Posts Tagged 'Brene Brown'

Not Passing Over Empathy

The central commandment of  the Seder is to experience liberation from slavery in Egypt. We learn in the Talmud:

In each and every generation one is obligated to see themselves as if they went out from Egypt, as it says “And you shall tell you child on that day, saying: Because of this, God did for me when I went out from Egypt.”(Exodus 13:8) Therefore we are obligated to offer effusive, beautiful praise and thanksgiving to the One who performed all these miracles for our ancestors and for us (Pesachim 116b)

But how could be ever experience something that happened to our ancestors thousands of years ago. Fundamentally this commandment is to experience. And if that was not hard enough we also have to find a way to communicate empathy to the next generation. 

When thinking about this commandment I see a real risk that we miss the mark on empathy and become satisfied with sympathy. What is the difference between empathy and sympathy? If you have not seen it I suggest watching this short and great video by Brené Brown on the distinction between empathy and sympathy

When you sympathize with someone you can take notice their pain, but you only empathize when you actually sit with people in their pain. You can never take away someone’s pain, but you can connect with them.

I think not as we start the last days of Passover I pause to realize that empathy is not just a lesson of the seder.  These last days commemorate our salvation at the Red Sea. Having just been liberated from slavery, our ancestors found themselves witness to the miracle of the Splitting of the Sea. One can only imagine their elation. And actually it is our commandment to imagine that elation. On this the Gemara says:

The Holy One, blessed be God, does not rejoice in the downfall of the wicked.  For Rabbi Shmuel ben Nahman said in Rabbi Yonatan’s name: What is meant by, “And one approached not the other all night”? (Exodus 14:20)  In that hour [When the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea ] the ministering angels wished to utter the song of praise  before the Holy One, blessed be God, but God rebuked them, saying: My handiwork [the Egyptians] is drowning in the sea; would you utter song before me! (Sanhedrin 39b)

The Egyptians slavers are finally getting their just due, yet God experienced no pleasure in the process. Rejoicing in someone else’s suffering is just wrong. And on another level this Gemara is asking us to empathize with God as the Creator. On a deep level in its totality Passover is a process of growing in our capacity to empathize with others if not the Other.  In light of this it seems that empathy might be the key to getting a group of slave from Egypt to ascend to Sinai to receive the Torah. From start or finish the Torah is about doing gemilut hasadim– act of loving kindness (Sotah 14a). What is an act of loving kindness beyond sitting with someone and empathizing with them?

It is interesting in this context to realize that the purpose of Passover is to ensure that we sit with people in their situations and do not just pass over them.

 

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Faith Minus Vulnerability

In Eikev, this week’s Torah portion we read:

The graven images of their gods shall you burn with fire; you shall not covet the silver or the gold that is on them, nor take it unto yourself, lest you be snared therein; for it is an abomination to the Lord your God.And you shalt not bring an abomination into your house, and be accursed like unto it; you shalt utterly detest it, and you shall utterly abhor it; for it is a devoted thing. (Deuteronomy 7:25-26)

What do we make of the use of the word”abomination” in the context of idolatry?  In the Talmud Rabbi Yohanan in the name of Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai noted the word “abomination” in common in both our portion and in Proverbs which says:

Every one that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord; my hand upon it! he shall not be unpunished(Proverbs 16:5)

They deduced from the common use of the same word “abomination” that people who are haughty of spirit are as though they worshiped idols (Sotah 4b).

I was thinking about this in the context of the work of Brené Brown. In her brilliant discussion of vulnerability she writes:

Faith minus vulnerability and mystery equals extremism. If you’ve got all the answers, then don’t call what you do ‘faith.’
Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai are on to something – there is a certain abomination of being too haughty and close minded to be vulnerable. The secret of whole-hearted living is to break the idols in our lives and be open to the mystery of the unknown, the Unknowable, and even yet to be known self. These are only revealed through the hard work and practice of humility.

Wholehearted Tools : Yoni’s Question

Years ago when my nephew Yoni Hendel was about to become a Bar Mitzvah he sent me a letter in which he wrote that he had recently re-read Kedoshim, this week’s Torah portion, and I had a few questions about it. One of his bigger questions was,  “How do you incorporate this parsha to today’s lifestyle?” Yoni also asked what did the Torah mean when it said,” You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling-block before the blind, but you shall fear your God I am God ” (Leviticus 19:14)  As a directive it makes sense to not put a stumbling block in front of someone who would trip over it. It is plain evil to hurt someone in general, let alone someone who cannot see. But why is it a problem to “curse the deaf.”

Despite the near decade since his Bar Mitzvah I have been thinking about this pasuk and Yoni’s question of relevance in the context of reading Rising Strong by Brené Brown. In her brilliant discussion of vulnerability she asks if we believe that people are basically doing the best they can with the tools they have. If you do not think people are doing their best you will be judgative (thank you Yishama for this word).  By contrast, here’s what she says about the people who believe people are doing their best:

They were slow to answer and seemed almost apologetic, as if they had tried to persuade themselves otherwise, but just couldn’t give up on humanity. They were also careful to explain that it didn’t mean that people can’t grow or change. Still, at any given time, they figured, people are normally doing the best they can with the tools they have.

…Every participant who answered “yes” was in the [research] group of people who I had identified as wholehearted— people who are willing to be vulnerable and who believe in their self-worth. They offered examples of situations where they made mistakes or didn’t show up as their best selves, but rather than pointing out how they could and should have done better, they explained that, while falling short, their intentions were good and they were trying.  (Rising Strong)

So now I want to go back to Yoni’s questions. What is the connection to Brené Brown? Even if they cannot hear the curse and will not be impacted by our curses because they are deaf, we who curse will be impacted. Cursing them is our having given up on humanity and not living wholehearted lives. I think the Torah’s instruction to not curse the deaf is asking us to treat everyone as if they are doing the best they can with the tools they have. I still strive to incorporate this message today.


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