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Bearing the Burden with Your Friend 

One need not be a gadol hador to acquire the middah of being nosei b’ol im chaveiro

 

The year was 1972. My mother a”h was in the final stage of a terminal illness. This was well before the term “end-of-life issues” had entered our lexicon. Nevertheless, my older brother, Rabbi Yosef Wikler, and I had an end-of-life sh’eilah regarding our mother’s care. But whom should we ask?

Yosef suggested we consult the Bostoner Rebbe of Boston, Rav Levi Yitzchok Horowitz ztz”l, because of his expertise in medical matters. As I had a closer kesher with the Rebbe, my brother asked me to make the call, which I did.

“I’m more than willing to pasken this sh’eilah for you,” the Rebbe told me over the phone. “But for such a sh’eilah, you’d feel better about it, when you look back years later, if you’d consulted the gadol hador, Reb Moshe. Of course, if you have any trouble getting through to him, be sure to call me back, and I will pasken for you.”

When I reported to Yosef what the Rebbe advised, he told me he knew of a way we could bypass all of Rav Moshe Feinstein’s gatekeepers and get through to the gadol directly. At that time, Reb Moshe used to spend one morning a week learning on the second floor above the beis medrash of the Yeshiva of Staten Island. It gave the bochurim and kollel yungerleit major chizuk to know that the gadol hador was learning upstairs — which is why he made the weekly trip from the Lower East Side.

“What day is he there?” I asked, totally unprepared for the reply.

“He’s there today,” Yosef informed me, sounding the alarm as he glanced at his watch. “And if we leave right now, we may just be able to catch him before he leaves!”

Yosef and I dropped everything and raced out to Staten Island. Yosef had some friends who were learning in the yeshivah then, so he knew the way there as well as any GPS would today. Once we arrived, Yosef entered the beis medrash, approached one of his friends, and asked exactly where the Rosh Yeshivah could be found. Then we bounded up the steps to the second floor, located the room, and knocked on the door.

To our shared surprise, Reb Moshe himself came to the door and welcomed us inside. The room contained a small cot in one corner, and a plain wooden table and chair flush up against an open window. A bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling provided added illumination. A huge Gemara lay open on the table next to a thin stack of unlined white paper with a black fountain pen sitting on top. There were no other furnishings in the room.

Yosef presented our sh’eilah, as Reb Moshe listened attentively with a furrowed brow. Before giving his psak, Reb Moshe asked a few brief questions.

“If your mother is so critically ill,” Reb Moshe queried, “why have you boys come to ask this sh’eilah and not your father?”

We explained that our father z”l had been niftar 12 months earlier. As a result, we were our mother’s closest relatives and solely responsible for her care.

“Are either of you boys married?” Reb Moshe asked.

“No,” Yosef and I replied.

“What?” Reb Moshe exclaimed. Then, reflecting to himself out loud, he added, “Two young boys who recently lost their father are now dealing with such a critically ill mother?!”

Tears welled up in Reb Moshe’s eyes as he fully grasped the tragic circumstance in which we found ourselves. And when we saw his tears stream down his face, as he closed his eyes and shook his head from side to side, our floodgates opened and we both began sobbing uncontrollably.

When Reb Moshe composed himself, he asked which one of us was older. After we told him, he took Yosef’s hand in both of his and gave him a hartzige brachah to find the right shidduch soon and get married. We both answered, “Amen.” Then he took my hand in both of his and gave me the same brachah, after which we both answered, “Amen.”

After giving his psak, Reb Moshe turned back and returned to his Gemara. Yosef and I backed out of the room and closed the door, feeling uplifted by Reb Moshe’s incredible empathy, strengthened for the challenges that lay ahead of us, and awed by the experience of having been in the presence of such greatness.

One of the 48 middos required for kinyan haTorah is the ability to be nosei b’ol im chaveiro (Avos 6:6). Midrash Shmuel defines this as feeling the pain of someone who is suffering. From the look on his face and the tears in his eyes, there was no doubt in my mind that Reb Moshe had been deeply and demonstrably pained just by hearing the predicament of two total strangers.

One need not be a gadol hador, however, to acquire the middah of being nosei b’ol im chaveiro. Consider, for example, an episode that took place only a few years ago, which I verified by speaking with the protagonist.

A yungerman lived with his wife and children in an apartment complex for kollel families in a moderate-sized Torah community. When his first child was born, an anonymous neighbor decorated the yungerman’s front door with “mazel tov” balloons.

The next day, the new father met another neighbor in the hall, who asked about the balloons. “How come you removed the balloons from yesterday? Are you disappointed that you had a girl and not a boy?”

“Are you serious?” the father shot back. “My wife and I are absolutely thrilled that Hashem blessed us with a child. We couldn’t be happier.”

“Then why did you get rid of the balloons?” the neighbor pressed further.

“We didn’t get rid of them,” the father explained. “We simply removed them from the outside of our door and put them inside. You see, there’s another couple upstairs who are still childless. And we didn’t want them to have to see those balloons every time they pass our door.”

“How would that help?” the neighbor challenged. “They see all the carriages downstairs, anyway. And the whole sidewalk is wall-to-wall kids every day. There’s no way they can avoid seeing children in this neighborhood.”

“Tell me something,” the father asked. “How long did you and your wife have to wait before you had children?”

“We didn’t have to wait at all. Our first child was born nine months after we married.”

“Well, that explains it,” the father observed. “You see, my wife and I had been married without children for three years. We know what it’s like. Every single reminder hurts. So if we could eliminate at least one pinch to their hearts every day, that was something my wife and I wanted to do.”

Of course, one need not be a kollel yungerman or even an adult to acquire the middah of being nosei b’ol im chaveiro. Consider, for example, the following episode that took place not too long ago, related to me by someone on the scene at the time.

Pinny was a tenth-grade mesivta bochur from California who had come to learn in a prominent East Coast yeshivah. Whenever the mesivta had an off Shabbos, Pinny would go to his aunt and uncle, who lived a short car ride away. And when the longer break for Shabbos Chanukah approached, Pinny once again arranged to be with his aunt and uncle. Certainly he would have preferred to go home, as all his friends were doing, but his parents could not afford the airfare.

Shortly before Chanukah that year, one of Pinny’s friends approached the mashgiach with the following quandary.

“All the guys in our shiur got together to chip in to buy Pinny a round-trip plane ticket. We didn’t ask our parents for any help, we only put it together from our spending money. We just felt, how could we go home for Shabbos Chanukah to sleep in our own beds and eat our mothers’ delicious food while Pinny was the only one in the shiur not going home?

“Now we have the full amount needed for the ticket. But Rebbi, we just don’t know how to give him the money without embarrassing him. So I was appointed to ask the Rebbi for an eitzah.”

The mashgiach wiped away a tear of pride and replied, “Give the money to me. I’ll tell Pinny the yeshivah has a special fund for such situations. He won’t know the money came from you.”

If tenth-grade mesivta boys can achieve that level of nosei b’ol im chaveiro, then, at the very least, we can all aspire to it.

Something to think about this Shabbos Chanukah.

 

Dr. Meir Wikler, a frequent contributor to this space, is an author, psychotherapist, and family counselor in full-time private practice with offices in Brooklyn and Lakewood. His latest book, Behind Closed Doors: Over 45 Years of Helping People Overcome Their Challenges, was recently published by Menucha Publishers.

 

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 837)

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