After having spent three days traveling away from Egypt, Hashem tells Moshe to have the Jews retrace their steps towards Ba’al Tzephon and camp there. Hashem explains to Moshe that he was doing this in order that Pharaoh would think the Jews are stuck in the wilderness: “Pharaoh will say to the Bnei Yisrael, ‘They are imprisoned in the land, the wilderness has locked them in’” (Shemot 14:3). The question on this pasuk is how can it be that Pharaoh will “say to the B’nei Yisrael” if the Bnei Yisrael are in the wilderness? The Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel explains that, in fact, Pharaoh was speaking to some of the Bnei Yisrael—namely, Dattan and Aviram (who apparently remained in Egypt). Rabbi Yissachar Frand brings the Maharal Diskin, who asks how it could be that Dattan and Aviram still survived this long? We know that only one-fifth of the Jewish nation made it out of Egypt, as the other four-fifths perished in the plague of darkness since they were not prepared to be part of God’s people. According to this, Dattan and Aviram were seemingly surely not prepared to be part of God’s people, as indeed they remained in Egypt and didn’t leave even though they had the chance to go with the rest of the Jews. Furthermore, Dattan and Aviram are infamous for being wicked people! All of this being taken into account, the Maharal Diskin asks how it is possible that Dattan and Aviram survived the plague of darkness?
During the period of slavery, there existed a hierarchy of postions. The taskmasters were at the top of the pyramid. These taskmasters implemented Jewish policemen. These Jewish policemen were the ones on top of the Jewish slaves, enforcing them to produce their quota of work. The way it worked was that the the taskmasters beat the Jewish policemen and the policemen beat the Jewish slaves. Chazal praise the Jewish policemen for often absorbing the beatings of the Egyptian taskmasters and thereby sparing greater suffering on the part of the Jewish slaves.
Says the Maharal Diskin, even though Dattan and Aviram were wicked people, nevertheless they were part of the Jewish policemen, and had the merit of absorbing the blows of Egyptian taskmasters to save the Jewish slaves from being whipped themselves. This merit caused their lives to be spared from the plague of darkness. A person who accepts suffering on himself to save the suffering of a fellow Jew has tremendous merit—neither the Red Sea nor the Angel of Death can touch him.
I thought of two circumstances where we obtain this merit of suffering for another person.
1) Sometimes in our interactions with people, we are “victims” of other people’s heated emotions. People may lash out at us for no apparent reason, which leaves us wondering “What did I do?” Many times, these people really want to express their anger and frustration at someone else, but doing it to that someone else is not such a safe place for them, and instead they may find us to be an easier outlet for their intense emotions. In psychology this is called “displacement,” when a person displaces an emotion to another person who is not the one that caused them to feel that way. When we are the one in the hot seat, it can be very difficult, but based on the idea above, I thought that we can have a positive perspective in such a situation: After all, by taking on this suffering (even involuntarily), we are potentially easing the suffering of the original person who really “should” be the one taking the heat. Thus, we obtain the merit of suffering for another person.
2) Another circumstance is where we give our time and empathy to hear the plight of others, or simply when someone “vents” to us. In this scenario, hearing someone’s difficulties can cause us distress and pain. In this situation we are suffering for someone who is now feeling more at ease just by us listening to them. In essence, we are now suffering for another person who now may not suffer as much, and by doing so, we not only can vastly help another person, but also we can obtain tremendous merits for ourselves.
Binyamin Benji is a graduate of Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan and Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He currently learns in Brooklyn and is the author of the Sephardic Congregation of Paramus’ weekly Torah Talk. He can be reached at [email protected]