In Your Face Empathy

In BeShalach, last week’s Torah portion, we learned of the splitting of the sea. There we read, “And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and God caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.” (Exodus 14: 21) At the start of Yitro, this week’s Torah portion we learn that Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law comes to meet Moses and the Israelites. There we read, ” Now Yitro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel His people, how that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.” ( Exodus 18:1) Why did Yitro come? He heard of the great miracles of the Exodus, especially the splitting of the sea. But, how did he hear? When discussing the miracle of the splitting of the sea, the Sages rationalized that this exception to the rule of science, must have happened every where on the world if it happened at all. Rashi (on Exodus 14:21) brings down the idea  (from the Mehilta and Shemot Rabba 21:6) that “all the waters of the world also split at that time” .

So the water in Yitro’s cup divided, but why did he run to get Zipporah and the grand kids in the car to see Moses?  The miracle of the splitting of the sea was not just that the Isrealites escaped their slave masters, but that it created a narrative with which everyone could relate. The story was not in a far off sea, but right there on our table. All too often we are not sympathetic to a cause until we connect with it on a person level. It is easy to turn a blind eye to someone who is suffering, until you look that person in the eyes.  In my mind this points a deep lesson in the power on empathy.

I was thinking about this lesson  when I saw a recently posted TED talk. In this video photographer iO Tillett Wright pushes us to see past the having check boxes like “female,” “male,” “gay” or straight”. She is the creator of Self Evident Truths—an ongoing project to document the wide variety of experiences in LGBTQ America. So far, she has photographed about 2,000 people for the project. Her goal: 10,000 portraits and a nationwide rethinking of discriminatory laws. Please watch:

In the words of Jewish Philosopher  Emmanuel Levinas, “the Other faces me and puts me in question and obliges me . . . the face presents itself, and demands justice. (Totality and Infinity 207, 294) In the spirit of Yitro, it is hard looking at the pictures of iO Tillett Wright and not heeding  the call and working for equality and justice for all people regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. When we see the humanity in another person, we cannot help but have empathy for that person. We feel that we are connected. And as Yitro teaches us, that is just what family does. Regardless if it is for a celebration or morning, we show up.

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