Parshas Va’eira describes in great detail the first seven of the ten plagues that brought Mitzrayim to its knees. A major feature of the Makkos is the behavior of Pharaoh in reaction to the destruction of his nation. When Moshe Rabbeinu and Aaron bring about the first plague of blood, the passuk tells us that Pharaoh was not impressed because his sorcerers could also turn water into blood: “..And Pharaoh hardened his heart and he did not listen to them..” The next passuk states that, “Pharaoh turned and went to his home, and also did not pay attention to this.” The commentaries ask, what does the Torah refer to when it says that ‘he did not pay attention to this’ - the previous passuk already stated that Pharaoh did not listen to the arguments of Moshe and Aaron. The Netsiv zt”l explains that the second passuk is telling us that Pharaoh was also unmoved by the pain that his people were suffering through the plague, and did not seek out any ways in which he could ease their pain.
‘Dam’ was the only plague in which the Torah alludes to Pharaoh’s indifference to the suffering of his people - why is this the case? The Medrash, HaGadol provides the key to answering this question: “The wicked Pharaoh was not afflicted by the plague of blood.” The plague of blood was the only one which did not harm Pharaoh. It was in this plague where he was most immune to the suffering that it caused his people because he did not experience the pain himself and so it was this plague where his apathy to the pain of his people was most pronounced.
We see a stark contrast to Pharaoh’s cruel indifference in the reaction of Moshe Rabbeinu to the pain of the Jewish people. Moshe grew up in the home of Pharaoh, separate from his people and unaffected by the slavery. Nonetheless, he went out and looked at the suffering of his brothers and empathized with their pain - he even persuaded Pharaoh to give them a day of rest.
The passukim that describe Moshe’s tremendous concern for his people are preceded by the words, “vayigdal Moshe.” This does not mean that he grew up because an earlier passuk already stated that. Thus, the commentaries explain that it refers to becoming a great person - and the indicator of that greatness was his concern for others. Why does davke this mida of empathy represent ‘gadlus’? Rav Shimon Shkop zt”l explains that a ‘Gadol’ is a person who expands his definition of self to include others - he is not considered a mere individual, rather part of a larger whole, and consequently he himself becomes a ‘bigger’ person. Pharaoh, in contrast, is described by the Gemara as being a very small person. The commentaries there explain that this refers to his spiritual standing - he was on a very low level. Perhaps one aspect of his lowliness was his apathy to the pain of his own people, he only cared about himself, and therefore he did not expand his self-definition beyond his own self and remained a ‘small’ person.
How can a person avoid the apathy of Pharaoh and emulate the concern of Moshe Rabbeinu - it is particularly difficult to empathize with people who are in a situation that does not effect us. When the passuk says that Moshe saw the suffering of his people, Rashi elaborates; “he focused his eyes and heart to feel pain for them.” My Rebbi, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits Shlita explains that first he looked at their faces to see the pain that they were in. He then ’focused his heart’ by trying to relate to their pain, to feel what they were feeling. So too when we hear of a person in difficulty we should first try to notice their facial expressions in order to make real the pain that they are in. Secondly, we should try to feel what it must be like to be in such pain. In a similar vein, Rav Noach Orlowek shlita suggests for example, that when we hear of a terrorist attack in which people are killed, we should take out a few moments to imagine what the victims and their families must be going through. It is not enough to merely sigh and move on - we must strive to avoid becoming immune to other people’s pain.
Such empathy is not restricted to Jews who share the same lifestyle and outlook as us: Rav Chatzkel Levenstein zt”l taught this lesson in his shmussen in Ponevitz throughout the Six Day War. As the war began he told his talmidim, “in a time of war we must feel the danger of our soldiers. The loss of one Jewish soldier, even when measured against the destruction of thousands of our enemies, is incalculable. And for every soldier who arrives home from battle alive our joy must be unbounded.” After the victory he exhorted his talmidim to identify with the people who lost family in the conflict: “Hand-in-hand with our victory another reality was created; thousands of Jewish lives have been lost. How many thousands of families are bereft with a pain that is so great that it cannot now be consoled? How many dear ones have been killed? How much this must weigh upon every Jewish soul. How much must we feel their pain - actually feel it as our own. More than our rejoicing over our enemies we must feel the pain of our grieving brothers and sisters.”
It is also instructive to make some kind of gesture to show that the suffering of our fellow Jew truly concerns us even if we cannot directly help them. During the Holocaust the Steipler Gaon zt”l undertook to give up smoking as a small token to show that the tremendous suffering of his brethren meant something to him. Whilst Rav Chaim Soloveitchik zt”l was Rav of Brisk half the city was burnt down leaving hundreds of Jews homeless. Rav Chaim promptly moved out of his home and slept on a bench in a beis medrash. When asked why he was doing so he exclaimed, “how can I sleep in a comfortable bed when so many people do not have a roof covering them?!”
However, we also learn from Moshe Rabbeinu that it is not enough to merely feel bad for those in pain. The Medrash says that Moshe “would pitch in and help each of them, ignoring his rank, he would lighten their burderns while pretending to be helping Pharaoh.” Similarly we must strive to help those in difficulty in any way that we can. Rav Frand Shlita suggests that the next time we hear that our friend is in a difficult situation we should see if there is any feasible way in which we can help him. If, for example, he lost his job, we can think if we know any contacts that may help him find new employment, or if he is looking for a shidduch then think of any possible matches for him.
Even if we cannot actively solve the person’s problem we can do a great chesed by being there for him and showing him that he is not alone in his pain. Rav Shach zt”l excelled in this area; on one occasion having heard about a widower who was depressed to the point that he had stopped functioning, Rav Shach decided to pay him a visit. Receiving no response to his knock Rav Shach let himself in and found the man lying motionless on the couch. “I know what you’re going through,” he said as he put his arm around the man. “I’m also a widower. My world is also dark and I have no simcha.” The man‘s eyes lit up for the first time in months. Someone understood him. “On Friday I’m going to make cholent and send it over, and on Shabbos I’ll come over and we’ll eat together.” “I can’t possibly allow you to trouble yourself like that,” protested the man. “Well, then you think of something. But either way I’m going to be back tomorrow. We need to spend some time together.” Rav Shach gave this man hope because Rav Shach showed him that someone else understood the pain that he was going through - this in and of itself is one of the greatest chasadim we can do for someone in pain.
Indifference to the spiritual standing of our fellow man is perhaps even more objectionable than not caring about his physical situation. Rav Frand points out that it is very easy for an observant Jew who lives in an observant community to forget that the vast majority of Jews have no sense of Jewish identity and that every year several thousand are lost through intermarriage. He continues that we cannot say “Shalom aliyich nafshi’ - as long as I have my Torah education and live in a frum community then everything is alright. Rather we must feel that the spiritual Holocaust effects us as much as anyone else and that we must do something about it - whether it be to be in contact with a secular relative, strike up a friendly conversation with a non-observant colleague at work, or having people for Shabbos.
The main characters in the parshios of Yetsias Mitzrayim, Moshe Rabbeinu and Pharaoh, show us how greatness is defined by caring about others and katnus is a reflection of selfishness. May we all strive to emulate Moshe Rabbeinu.