The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 67) draws a curious association between the story of Yaakov seizing the blessing intended for his brother, Esav, and the story of the Purim miracle. The Torah tells that when Esav learned that Yaakov had disguised himself and received Esav’s blessing, Esav cried bitterly (“va-yitz’ak tze’aka gedola u-mara” – 27:34). The Midrash notes that very similar terminology is used to describe Mordekhai’s cry upon hearing of Haman’s decree to exterminate the Jews (“va-yiz’ak ze’aka gedola u-mara” – Ester 4:1). Based on this parallel, the Midrash comments that Yaakov was punished for the pain he caused Esav, when the Jews were nearly annihilated during the times of Mordekhai.
How might we explain the connection drawn by the Midrash between these two incidents? Clearly, Chazal’s intent is to underscore the gravity of causing somebody emotional distress. But what significance might there be to the connection made between Esav’s cries after losing his blessing and Mordekhai’s cries in Shushan?
The answer perhaps lies in the obvious point of distinction between these two episodes. Esav cried over a personal matter, over the loss of something that was important and precious to him, whereas Mordekhai wept upon learning of a looming catastrophe, of his death and that of the entire Jewish Nation. At first glance, the fact that the same terminology is used in both contexts might lead us to look scornfully at Esav’s cries. He cried as bitterly as Mordekhai did, despite the fact that he wept over losing a blessing and Mordekhai wept over the impending extermination of many thousands of innocent men, women and children. Seeing the textual parallel between Esav’s and Mordekhai’s cries, we would, instinctively, read the description of Esav’s cry as almost satirical, depicting his angst in exaggerated terms.
It is perhaps to counter this reading of the verse that the Midrash made its comment linking these two episodes. Chazal here teach us that the anguish people feel after being victimized can, indeed, be as painful and intense as Mordekhai’s anguish upon hearing of Haman’s edict. While we ourselves are to strive to overcome the pain over our personal losses and struggles, and forgive those who have wronged us, we cannot necessarily expect this of those whom we have wronged. The Midrash teaches of the need for sensitivity to other people’s personal pain, even when it initially strikes us as exaggerated and unwarranted. Very often, a personal struggle which to others might seem trivial can inflict immense emotional pain to which we must be sympathetic. It is wrong to flippantly dismiss people’s distress as exaggerated. People react very differently to the same experiences. An incident that one person can handle without trouble can cause great pain to somebody else, and one person’s ability to cope in trying circumstances might not be the same as somebody facing those same circumstances. Chazal here convey a vitally important message about empathy and sensitivity, calling upon us to acknowledge people’s distress even if it appears to us unwarranted or exaggerated.