Bamidbar, 11:16: “Gather for Me seventy men from the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and its officers; take them to the Tent of Meeting and have them stand there with you”.
Rashi. 11:16, Dh: Asher yadaata: Those whom you know, because they were appointed foremen in Egypt [to oversee] the backbreaking work, and they had mercy over them [the people] and got hit on their behalf, as it says, ‘And they struck the foremen of the Jewish people’ – they will be appointed to greatness in the same way that they suffered in their pain.”

God instructs Moses to appoint seventy men to be judges on the High Court (Sanhedrin), and He tells Moshe that they should be the men who were the foremen during the slavery in Egypt. When the Egyptians ordered these men to punish the Jews for not filling their quotas, they refused, and allowed themselves to be beaten by the Egyptians rather than inflict punishment on their fellow Jews. In reward for being willing to suffer to protect their fellow Jews, they were elevated to the Sanhedrin.

Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro1 asks: It is all well and good that one who sacrifices for the Jewish people in their time of distress should be rewarded. However, it seems hard to understand that this should qualify them for the Sanhedrin. In order to be on the Sanhedrin, one must be well-versed in all of Torah, in addition to other specific requirements. These men excelled in the character trait of noseh b’ol chaveiro (this is literally translated as ‘bearing the yoke of one’s fellow’ and it refers to the trait of empathy) in that they cared so deeply about the pain of their fellow Jew, but how does that automatically mean that they were fitting for this coveted position?

The background to answering this question is in the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot2 that enumerates the 48 qualities which essential in order to acquire Torah. One of the requisite virtues is ‘hanoseh b’ol chaveiro’. This is obviously a wonderful character trait, but the question arises as to why is this needed to become a true Torah scholar. The explanation can be found in a fascinating teaching of Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz3.

Rabbi Shmuelevitz cites the Gemara in Eruvin, 13b that states that with regard to the halachic disputes between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, that the law follows Beit Hillel, even though Beit Shammai were smarter. The reason for this is because Beit Hillel would always speak out the opinion of Beit Shammai as well as their own, and they would first quote Beit Shammai before stating their own opinion. The simple understanding of this is that as a reward for their humility, the halacha follows Beit Hillel. However, Rabbi Shmuelevits suggests that their mode of behavior was the optimal way of attaining the truth of Torah. By speaking out the opinion of Beit Shammai, they were exercising the trait of empathy – understanding where the other person is coming from. This enabled them to fully understand opposing opinions and then come to a truthful conclusion. This is the reason why empathy is a required trait for one who wants to acquire Torah. A self-absorbed person will be unable to entertain alternative opinions and so will be limited in his ability to develop a well-rounded approach to the Torah.

With this explanation, we can also understand why the foremen were fitting to be members of the Sanhedrin. They excelled in the trait of empathy, and this trait gave them the ability to attain the truth of Torah. It is no coincidence that our great leaders excelled in their empathy, because, as we have seen, this trait is essential for one to become a genuine Torah scholar. The following story provides one of many examples of this phenomenon.

There was an incident involving Jewish children from Tehran at the time of the founding of the State of Israel. The Government wanted to put the children into situations which would cause them to abandon their adherence to traditional Jewish religious practice. The Brisker Rav raised a big commotion about this travesty. He moved mountains in his attempts to save these children. Rabbi Shapiro writes that the Brisker Rav once called a meeting of Torah leaders and insisted that something be done about these youngsters from Tehran. When the meeting was over, everyone went back home to their regular lives. The Brisker Rav exclaimed to Rabbi Shapiro "How can anyone just go back home to their regular life? What will be with these children?" The Brisker Rav cared for them so much that he was willing to move mountains for them.4

The ancient example of the foremen, and stories involving recent leaders teach us of the important of empathy, not just as an admirable character trait, but as a vital key to attaining true wisdom.

NOTES

  1. Cited by Rabbi YIssachar Frand. Rabbi Shapiro, was the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Beer Yaakov: He was a relative and close student of the Brisker Rav, Rabbi Yitzchk Zev Soloveitchik.
  2. Pirkei Avot, 6:6.
  3. Rosh Yeshiva, Mir. Sichot Mussar, Maamar 47.
  4. Heard from Rabbi Yissachar Frand.