Thursday, January 24, 2019

Feeling For Others

The Torah tells us in this week’s Parsha:

וַיִּ֣חַדְּ יִתְר֔וֹ עַ֚ל כָּל־הַטּוֹבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה ה לְיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל

Yitro was moved by all the goodness that God did for the Jewish People.

Rashi offers two possible explanations: Either Yitro got goosebumps because he felt the pain of the Egyptians. Alternatively Yitro may have shared in the joy that the Jews felt over their deliverance from slavery. In response to these feelings Yitro declares (18:10) “Baruch Hashem!”

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 94) infers that Yitro was the first to say “Baruch Hashem”, criticizing the Jewish People for never having utilized that phrase. The criticism is difficult to understand. After all, we read last week of the elaborate and heartfelt song that the people sang at the Red Sea. They may not have said the precise words “Baruch Hashem”, but Shirat HaYam is certainly an expression of gratitude. What is the Talmud trying to teach us?

The Ketav Sofer offers two answers. First, whereas the Jewish People’s joy at the Red Sea was whole-hearted and unadulterated, Yitro (as an outsider) empathized with the Egyptian suffering and was pained by their downfall. It is correct and wonderful to sing Shira when you are absolutely elated, like the Jews at the sea. But it is harder work, and therefore more of a teachable moment, when you can say “Baruch Hashem” when you have mixed emotions or when you realize that the good has come with a cost. The Talmud is hinting at the fact that ideally the Jewish People would have sung some Shira over the Egyptian slavery itself, and not exclusively over the salvation.

Second, Yitro never experienced oppression first hand. Yitro’s expression of “Baruch Hashem” was not in response to personal salvation. Rather Yitro shared in the joy of the Jewish People. He felt happiness because they were happy, and not for any self-serving reason. Yitro is exceptional in his ability to praise God for the miracles performed for others. Here as well, the Talmud’s praise of Yitro is a criticism of the Jewish People; for although they sang Shira for their own redemption, they did not think to say Shira for the redemption of their fellow Jews.

The Shulchan Aruch writes (OC 219) that one is allowed to recite the Birkat HaGomel on behalf of his/her friend. The Rema explains that even though Birkat HaGomel was instituted as an expression of praise for personal salvation, nonetheless if someone else feels true joy over the other’s salvation, then they too are eligible to recite the bracha. The Brisker Rav explains that this is the connection between Yitro’s goosebumps and his declaration of “Baruch Hashem”. Yitro felt personal joy for the reversal of fortune of the Jews. According to the Shulchan Aruch, Yitro was therefore eligible to say “Baruch Hashem”.

These two answers from the Ketav Sofer provide us with much to consider as we attempt to live lives of gratitude. It’s usually easy to feel grateful when something 100% good happens. Yitro teaches us the need to be grateful for everything, even when it is not 100% good, and even when there is much to be desired. Second, we need to exercise our empathy skills. It may be too emotionally challenging to fully mourn with someone who is mourning. But we can extend ourselves on the other end of the emotional spectrum. Let us try to be genuinely happy for others when they have reason to celebrate. It costs us nothing. It can help us remove jealousy and envy from our hearts. It allows us to connect more deeply with others. It affords us many more opportunities to bring joy and gratitude into our lives.

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