The Importance of Empathy

I want to begin this morning by describing to you two scenarios, both of which I expect you have seen many times.  The first is a young child, two years old or so, holding a beloved play thing – maybe a doll, or a car, something that the child is attached to.  The child is introduced to a new person, and you watch the child take the object in his or her hand, and do what with it?  Sometimes, children will hold the object out, as if to say please take this from me, as much as I love it, I want you to have it.   But sometimes – and here is the second scenario- the child will take the object and hold it close, as if to say “I think you might grab my doll from me.  And this is my doll.  Don’t mess with my doll!”

Both of these behaviors are instinctual behaviors.  The children at one and a half or two are too young to have learned one or the other.  And commonly one child will act in both ways, sometimes that little boy will hold his doll out to you, and other times he will hold it close, maybe even turn his back to you, making sure that you know he doesn’t want you to grab it from him.

Were we to name these behaviors we would probably say that the child holding tightly onto the doll is being selfish, putting his own needs and feelings first, what he wants and needs takes precedence over what someone else might want and need.  He wants his doll, he is going to keep his doll, it doesn’t matter to him that you don’t have a doll.  The child who extends her hand out to offer the doll to another person we probably would say is being – ? – generous!  But I would also argue that another emotion is at work in that child who wants to give the doll to you, and that is empathy.  The child knows how much she loves the doll, and she looks at you, and you don’t have one!  She imagines in her mind how it would feel not to have a doll – empathy – and understanding how you must feel, standing there empty handed, she wants to help you feel better, and she holds out her hand.

We are now four weeks in to the Exodus story in our weekly Torah reading cycle, and  finally in this morning’s portion we watch Moses succeed in his initial quest, to bring the Israelites out of Egypt.  It has not been an easy path for Moses, from God’s first call to him, his own self doubt, his struggle to come to terms with the responsibility that has been thrust upon him.  Commentators speculate as to why Moses was chosen in the first place.  After all, having grown up in Pharaoh’s palace he is more familiar and in touch with Egyptian culture than Israelite culture.  He is supposed to be a communicator, and yet he himself tells God he struggles to speak properly.  So why Moses?

One traditional answer to that question is that Moses had an unusual amount of empathy.  He is constantly worrying about others and what they are feeling and experiencing.  When his initial requests for freedom are met with harsh measures by the Egyptians Moses agonizes over the fact that his people are being punished – Adonai – למה הרעתה לעם הזה – God, why did  you bring harm upon this people?!  When he sees an Israelite being beaten by an Egyptian he cannot help but take action, even though he knows he might be putting himself in danger.  At the end of this morning’s portion there is a famous passage that describes Israel battling Amalek.  Moses ascends a nearby hill to look over the battlefield, and when he holds up his staff the Israelites prevail, but when his arms get tired and he lowers his staff the Israelites begin to lose.  As Moses gets more and more tired he needs help, and Aaron and Hur hold up his hands, but first they sit Moses down – ויקחו אבן וישימו תחתיו – they took a stone, and put it under him.  And Rashi, the greatest of all biblical commentators, asks – why a stone?  Why not put something under Moses that would have made it more comfortable for him, easier for him?  Like a cushion?  And Rashi answers his own question by saying that Moses wanted to share in his people’s pain, in their struggle.  We might say that Moses was empathetic almost to a fault.

That ability – to be empathetic, to understand how someone else might be thinking or feeling, is a core concept in Judaism.  One of the Torah’s central concerns is that we make sure to take care of the marginalized people in our midst, those who can’t take care of themselves.  That is a commandment that appears multiple times in the Torah always followed by a list- the orphan, the widow, the stranger – and then the Torah will give you a reason as to why this should be important to you – you should care for these people, be sensitive to their needs, כי גרים היתם בארץ מצרים  – because you yourselves were slaves in the land of Egypt!  In other words you know what it feels like to be marginalized and powerless.  And if you know what that feels like, when you see someone else in that position, then you know what they feel like.  And at that point you have a choice – represented by the two children – will you be selfish, will you turn your back and clutch what you have even tighter.  Or will you extend your hand, remembering what it felt like to be in that person’s shoes, wanting to help that person?

There was a time, not long ago, when it was relatively easy for us to remember what it felt like to be that marginalized person.  Many of you in the room this morning probably had first hand experiences that drove that idea home to you.  Whether it was that you knew there was a quota for Jews when you applied to Hopkins, or you walked by a swimming club that had a sign that said ‘no Jews allowed,’ or you knew there were certain neighborhoods where you just wouldn’t be able to buy a home because Jews were not welcome there.  So when the Torah says to you ‘remember what it felt like to be marginalized’ you didn’t have to try that hard.

But your children, for the most part, didn’t have those experiences.  And your grandchildren certainly haven’t had them.  On the one hand that is something to be deeply grateful for, because it reminds us of how far we’ve come in just a generation or two, and how grateful we should be.  But recent research suggests that those who come from privilege have a harder time finding their inner empathy.  Success, stability, and financial resources are all blessings, but they also isolate us from the sense of how it feels and what it means to be disadvantaged.  It makes it theoretical and not real, something that we know happens, but we have no personal experience with.  The challenge is to continue to find a sense of empathy, to cultivate it and make sure it doesn’t fade, even as our lives get better and better.

That is precisely what Moses was able to do.  Remember, he grew up in privilege, in the wealthiest household in Egypt, with everything he could ever need or want.  And yet he never lost his sense of empathy, his innate understanding that the world is in dire need of repair, and that there were people all around him who needed his help.  And time and again in the course of his life he extended his hand.  May that be an example and a lesson for us, and may we, in our own lives, determine to do the same –



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2 responses to “The Importance of Empathy

  1. Linda Napora

    Thank you. Linda nap

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. As to some suggestions in terms of increasing empathy in people, you can see a new column by Nicholas Kristof entitled ‘How Do We Increase Empathy’ – among the recommendations (all supported by research) – reading great literature and regular prayer. Social action projects can also help.

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