והיה רגיל להוכיח אותי על שראה שאינני משתתף בצערא דאחרינא. וכה היה דברו אלי תמיד שזה כל האדם. לא לעצמו נברא רק להועיל לאחריני ככל אשר ימצא בכחו לעשות.
[My father, Rav Chaim Volozhiner,] regularly rebuked me, because he saw that I did not participate in the pain of others. And these were his constant words to me: This is the entire person. One is not created for himself, but to benefit others with the full extent of his powers.
Rav Yitzchaq Volozhiner redacted Nefesh haChaim from notes his father, Rav Chaim Volozhiner, left him. In the introduction, Rav Yitzchaq outlines his father’s approach to Avodas haShem. In it, he makes the above parenthetic comment.
In “Shemos: Vigilante to Lawgiver” I suggested that Moshe’s natural instinct to stand up for someone in need was a critical part of his being the right person to eventually become the Lawgiver, Hashem’s conduit in giving the Torah. There is a unity between Torah and Natural Morality inherent in Hillel’s summary to the prospective convert, “That which you loathe, do not do to another. That is the whole Torah. Now go study!” The Torah’s aims are the same as someone’s healthy moral sense of fairness. However, the Torah contains a more informed and effectively guideline than we could come up with on our own. (As well as giving us the tools for self-development that we can more often follow through when the decision to choose right is difficult.)
This is a reason why so much of Parashas Shemos is comprised of examples of Moshe’s compassion.
For that matter, at the end of his life, empathy comes to play as well. Moshe is not allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael. But there is one mitzvah that is tied to Israel that Hashem did permit him to start, even if it wasn’t completed until much later — Moshe set up the first three Arei Miqlat, the cities of refuge for someone who killed another by an accident caused by insufficient caution. The man who spend at least half his life (depending on which midrashim you use to date events) as a refugee from Egyptian “justice” was the ideal person to set up such cities. Who could better empathize with what the person who needs one is going through?
But coming back to this week’s parashah, we see the fundamental role of compassion and empathy at another critical junction — Moshe’s first prophecy, at the Burning Bush. Medrash Tanchuma (14:4; summarized by Rashi, Shemos 3:2):
… וְלָמָּה מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה, וְלֹא מִתּוֹךְ אִילָן גָּדוֹל, וְלֹא מִתּוֹךְ תְּמָרָה? אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא: כָּתַבְתִּי בַּתּוֹרָה, “עִמּוֹ אָנֹכִי בְצָרָה” (תהלים צא:טו). הֵם נְתוּנִים בְּשִׁעְבּוּד, וְאַף אֲנִי בַּסְּנֶה מִמָּקוֹם צָר. לְפִיכָךְ מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה שֶׁכֻּלּוֹ קוֹצִים.
… And why did He appear in the midst of a bush of thorns rather than in a large tree or a date palm (perhaps: a column of smoke)? The Holy Blessed One said: I have stated in the Torah: “I will be with him in trouble.” (Tehillim 91:15) [Since] they were enslaved, even I appeared in a thorn bush, which is a place of trouble. Therefore, from witthin of a bush which is full of thorns, [I appeared to Moshe.]
Moshe starts with a natural compassion, and it is his perception of Divine Compassion that transforms him into the greatest navi of all time. Because, as Rav Chaim Volozhiner raised his son, it is compassion and our ability to act on that compassion that is the foundation of our entire existence, and the central purpose of the Torah.