Relieving Another’s Burden – Mishpatim 5783

D'var Torah | Exodus

Not only was he an ordained rabbi from an illustrious family, Dr. Abraham Twersky was a trained psychiatrist and proficient author. Early in his career he had served as a psychiatrist in a large state mental hospital. He would conduct tours of the facility for visiting medical students, pointing out cases described in psychiatric literature but rarely seen outside of an institution.


As he recounts in his book Do Unto Others, he once pointed out the man who was the most ‘senior’ patient in the hospital. He had been admitted fifty-two years earlier at the age of seventeen with the diagnosis of what was later called schizophrenia. He hadn’t spoken a single word during those fifty-two years.


Routinely, after breakfast this particular patient would go to a corner of the community room and assume an absurd contorted position with his hands directed upwards. He remained in this position for hours until he was called to lunch. After lunch he would return to this position until supper and then again after supper until bedtime. No therapy or medication was successful in getting him to alter this behavior until one of the visiting students asked if he could speak to the patient. “Certainly,” Rabbi Twerski responded, wondering what impact this student thought he could make when decades of psychiatric help had failed.


The student approached the patient and said, “You must be tired. Go sit down.” The patient gave him a blank stare and didn’t move. The student then assumed the contorted position of the patient, copying his posture precisely and then said, “I’ll stand here like this. You can go sit down.” Without a word, the patient sat down on a bench for the first time in fifty-two years!


The Torah (Exodus 23:5)  teaches “azov ta’a’zov emo” {you must help him}. It is not just a law requiring an onlooker to help unburden an enemy’s ass when it falters under its load. It also suggests that one must unburden people as well by being “with him” (emo).  It is an insight that few have grasped.



Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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