(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...nosei ba'al im chaveiro, sharing a burden with a companion...
(Numbers 24:3) Vayisa bil'am et einav...vat'hi alav ru'ach elohim; Bilaam lifted his eyes [and saw the goodness of the Israelite camp] ...and the spirit of God came upon him.
I have had the privilege of working with a number of deaf students. It is always a challenge, because I do not know sign language. But the need to translate Jewish ideas from Hebrew to English to sign language sometimes produces some remarkable insights.
One student and I struggled over the concept of mitzvot. He insisted on translating "commandment" as "burden." I argued with him about the connotations of the word (which he fully intended). I finally asked him why he was willing to perform "commandments" if he found them to be "burdens." He responded that it brought him satisfaction to bear the burden. He brightened and signed his new translation of mitzvah: happy burden.
Lifting a burden can bring anguish or joy. Aside from the physical aspects, I suspect it depends on whether you focus on the lifting itself (which is an imposition on you) or on the burden (which, like my brother, ain't heavy if it is loved). Bilaam lifted his eyes to behold the Israelite camp and was overwhelmed by its goodness. Suddenly, the burden that had been placed on him by King Balak – to curse the Israelites – was lightened. The heaviness he carried was replaced with a sense of what God commanded him to do: to offer a blessing.
My student's translation of "happy burden" lifted the weight of my frustration once he could share the task with me. The partners in carrying a burden matter little; it is the partnership that lightens the load.
Here is a wonderful illustration from Rabbi Lilly Kaufman of how Torah is acquired by sharing a burden:
In the summer of 2003, I was invited, along with an Orthodox and a Reform colleague, to a local summer camp to meet 15 Israeli shlichim (emissaries) who had just arrived that morning from Israel. They were being housed at a camp temporarily during their orientation program, and we rabbis were part of that program. Since each shaliach would work out of a synagogue in Connecticut for nine months, they needed to understand how American synagogues function, as well as how the American Jewish community is organized.
The kids had traveled for over ten hours to New York, another two and a half hours to Connecticut, and had arrived at camp at 7 in the morning. It was now 7 p.m., and they could hardly hold their heads up. We rabbis felt so sorry for them, and we were touched by their good manners.
The orientation program required them to break up into three small groups, each assigned to one rabbi for fifteen minutes, and then the rabbis rotated to the next group. They were instructed to ask us about our profession: about our spiritual journeys; why we became rabbis; what we do; how our movements differ from each other.
Feeling sorry for their burden to conduct an interview when they desperately wanted to sleep, I answered the very first question, about my spiritual journey, by saying I would like to answer the question with a question.
I asked them, "What is holy to you?"
They looked quite surprised. Most weren't sure how to go about answering the question. "What does this mean, `what is holy to me?' I can say what is important to me, or how I feel about something, but..." I stopped them. I said, "Just tell me what first came into your minds when I asked the question. You don't have to answer out loud. Just think about it."
Most of them did answer, the most common response being, "My family." One shaliach answered, "The land of Israel." One (secular) Israeli answered, "Kiddush. When my father makes kiddush, I can't explain it, but it is holy."
After I had heard their answers, I asked them another question. It was, "Has anyone ever asked you that question before – about what is holy to you?" They all said, "No," and looked at me, wondering what would be the next crazy thing to come out of my mouth.
I said, "That is why I am a rabbi. It is my job to ask that question of everyone, every day. It is the most important question that no one else will ever ask you."
Rabbi Kaufman's wonderful story begs a certain question – who was bearing the burden and who was the helpful companion? In the end, it doesn't matter.
How does one practice being nosei ba'al im chaveiro? You can accustom yourself to this practice in the old-fashioned way: help deliver someone's groceries, schlep a bag of briquettes or mulch with a neighbor, carry home a friend's books from school. You can find more symbolic ways to share a burden: open your heart to a friend who is suffering from loneliness, fear or grief. You can acquire Torah by engaging a friend in struggling with the important questions that no one else will ask.