Vaetchanan – Finding Empathy

We were slaves in Egypt

Vaetchanan – Finding Empathy

Micha Goodman taught a moving class at Hartman this summer exploring empathy during a time of crisis. If you didn’t have a chance to take the class – everything from Hartman is recorded and you can watch.  His thesis is that empathy may be one of the most important characteristics and a core Jewish value that we need during the times we are experiencing. Yet by all measures and our own anecdotal observation, empathy both continues to diminish – and at the same time is occurring in extraordinary ways.

Empathy is the highest form of human connection.  It is not just when we understand what someone is thinking – but that we feel what they are feeling. When you feel what someone else feels – it changes everything and becomes a powerful vehicle for morality. When you feel and care another’s pain – you will do whatever you can to diminish it. Judaism infuses empathy into our souls.  When we look at history, we remember moments of pain and suffering, particularly being slaves in Egypt in order to feel for others in similar situations. Over and over, we learn: “You were slaves in Egypt.”  And the implication of that experience is the obligation to act – helping those who are in similar situations. Creating historic memory around pain; feeling it so that with our empathy we transform suffering into healing is the Jewish Way.

Micha’s lecture quantified how empathy has been diminishing in recent years. He explores the causes why empathy is diminished so that we can address the cause and return to our path.  Diminishing empathy is the beginning of a society coming apart – it is an issue to understand and respond to.

Micha brings MIT psychologist and researcher Shirley Turkle, who quantified a 40% reduction in empathy over the past number of years.  She connects it to increased use of digital technology. It makes sense that if we are paying attention to a device, we are not paying attention to the people around us.  Empathy requires us to be fully present and not distracted. Our minds and hearts are open to those around us, as we devote our full attention to them. Check in with your own behavior. Do you need to turn off a screen a bit more in order to tune in to those around you?  Let’s use technology to connect to one another – rather than to disconnect.

What else pulls us from empathy?  Political polarization – which is so rampant.  We reclaim empathy as we connect to people regardless of ideology or beliefs.

He also links the decline in empathy to tribalism.  We are so connected to our own people – people who are similar to us in terms of religion, race, nationality, socio-economic class that we overlook or minimize those who are different.  Micha brought a famous study where people are shown different people suffering – and had less negative response to similar suffering for those from different backgrounds, religions or even looks.  It makes sense from an evolutionary point of view that we are wired to have more empathy for our own groups. But if we have less empathy for those who are different, than we are not caring about those most often in need of care.

And here is where Judaism pushes us.  Rather than allowing our sense of connection to one another – our tribe – to distance us from others; our national identity demands that we connect us to everyone – especially those who are vulnerable, no matter how different from us they may be.

Think about history and what we choose to remember.  We Jews have a rich history. We could emphasize moments of triumph, conquest, God’s care and freeing us from Egypt.  And while we teach those moments in history – the moment we go back to and repeat over and over – is not being freed from slavery – but having been slaves.  Over and over – in fact 36 times in the Torah, we remember “We were slaves in Egypt.”  We choose to remember our pain and suffering as our primary historical memory in order to code empathy into our soul. Remembering slavery leads to acts of connection and caring – care for the widow, the orphan the stranger; don’t oppress the stranger – because you remember what it was like to be a slave.

Rather than a tribal connection which narrows us to our own as most tribalism will do – our tribal identity uses our experience to connect us to a universal ideal – empathize with anyone who is suffering!  Feel it!  Code it in your essence!  Let it stake a claim on your soul!

This focus on caring for others because we know what it feels like is in the 10 Commandments that we read today.  Look at the 4th Commandment to keep Shabbat. (p. 1019 – 1020, Deuteronomy 5:12-13). Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slaves may rest as you do.  Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the sabbath day.

         Shabbat is connected to having been slaves and unable to choose to rest – and therefore we allow everyone to rest – especially those who are vulnerable.  Our historic memory which gets expressed in the 10 Commandments is one which lifts up our pain so that we learn empathy and act upon the realities we encounter.  This ethic pervades Torah, holidays, prayers.  In the laws we will learn later in Deuteronomy we are in fact commanded to “love the stranger”.  On Passover we reenact being slaves who left Egypt – not just to remember the past – but to re-live the past so that we feel the emotions.  Feeling what others feel – knowing the heart of the stranger and acting is the call of empathy.

This is the call of this moment!

It is something we need in our homes.  These are such stressful and difficult times.  Everyone is running into the emotional wall as we painfully witness increased numbers of sick and dead, economic distress, political fighting. Can we respond to one another with empathy?  Let’s create space to understand the pain of those we love rather than just reacting with anger and frustration.

Sometimes feeling the pain of others can be overwhelming – especially when the pain is so great.  We need to take care of ourselves and create time to disengage from everything, get outside, connect as best we can and create time for that which gives us meaning.  But we always return to a heart full of empathy – so we know that it translates to caring that our world needs.  To those who are suffering – we feel your pain and because of that, we will be there for you.  The amazing power of empathy is constantly part of these times and watching the small and large acts of kindness reminds us of the power of empathy to heal.

As we feel empathy for those who suffer, we act in ways to reduce suffering.  Empathy demands wearing a mask – because we would never want someone to get ill.  Empathy demands policies which have been proven to reduce illness and provide care for those who have suffered losses, illness or economic loss. Now is the time for national and international empathy.  We need leaders on every level responding to the pain of others with heart and care.

When you develop a heart of empathy you find that it applies in almost every moment of life.  Simon Sinek lectures about empathy in workplaces and challenges leaders to create a culture of empathy where you ask how people are doing and support them as humans – rather than turning them into statistical analysis of spread sheet productivity or output.  When a person works in a culture of empathy and care, he or she thrives.

Certainly empathy is the response to issues of race and justice.  As we feel and listen – we understand, we dig deeper, we work together. In his lecture, Micha Goodman called upon us to develop a behavior of “radical listening” which seeks to understand one another and connect at a heart level.  We enter each moment with curiosity – we ask open ended questions, we explore what has been said, we take it into our hearts.

One of the reasons I am excited about the virtual Israel trip is that we will enter into the homes and lives of people who live in Israel.  Tomorrow night we will feel the story of Dahna, an Ethiopian Jew who lives the values of respect of family.  As I watched her video and felt her connection, I wondered how I might live these values even more deeply in my own life.  Empathy connects us to our best selves and we find different values in the experiences of others.  Through Dahna’s reflections on race, integrating into modern Israel, finding her voice amidst the past, present and future; I felt the beauty and complexity of Israeli society. Yes – politics and opinions matter – but connection begins with empathy – feeling the profound pull on heart that Israel creates.

Let’s think seriously about building empathy as the core piece of our humanity. Empathy is the medicine the world needs right now.  It is the greatest gift we can give and the call of our people. Let’s begin by looking inward: Is technology pulling from others?  Is polarization disconnecting me from others?  Let’s create time when we put our devices aside. Let’s be fully open and vulnerable.  Let’s build our empathy muscles and create a society where our connections define us.  We have no choice – we were slaves in Egypt and now what it feels like. We are compelled to act.