Feeling the Burden
Rabbi Yaacov Haber
In this week's parsha we learn about the sota, or woman suspected by her husband of adultery, who had been warned by him not to meet a particular man privately, but nevertheless did so. She is brought before a kohen, and, assuming she does not confess her guilt, the kohen will make her drink a bowl of water in which he has dissolved a parchment containing a curse (that her insides will swell and death will follow). If she is guilty, this will take effect. If she is not guilty, she will then be blessed and conceive.
Now the Torah says three that the kohen or her husband will put her "before the Lord" (Num. 5:16, 18, 30). Rashi explains this as meaning that each time she is put in a different place in the Tabernacle - for the purpose of wearying her, so as to induce her to confess her guilt and avoid having to drink the water.
The Torah says that the kohen will make the woman hold the meal-offering (which forms part of the ritual) instead of holding it himself. Again, the reason, according to Rashi, is to induce the woman to confess because of the discomfort of the weight of the meal-offering, again so as to avoid having to drink the water.
These seem exceptionally light ordeals of the woman to go through, especially when compared to the threat of drinking the water. Why on earth should she confess because she is being moved around or because of carrying a heavy load rather than from the threat of death?
The reason, I think, is that the experience of an immediate pain is much more real to someone than the threat of future pain, however severe that may be.
Again, amazingly, the Gemara (Sota 20, quoted by the Rambam) says that at any stage of the process, the woman may simply refuse to drink the water, without confessing her guilt, and that is the end of the proceedings. (She is forbidden to her husband, as a supsected adulteress). Now why should any sane person not take this way out? The reason, I believe, is the same as mentioned previously. If a woman were to refuse to drink the water, people observing the proceedings would take it as an admission of guilt, and fear of such immediate embarrassment is stronger than the fear of drinking the water, with the attendant curse, since the ramifications of drinking lie in the future.
Thus, the actual experience of a minor immediate pain is more real to someone than the fear of a great future pain and more important in determining that person' behavior. This is illustrated by a story which I heard from R. Sholem Schwardron the great Maggid of Jerusalem.
Some years ago (about 1955), a certain saintly Reb Boruch founded a gemach [gemilas chasidim or interest-free loan fund] in Jerusalem . The money for this was provided by him and by other benefactors. Each day, during certain hours, anyone who needed money could line up at the office and then borrow what he needed, as long as the money lasted.
One day a young man came and asked for money. R. Boruch said,” I'm sorry, we have no more money today." The young man retorted, "But I need it, please get it for me." R. Boruch said, "But weren't you here yesterday to borrow money?" The young man replied, "Yesterday was yesterday, I need more money today." R. Boruch then said, "But we have a rule that we do not lend money to anyone until he has repaid all previous loans." At this point, the man, who had become increasingly agitated, rushed over and slapped R. Boruch in the face. One of R. Boruch's assistants jumped up to restrain the man, but R> Boruch himself said, "Leave him alone."
He rushed out to the home of someone nearby from who he borrowed in emergencies, borrowed the requisite amount from him, rushed back and lent it to the young man. After the young man left, R. Boruch explained to his startled assistants, "When he slapped me, I felt his pain." R. Boruch realized that this pain the young man was suffering at the time was much more real to him than the thought of all the embarrassment he would suffer in the future when he would remember how badly he had behaved to the rabbi in public.
A well-know story of the Brisker Rav illustrates the same point about feeling someone else's pain. Winter had begun, and he was trying to raise money to buy firewood for an impoverished family who would otherwise freeze. He could not find anyone who was both wiling and able to provide the money, and eventually came to the house of a rich man who was, however, a miser. When the rich man saw the Brisker Rav at his door, he invited him in, but the Rav replied, "No, come outside and we will speak out here." When the man did so he complained after a while of the bitter cold and suggested they go inside to the warmth, the Rav continued, "There is a family who will feel this way all winter unless you help them." And he did not let the man back into the house until he had promised enough money to provide the family with firewood for the whole winter.
Rabbeinu Yonah explains the Mishna, "bearing a yoke with one's colleague" (Pirke Avos 6:6) as meaning that it is not good enough just to help a friend, one has to actually carry the burden of one's fellow man. Then we can understand the commandment to "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Levit. 19:18). What does "as yourself" mean? It means, says R. Yonah, that you should feel your neighbor's pain. He goes on to say that if you feel someone else's pain in this way, you will merit not having any pain of your own. It is my prayer that this may apply to all of us.