“Nose be-Ol Im Havero:” A Burden Worth Carrying
I am lonely. Let me emphasize, however, that by stating “I am lonely” I do not intend to convey to you the impression that I am alone. I, thank God, do enjoy the love and friendship of many. I meet people, talk, preach, argue, reason; I am surrounded by comrades and acquaintances. And yet, companionship and friendship do not alleviate the passional experience of loneliness which trails me constantly. I am lonely because at times I feel rejected and thrust away by everybody, not excluding my most intimate friends, and the words of the Psalmist, “My father and mother have forsaken me,” ring quite often in my ears…
(Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 3)[i]
All of us, at some point in our lives, have experienced this loneliness the Rav movingly describes. While one may feel such pain at a time of tragedy – God forbid – often enough one simply struggles with some sort of challenge and wants to confide in others. These feelings of isolation may serve as a catalyst for meaningful prayer to God,[ii] but, nonetheless, such experiences of solitude are not pleasant. Hazal speak about the character trait of “nose be-ol im havero,” literally “bearing a burden with one’s fellow,”[iii] and the Ba’alei Mussar understand this to primarily refer to empathy – bearing others’ emotional burdens.[iv] An operational definition of empathy may be that one both imagines or infers what another is thinking and feeling and responds in the appropriate cognitive, emotional, and volitional (i.e. taking action) manner.[v] The purpose of this article is to discuss this important character trait’s parameters and applications and outline a few of its educational, social, and religious ramifications.[vi]
While, for the most part, explaining nose be-ol im havero as empathy may only be an innovation of the Ba’alei Mussar,[vii] numerous halakhic and aggadic sources attest to empathy’s importance. Thus, for example, the Torah states regarding the mitsvah of tsedakah, “Rather, you shall open your hand to him and you shall lend him sufficiently for his needs, which he lacks” (Deuteronomy 15:18).[viii] Our Sages infer from the language of “which he lacks” that one must tend to his or her own unique personal needs. Thus, if the poor individual previously was wealthy and accustomed to riding on a horse and having a servant run before him, one must attempt to provide all of this for him.[ix] The Torah recognizes that individuals will value completely different things and feel lacking in diverse areas. While the one giving the tsedakah may not want or care for a horse or a servant, the Torah bids us to move beyond our own concerns and to enter into the other’s shoes to provide him or her with what she or he feels lacking in.[x]
The Torah not only bids us to provide for others’ unique and subjective material needs but to empathize with them emotionally as well. Regarding nihum avelim (the mitsvah of comforting mourners), Rashi writes that comforters should speak to mourners and provide explanations to comfort them.[xi] It follows that one does not fulfill comforting the mourning by simply reciting a formula such as “ha-Makom…”[xii] but rather must actually console the mourners. Similarly, Ramban explains that one component of visiting the sick is listening to the sick person’s pain.[xiii] Finally, the Ezer mi-Kodesh, a commentary on Shulhan Arukh, assumes generally that simply attending a wedding does not fulfill the mitsvah of increasing the joy of the bride and groom (with the exception of a distinguished individual, as his or her mere presence enhances the simhah.) However, the Ezer mi-Kodesh argues that since the mitsvah is to evoke joy and happiness, there are multiple ways to fulfill this commandment, such as dancing, praising the bride or the union, or telling a joke so that the bride or groom will laugh.[xiv] In summation, while few commentators explain nose be-ol im havero as referring to empathy, empathy’s significance is well established in halakhic contexts.
The aggadic literature, as well, is replete with examples of the importance of empathy. The first action of Moshe in the Torah was that he “went out to his brothers and looked at their burdens” (Exodus 2:11) and Rashi explains, “[Moshe] directed his eyes and his heart to be distressed over them.” (Apparently Moshe did not automatically empathize with the Israelites but needed to actively direct his thoughts toward contemplating their suffering.) Similarly, Ketuvot 111a speaks about the importance of simply smiling at other individuals.[xv] A third example is found in Ta’anit 22a, in which Eliyahu ha-Navi identifies to the amora Rav Beroka Hoza’ah two of the only benei Olam ha-Ba[xvi] in a marketplace. When asked what they do, they responded that they are jokesters who cheer others up and end quarrels by calming people with their jokes.
Psychologists have investigated various ways to teach empathy.[xvii] Dr. Norma Feshbach, for example, demonstrated the effectiveness of a program for imparting empathy. This program included asking children to think deeply about questions such as “What would the world look like to you if you were as small as a cat?” or “What birthday present would make each member of your family happiest?,” reading stories to children and having them retell the stories from the point of view of other characters, and role playing.[xviii] While such programs would most likely benefit adults as well,[xix] Rav Shlomo Wolbe claimed empathy can be developed simply by devoting a few minutes on a regular basis to thinking about what others are feeling and what would make them happy.[xx]
Two factors that may inhibit thinking about others are being in a rush and diffusion of responsibility. First, researchers demonstrated that even students studying to be ministers and thinking about the importance of helping passers-by, when rushed, would not actually notice individuals on the sidewalk who clearly needed help.[xxi] Second, Social Psychology summarizes research detailing a phenomenon known as diffusion of responsibility. Defined as “[t]he phenomenon whereby each bystander’s sense of responsibility to help decreases as the number of witnesses increases,” this explains why it has happened that victims have cried for help in metropolitan areas and have still been ignored. One study demonstrated this phenomenon by having a subject witness an actor experience seizures. If the subject was alone with the victim, he or she helped 85 percent of the time. However, when the subject thought others were present, even if the subject did not know they were helping, he or she was less likely to intervene.[xxii]
Helping others often involves costs such as possibly embarrassing ourselves if we overreact or do something wrong. It is easy to assume others will take responsibility, but, as research suggests, others are thinking the same thing and, ultimately, victims are ignored. These psychological insights should inform how we interact with others and help us develop ways to become more empathetic.
We began this article quoting the Rav’s soliloquy from the beginning of The Lonely Man of Faith. In his essay, “The Community,” the Rav masterfully elaborates on the terrible feeling of loneliness and how to dispel it in others (any mussar which follows is certainly also directed toward myself):
Quite often a man finds himself in a crowd among strangers. He feels lonely. No one knows him, no one cares for him, no one is concerned with him. It is again an existential experience. He begins to doubt his ontological worth. This leads to alienation from the crowd surrounding him. Suddenly someone taps him on the shoulder and says: ‘Aren’t you Mr. So-and-So? I have heard so much about you.’ In a fraction of a second his awareness changes. An alien being turns into a fellow member of an existential community (the crowd). What brought about the change? The recognition by somebody, the word!
To recognize a person is not just to identify him physically. It is more than that: it is an act of identifying him existentially, as a person who has a job to do, that only he can do properly. To recognize a person means to affirm that he is irreplaceable.”[xxiii]
As the Rav illustrates, one very simple, yet powerful, way to fulfill nose be-ol im havero is simply to reach out to others, and this is particularly relevant for students at Yeshiva University. Students come from different communities and different institutions in Israel. While many thankfully enter YU with many friends, unfortunately, YU is replete with students who begin without any close friends. Instead of exclusively sitting with our friends from yeshivah in Israel or from shi’ur, we can introduce ourselves to others and reach out to them. We can introduce students from “out of town” and/or who attended a small yeshivah or seminary in Israel to our own friends and bring them into our own circles.
Not limited, of course, to those attending Yeshiva University, the fellowship of the Jewish People extends to those living in the Land of Israel. Much to our sorrow, our brethren in Israel are surrounded by enemies and when these enemies attack, it is incumbent upon us to worry about our brethren’s welfare. Five months ago, in response to increase rocket fire from Gaza, the Israeli Defense Force began Operation Pillar of Defense, and a full conflict ensued. A talmid hakham informed me he was disappointed as a whole at Yeshiva University’s response to the clashes. Beyond reciting a few chapters of Tehillim, one could not tell from our behavior that entire communities of Jews’ lives were at risk. To empathize with those suffering, Noah refrained from marital relations with his wife while on the Ark,[xxiv] and Moses sat on a rock rather than on a pillow or mattress.[xxv] While opinions may differ as to how far one must go, we certainly could have done more during the most recent conflict.
A final but more subtle application of nose be-ol im havero involves empathizing, so to speak, with God Himself. The Talmud tells us that God secretly cries for the pride of Israel that was taken and given to the other nations and/or for the concealment of God’s presence in the world.[xxvi] Though God is King of the Universe, we unfortunately live in a world where His Presence is concealed and His people are threatened, and God, so to speak, is in pain. Empathizing with God has many practical ramifications; the crux of the Ramhal’s magnum opus, Mesillat Yesharim, is a goal he refers to as hasidut, which revolves around empathizing with God. A son who loves his father will infer his father’s desires and anticipate his father’s requests. Similarly, the hasid, intent on bringing God pleasure or nahat ru’ah, will say, “I see God values this so I will increase my efforts in this area and apply this principle to other areas where I can infer that God desires it.”[xxvii] While applications of empathizing with God abound, a few examples will suffice.
First, the hasid, concerned with God’s Name, strives to always live a life of kiddush ha-Shem and will be truly horrified and aggrieved over hillul ha-Shem.[xxviii] Similarly, since the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of the Davidic Dynasty will result in greater glory for God, the hasid will anguish over the hurban and long and pray for the Messiah.[xxix] A final example would be how the hasid endeavors to bring others closer to God, making God’s name loved by all. While the Ramhal refers to this as hasidut, or extra-legal piety,[xxx] the examples above apply to all Jews. For example, all Jews are obligated to love God,[xxxi] and Rambam believes this obligation includes bringing others to love God as well.[xxxii] Similarly, all Jews are obligated to sanctify God’s name and to prevent its desecration.[xxxiii] Finally, numerous halakhot and prayers are based on mourning the hurban, and we even recite, twice every week, part of Daniel’s prayer imploring God to redeem Israel and rebuild Jerusalem for His name’s sake.[xxxiv]
This article raised various applications of the character trait nose be-ol im havero and provided a few suggestions for developing greater levels of empathy. Regardless of what happens in our lives, we all long for deep companionship which others can fulfill and which we can fulfill for others. It is my hope that this article stimulates discussions about this extremely important character trait and facilitates the strengthening of relationships between fellow humans and between humans and God.
Mordechai Shichtman graduated Yeshiva College in 2011 with a major in Psychology and a minor in Sociology. He is currently in his third year of RIETS semicha at and is pursuing a Masters degree in Jewish Education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration.
[i] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (New York: Three Leaves Press, 2006), 3.
[ii] While this may be subjective, I believe many can testify that their personal experiences demonstrate this statement’s veracity. Classic sources may also support this idea. First, Psalms is replete with examples where the Psalmist calls to God out of distress. For example, in Psalm 130:1 (translation mine), “…From the depths, I called to You God.” This may also be implicit in the verse cited by the Rav above, “For my father and my mother have abandoned me, but God will gather me in” (Psalm 27:10, translation mine). Ramban, in his comments to Sefer ha-Mitsvot, Aseh 5, argues that prayer may be only a Biblical obligation “be-et tsarah – at a time of crisis.” This may indicate that times of pain are especially suitable for prayer and pouring out one’s heart to God. The Rav also writes, “I also feel invigorated because this very experience of loneliness presses everything in me into the service of God” (The Lonely Man of Faith, 4).
[iii] See note i.
[iv] See, for example, R. Simhah Zissel of Kelm, Hakhmah u-Mussar, sections 1-6.
[v] I believe this definition of empathy is not overly cumbersome and accurately encompasses the full range of dispositions and activities enumerated by the sources cited in this article.
[vi] Authorities debate if one should perform mitsvot bein adam le-havero primarily out of feelings of altruism for the other or out of a duty to God. See Rabbi Yitzchak Blau’s The Implication of a Jewish Virtue Ethic (available at: www.yutorah.org) and Divine Footsteps: Chesed and the Jewish Soul, by Rabbi Daniel Feldman, pages 1-23. While my rebbeim have taught me the former, I believe this article is also relevant to the second approach.
[vii] Many major commentaries on the Mishnah do not comment on the last chapter of Pirkei Avot at all as it really is chapter 5 of Massekhet Kallah, a minor tractate. Briefly glancing at the major commentators who do comment, I found that only the Me’iri and the Tiferet Yisra’el explain the Baraita as including emotional burdens. (R. Moshe Hayyim Luzato, in his classic mussar work, Mesilat Yesharim, chapter 19, ironically understands nose be-ol im havero as referring to offering physical assistance. See page 303 of the Ofeq Institute Mesillat Yesharim (Euclid, OH: 1996). However, Ramhal also underscores empathy’s importance. See page 304 there.)
[viii] All translations, unless explicitly quoted from another source, are my own.
[ix] Ketuvot 67b, see also Ketuvot 66b which commands us to try to help others get married. R. Shlomo Wolbe, in his Alei Shur, volume 2 (Jerusalem: Beit ha-Musar al shem R. H. M. Lehman, 1998/9), 198 notes that, presumably, spouses must be suited for each other.
[x] See also the habit called “Seek First to Understand, then to Be Understood” in Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Toronto: Free Press, 2004), 236-260.
[xi] Sanhedrin 113a, Rashi s.v. bei tamia; this is not necessarily advised today.
[xii] Ashkenazic practice is to comfort mourners during the “shiv’ah” by reciting the following formula: “May the Omnipresent comfort you (plural) along with the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” The origins of this exact phrase are disputed; a similar phrase is found as a wish to the ill in Shabbat 12b, but this exact phrase’s earliest appearance in this context is likely in a comment of the Perishah commentary (by the sixteenth-seventeenth century Polish rabbi, Yehoshua Katz) to Tur, Orah Hayyim 393:3. My thanks to Chesky Kopel for this reference.
[xiii] Torat ha-Adam, p.17 of vol. 2 in Charles B. Chavel’s translation: Writings of the Ramban/Nachmanides: Translated and Annotated (New York: Judaica Press, 2010).
[xiv] Even ha-Ezer 65:1.
[xv] See also, “Australian ‘Angel’ Saves Lives at Suicide Spot,” CBS News, 14 June, 2010, available at: www.cbsnews.com, which describes how an Australian man and his wife would regularly save individuals from committing suicide by smiling and offering to talk.
[xvi] The simple meaning of this phrase is that they merit reward in the World to Come. I believe, however, that the phrase may however connote an extra level of reward.
[xvii] See Karen E Gerdes, Elizabeth A. Segal, Kelly F. Jackson, and Jennifer L. Mullins, “Teaching Empathy: A Framework Rooted in Social Cognitive Neuroscience and Social Justice,” Journal of Social Work Education 47,1 (Winter 2011): 109-131.. The relationship between empathy and the larger subject of self-projection is beyond the scope of this article.
[xviii] N. D. Feshbach, “Empathy Training and Prosocial Behavior,” in Aggression and War: Their Biological and Social Bases, ed. by Jo Groebel and Robert A. Hinde, 101-111.
[xix] Feshbach, ibid. documents the effectiveness of similar programs in criminals. I do not mean to imply that anyone is a criminal but rather that such techniques are effective.
[xx] See R. Shlomo Wolbe, Alei Shur, volume 1 (Jerusalem: Beit ha-Musar al shem R. H. M. Lehman, 1985/6), 93; and vol. 2, 198-200. This citation from volume 2 is from the Va’adim. R. Wolbe writes in volume 2, page 12, that he only wrote the Va’adim which succeeded in improving his students’ character traits. Thus, his advice was confirmed.
[xxi] John M. Darley and C. Daniel Batson, “‘From Jerusalem to Jericho’: A Study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 27:1 (1973): 100-108. Unbeknownst to the theology students who were the subjects in the experiment, the homeless individuals were confederates or actors.
[xxii] Elliot Aronson, Timothy D. Wilson, and Robin M. Akert, Social Psychology (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2010), 373.
[xxiii] Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “The Community,” Tradition 17,2 (Spring 1978): 6, available at: www.traditiononline.org.
[xxiv] Rashi to Genesis 7:7, s.v. Noah u-banav.
[xxv] Ta’anit 11a and Rashi to Exodus 17:12 s.v. Even. See also Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 474 and 240: 12 and Rema ad loc. I do not mean to imply the halakhot dicussed in these sections of Shulhan Arukh relate directly to the situation under discussion. Rather, I simply want to demonstrate that joining in others’ suffering has clear halakhic applications.
[xxvi] Hagigah 5b.
[xxvii] Mesillat Yesharim, Ofeq Institute edition, Chapter 18, 301-302.
[xxviii] Ibid., Chapter 19, 321..
[xxix] See Tanna D’Bei Eliyahu Rabba, chapter 4, quoted in pages 321-322 of the Ofeq Institute edition of Mesillat Yesharim.
[xxx] Mesillat Yesharim Ofeq Institute edition, Chapter 13, 283.
[xxxi] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 2:1; Sefer ha-Hinnukh, mitsvah 418.
[xxxii] Rambam, Sefer ha-Mitsvot, Aseh 3.
[xxxiii] Rambam, Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 5,1; Sefer ha-Hinnukh, mitsvot 295-296.
[xxxiv] Daniel 9:15-19, which we recite before tahanun on Mondays and Thursdays.