There are two similar teachings of our Sages, which at first glance appear to convey the same message. Yet on closer inspection, we see that each one has its own unique and vital significance.
The first teaching is based on a possuk in this week’s parsha, אחרי ה' אלוקיכם תלכו – “Follow after Hashem your G-d.” Our Sages comment on this possuk:
וכי אפשר לו לאדם להלך אחר שכינה והלא כבר נאמר "כי ה' אלקיך אש אוכלה הוא" אלא להלך אחר מדותיו של הקדוש ברוך הוא, מה הוא מלביש ערומים דכתיב "ויעש ה' אלקים לאדם ולאשתו כתנות עור וילבישם" אף אתה הלבש ערומים, הקדוש ברוך הוא ביקר חולים דכתיב "וירא אליו ה' באלוני ממרא" אף אתה בקר חולים, הקדוש ברוך הוא ניחם אבלים דכתיב "ויהי אחרי מות אברהם ויברך אלהים את יצחק בנו" אף אתה נחם אבלים, הקדוש ברוך הוא קבר מתים דכתיב "ויקבר אותו בגיא" אף אתה קבור מתים.
Can a person really follow after the Shechina? It is written, “Hashem your G-d is a consuming fire.” Rather, we must figuratively walk after Him, by emulating His virtues. Just as Hashem dresses the bare, as the possuk states, “And Hashem Elokim made for Adam and his wife garments of leather and dressed them,” so must we dress the bare. Just as Hashem visited the sick, as the possuk states, “And Hashem appeared to him (Avraham, after his Bris Mila) in Eilonei Mamrei,” so must we visit the sick. Just as Hashem consoled mourners, as the possuk states, “After the death of Avraham, Elokim blessed his son, Yitzchak,” so must we console mourners. Just as Hashem buried the dead, as the possuk states, “And He buried him (Moshe) in the valley,” so must we bury the dead.
The second teaching is based on the possuk in Az Yashir, זה קלי ואנוהו, which is generally translated to mean, “This is my G-d and I will glorify Him.” However, the Gemara offers an alternate explanation:
(זה קלי) ואנוהו, הוי דומה לו מה הוא חנון ורחום אף אתה היה חנון ורחום. רש"י - ולשון אנוהו: אני והוא, אעשה עצמי כמותו לדבק בדרכיו.
“(This is my G-d) and I will resemble Him.” Endeavor to resemble Him. Just as He is gracious and merciful, so must you be gracious and merciful. Rashi – the word אנוהו is interpreted here as a shortened version of the words אני והוא, “I and Him,” meaning that we must emulate Hashem, and follow his ways.
Although these two teachings seem to convey the same message, there must be a subtle difference between the two, since they are based on different pesukim in the Torah. On closer inspection, they reveal themselves to be flip sides of the same coin.
Some people are naturally predisposed towards feelings of kindness and mercy. Upon hearing of the plights of others, their hearts are overcome with commiseration. However, for one reason or another, they do nothing of practical significance to help those who suffer. Perhaps they believe that they fulfill their moral obligation through Torah study alone, and are thus exempt from gemilus chassadim (acts of kindness). Perhaps they are just too lazy to do anything. Each seems to find his own flimsy excuses, to exempt himself from helping others.
Other people feel no natural stirrings of compassion, yet they force themselves to fulfill the mitzvos of tzedaka and chessed, since they recognize the importance of these mitzvos. Worse than them are the people who give charity to further their own ulterior motives, making the sorrows of others into a “spade with which to plow their fields, or a crown to wear on their heads,” as they seek honor or material compensation for their acts of kindness. In either case, their acts of kindness do not flow from a compassionate heart.
The Ksav Sofer comments on the possuk, וכי ימוך אחיך ומטה ידו עמך – “If your brother becomes impoverished, and his hand falters, with you…” . The most basic foundation of charity is the feeling of “impoverished with you.” One must feel the bitter plight of his impoverished brother, his hunger, and the humiliation of his destitution, and empathize with it, as if he had experienced it himself. These should be the emotions that promote the continuation of the possuk, “… you must support him.”
The perfection of kindness is reached only by those who can feel another’s pain, to the point where they become sick over the misfortune of others, as our Sages tell us:
אמר רבה בר חיננא סבא משמיה דרב כל שאפשר לו לבקש רחמים על חבירו ואינו מבקש נקרא חוטא "גם אנכי חלילה לי מחטא לה' מחדל להתפלל בעדכם." אמר רבא אם תלמיד חכם הוא צריך שיחלה עצמו עליו.
Rabba bar Chinina Saba said in the name of Rav: Anyone who is able to pray for mercy on his friend’s behalf, but fails to do so, is considered a sinner, as the possuk states, “And I, chalila, that I should sin to Hashem, by failing to pray for you.” Rava said that for the sake of a Torah scholar, one must make himself sick with prayer.
Driven by a sentiment of true concern for the plight of the unfortunate, one must tilt his shoulder to help them carry their load, and rescue them from their misfortune.
We can now understand how the two teachings of our Sages complement one another. In the first teaching, we learn that one must do acts of kindness, just as Hashem does – dressing the bare, visiting the sick, and so on. In the second teaching, we learn that one must be gracious and merciful in his heart, to truly sympathize with the plight of the unfortunate, just as Hashem is so gracious and merciful.