And Moshe’s hands became heavy, so (Aaron and Chur) took a stone and placed it under him and he sat on it.
And (Moshe held) his hands in steady prayer until the setting of the sun.
Shemoth 17: 12
When Amalek, Israel’s biblical archenemy, attacked the Jewish people in the desert, Moshe was no longer physically able to fight together with his beloved people. Therefore he decided to climb the hill in order to be able to oversee the war and give his people religious and psychological support:
And it was whenever Moshe raised his hand then Israel would prevail, but whenever he put his hand down Amalek would prevail. (ibid, 17:11)
The Talmud (Taanith 11b), concerned for Moshe’s well-being, asks the question why Moshe’s right hand men, Aaron and Chur, did not give Moshe a cushion to sit on. Although both men helped him to keep his hands up so that he was able to pray with great fervor, it must still have been a difficult task for Moshe. So why not make his situation a little easier by providing him with a cushion?
The Talmud responds with great sensitivity: This is then what Moshe meant to convey: As Israel is in distress, I will be in distress.
As it says in an earlier statement:
Our Rabbis have taught: When Israel is in trouble and a Jew separates himself, two ministering angles who accompany every human being place their hands on his head and say: So and so who separates himself from the community shall not behold the consolation of the community. Another Braita (1) taught: When the community is in trouble let a man not say: I will go to my house and I will eat and drink and all will be well with me. But rather a man should share in the distress of the community
It is for this reason that Rabbi Yoseph Karo in his monumental codex, the Shulchan Aruch, lays down the law that in time of severe drought one should fast and after some time even lessen ones business dealings, building for pleasure and sexual intercourse (unless one has not yet fulfilled the obligation of procreation.) (Ohr Ha-Chayim 575:7)
It is clear from the Talmudic text that Moshe’s refusal to sit on a cushion or the suggestion that the people withdraw from all sorts of pleasure at a time of drought is not part of an attempt, like in the case of prayer, to ask G-d for mercy. While no doubt such behavior will be pleasing in the eyes of the Lord of the Universe, the main purpose is altogether different namely the prevention of indifference.
The worst sin towards our fellowmen is not to hate them but to be indifferent to them. It is for this reason that the Talmud makes it clear that Moshe refused to sit comfortably on a cushion and that no man should ever say: I will go to my house and I will eat and drink and all will be well with me, while others suffer. To try, maybe to die but not to care is never to be born. William Redfield once said.
Many do not realize that human beings are not aware of their own insensitivity. Conscious insensitivity is a contradiction in terms. While many are most sensitive for matters of small concern, sensitivity for great matters often escapes the human heart. Yet this is exactly what the Talmud is concerned about. Only through acts of compassion is one able to fight indifference. Merciful thoughts have little effect in time of distress. One must act the way one thinks or end up thinking the way one acts.
As is well known, Palestinian terrorists continuously attack our fellow Jews in Gush Katif and surroundings. Soldiers and fathers, some of very young families, and several children have lost their lives. As far as humanly can be seen, these attacks may well continue for a long time and possibly escalate, bringing many of our soldiers and fellow Jews in an even greater danger.
At the same time, the Asian-Tsunami tragedy is far from over. Millions are homeless and traumatized, hunger is rampant and thousands of children became orphans and many have been kidnapped and sold into slavery.
All of us should be deeply concerned by the fact that we can easily fall victim to indifference. Thus, while most of us live far away from the places struck, Jewish law and morality asks us not to sit by idle. As no other country, Israel has shown great sensitivity by providing food, finances and rescue workers towards the Tsunami victims. Religious Jews, representing Jewish religious values, should however respond with even greater sensitivity. This is even more so when time passes by and the first shock has somehow vanished. Likewise, we should make ourselves more sensitive to the situation of our brethren in Gush Katif and let them understand that we care and stand with them in their pain.
Therefore, I humbly call on to my colleagues, friends and students to observe a private half day fast next Thursday, the 17th of Shevath (January 27) and to intensify our prayers on behalf of our fellow Jews in the land of Israel and the Tsunami victims in Asia. (2)
Let no man say: let me go home, eat and drink and all will be well with me. Let us not suspend our sensitivity.
(1) Braita: early rabbinic teaching not incorporated in the Mishnah.
(2) According to the Halacha one should take the half day fast upon oneself at Mincha (afternoon prayer) the day before the fast and state at the end of the Amida (Shemone Esrei) just after the second yihyu leratson the following words: LeMachar eheyeh btaanith yachid ad chatsot hayom (Tomorrow I will observe a fast until midday). Midday in Yerushalayim will be at 11.52 a.m.
For those who are not able to fast, we suggest a short Ta’anith dibbur, a special deed of kindness to a fellowman, an extra smile to a by-passer or a special effort to show loving-kindness to a stranger. Besides tehillim one can add one’s own prayers and the prayers which you can find in the links below.