Va'era: You've Got Your Problems; I've Got Mine.

In the mid-WWII movie classic Casablanca, a young woman approaches Café-owner “Rick” (played by Humphrey Bogart) and tells him her problems.  

She asks him for advice and reassurance that a bad thing she has done to ensure her husband’s happiness is forgivable.  

Deeply hurt over the loss of his own love (played by Ingrid Bergman), he answers bitterly, “Nobody ever loved me that much.”  He then dismisses her with … “everyone in Casablanca has problems; yours may work out.” 

If you haven’t seen Casablanca, you might recall the similarly themed 1965 Fortunes song “You’ve Got Your Troubles, I’ve Got Mine”.   

At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Moses tells G-d his problems.  He complains to G-d that, “Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people…”.   Soon thereafter, at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Va’era, G-d appears to Moses and reassures him, saying:

(Exodus 6:5)  וְגַ֣ם אֲנִ֣י שָׁמַ֗עְתִּי אֶֽת־נַאֲקַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִצְרַ֖יִם מַעֲבִדִ֣ים אֹתָ֑ם  

Our JPS Tanakh translates this as: “I have heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage…”   But this translation disregards G-d’s first word, וְגַ֣ם -- “and also.”  

Nineteenth century Rabbi Moshe Sofer, author of Chasam Sofer, and an advanced Talmudic scholar at the age of seven, explained that the word also in this verse refers to the fact that not only G-d, but the Israelite people also heard one another's cries.  Even though the entire Jewish people were enslaved and afflicted, they did not forget the plight of their fellow man.  

In his book, Love Your Neighbor, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin recounts the following story: The mother of Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv had a custom to collect money for the poor at funerals. At the funeral of her only daughter, she also collected charity. When asked how she was able to compose herself in the summit of her grief, she replied, “just because I am suffering does not mean that the poor have to suffer also” (Tnuas Hamussar, vol. 2., p. 28).  

There is perhaps no harder time to feel compassion than when we ourselves feel terribly hurt and victimized. Yet, it is also an opportunity to feel others’ pain … and do what we can to ease it.  

So, what did Monsieur Rick of Casablanca do after telling the young woman, “Everyone in Casablanca has problems; yours may work out?”  He went to the roulette table in the back room where the woman’s husband was losing almost all of their remaining money, and arranged with the roulette table croupier for him to win.  Despite Rick’s own deep pain, he didn’t hesitate to help two young strangers.  So much more so we should do for members of our own community, regardless of our personal suffering.  

In short, never say to someone, "I have my own problems.  I don't want to hear about yours."  

Being Jewish doesn’t mean, to reference another popular movie, never having to say you’re sorry. Indeed, it means the opposite, not as an apology but as empathy.  I’m sorry for what you’re going through.  I’m sorry for your pain.  וְגַ֣ם  And also, when someone does say that, we should, of course, inquire and reciprocate.  

And so, to everyone who has recently extended me good wishes, thank you; I really appreciate them.  But despite or perhaps even because I have my own problems, I want to hear about yours.  After Shabbat, please call or email me at rabbiartlevine@gmail.com. 

Let’s all strengthen and expand our caring communities.  וְגַ֣ם And also, our humanity and our compassion. 

For much more information on the many ethical teachings in this week’s Torah portion, and throughout Torah, please visit TheEthicalTorah.com website.  

May you and your loved ones enjoy a peaceful and sweet shabbat.

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If charity cost nothing, the world would be full of philanthropists.
Jewish Proverb