From NISHMA UPDATE September 1991

 

Dvar Torah

Empathy

Rabbi Michael Skobac

In the well known Talmudic encounter, Hillel enlightens the Gentile who seeks to learn the entire Torah 'while standing on one foot'. "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary, go and learn it." T.B. Tractate Shabbat 31a. It's that simple. Basically the Jewish equivalent of 'Just Say No'.

Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz, in his important book G-d, Man, and History grapples with the issue of people who intellectually know what constitutes proper behaviour - but have difficulty actualizing it. We all intuitively grasp what is reasonable, we all understand the wisdom of Hillel's advice. We just don't always desire to act reasonably. That small issue of my ego.

Don't do it to someone else if it would infuriate you. The only problem here is that this formula demands that I step outside of myself and make this assessment each time I'm about to interact with those other creatures. But I'm human - I have to look out for number one.

"And Moses stretched forth his hand toward heaven; and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt for three days: They saw not one another, neither did they rise anyone from his place..." (Exodus 10:22-23) Rav Yitzchak Meir of Gur observed that the greatest darkness exists when we can't see each other - when we can't appreciate the other's pain. Buffered by this insensitivity, we won't get up from our place, we won't lift a hand to help.

The Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 14:1) says that the darkness in Egypt was as thick as a dinar coin. The Avnei Azel noted that one of the greatest roadblocks to being able to empathize with others is our own passion for accumulating wealth- we're too self-absorbed to think of others. When I stand in front of a window, I can look out and see other people. But when just a thin layer of silver is placed behind the glass it becomes a mirror, and all I can see is myself. Such is the power of money- having even a small amount of it can block out the light.

Far from simply offering us vapid platitudes, the Torah is a holistic program which works to instill empathy, and then prods us to live on this plain of heightened awareness. The Torah's command to show love to the stranger is predicated on our awareness that we too were once strangers. (Exodus 22:21, Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 24:17-18) One of the reasons the Torah demands we spend so much time and energy remembering our slavery and exodus from Egypt through numerous Mitzvot is to insure that we never forget what if feels like to be oppressed. A myriad of Torah precepts serve as a mnemonic guidance system to focus our attention on the feelings of others.

According to the Talmud (T.B. Tractate Chulin 105a), the reason for washing our hands after a meal is to remove "Sodomite salt" which can, upon contact, blind our eyes. Rabbi Nissan Mandel, in his commentary to the Siddur, My Prayer, beautifully demonstrates how this seemingly abstruse ritual can serve as a corrective lens when our empathy is out of focus. Sodom was a place characterized by the attitude that "what's mine is mine, and what's yours is yours". (Mishna Avos 5:13) I'm only concerned about myself, if you are starving, that's your problem. This callousness turned into a cruelty which ultimately led to G-d's destruction of the Sodomites. The 'salt' of Sodom is the flavour of that city, and it enters our homes at the end of our meals. Our sages say that before we eat and drink we have two hearts, and afterward only one heart. (T.B. Tractate Baba Basra 12b) Before we've eaten, it's possible to feel the pain of the destitute, since our hunger is now immediate. When my stomach is full, the salt of Sodom can blind my eyes to feeling the misery of thepoor. Pouring a little water over our fingers after we eat can (if we do thisconsciously) help wash away some of the silver that builds up behind our window of life. This clarity of perspective is the vital prerequisite for being able to live by Hillel's dictum of ethical behaviour.


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2002 NISHMA