Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and Empathy

As anyone who ever reads my blog knows, I am a bit of hasid of Dr.Brené Brown. There is something she shared that I have been thinking about lately. She said, “Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable choice. In order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.”  I always assumed that empathy was a trait. What does it mean that empathy is a choice? Does that mean that it is more nurture than nature?

I was thinking about this question this week while reading Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion. There we read, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20). If the Torah wanted to it could just have instructed us not to wrong or oppress the stranger and left it at that. Instead it goes on to give us a rationale. We should not do wrong by the stranger because we  “were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This commandment seems to be a profound lesson in empathy.  The reason that we should not marginalize anyone else is because we ourselves endured a national experience of being strangers in a strange land.  In this way our collective  slavery is the foundation of our morality.

This mandate to look out for the stranger is not limited to this one commandment. We learn in the Ein Yaakov:

We are taught: Rabbi Eliezer the Great said: “Why does the Scripture in thirty-six, according to others in forty-six places, warn regarding strangers? Because his original character is bad [into which ill treatment might cause him to relapse].” Why is there added “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt”(Exodus 22:20)? We are taught: Rabbi Nathan says: “Do not reproach your neighbor with a blemish which is also your own” (Ein Yaakov, Bava Metzia 4:12)

Be it 36 or 46 times it a rather pervasive and systemic message in the Torah to look out for those who might be marginalized. But what does it mean regarding our assumptions around human nature? I do not agree that we are bad from the start. That being said it seems that Rabbi Nathan thought that the best way to deal with this limitation is the commandment from this week’s Torah portion. By empathizing with the stranger we can uproot this flaw. Essentially Rabbi Nathan was saying that “those in glass houses should not throw stones.” Like Brené Brown’s lesson from above, we are commanded to be vulnerable and look inward if we hope to evoke empathy for others.

This reminds me of something that Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson taught. He wrote:

Humans aren’t as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.’

Be it a commandment or a choice the importance of looking out for the stranger seems pretty straight forward. The lesson plans or effort needed for becoming an empathetic person seem truly complex. This is hard work, but something we need now more than ever.

-See related post on the 36: The Laws of the Stranger

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