortable, then that would demonstrate a higher sense of sharing with the soldiers.
This is the greatness of what Moshe did during the battle with Amalek. He had been standing all day and was tired. Nobody would have begrudged him of a normal chair to sit on. Yet he went that extra mile and sat on an uncomfortable stone, and he said that since the Jewish people were enduring suffering, he too should be with them in suffering.
Our great Torah leaders also exemplified this trait of sharing in the suffering of their communities. On one occasion, a terrible fire destroyed many of the homes in Brisk. The home of the Rabbi of Brisk, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik was not destroyed. Yet, in addition to his strenuous efforts to help the people of his community, he slept on a hard floor instead of in his bed. He explained that he could not sleep on a comfortable bed while people of his community did not have homes to live in.
We have seen how one aspect of not separating oneself from the community is to be with them in their pain, even if it does not directly affect the person himself. And we learn from Moshe the extra level of doing a symbolic action to share in their pain in some way.