Posts Tagged 'Brene Brown'

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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Thank You Brené Brown

Dear Brené Brown,

I have been meaning to write you a thank you note since my father James Joseph Orlow z”l passes away at the end of August. This past Shabbat when reading Beshalach, that week’s Torah portion, I realized that I really needed to write you. Yes I am an Orthodox Rabbi, so let me explain.

This Torah portion opens with Pharaoh finally relenting after the 10th plague and letting the Moshe and the Israelite slaves go free. After years in bondage in Egypt, that could have been the end of the drama between the nation of Israel and the Egyptians, but alas that was not the case. There we read:

When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his courtiers had a change of heart about the people and said, “What is this we have done, releasing Israel from our service?” He ordered his chariot and took his men with him; he took six hundred of his picked chariots, and the rest of the chariots of Egypt, with officers in all of them. The Lord stiffened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he gave chase to the Israelites. As the Israelites were departing defiantly, the Egyptians gave chase to them, and all the chariot horses of Pharaoh, his horsemen, and his warriors overtook them encamped by the sea, near Pi-hahiroth, before Baal-zephon. (Exodus 14:5-9)

It is not the first time that God “stiffened the heart of Pharaoh”, but it surely was the last. This divine constraint compelled the leader of the world to drive his army to the ends of the world to return his slaves. His hardened heart lead him and his people to their deaths in the sea. While it is interesting to contemplate the nature of this compulsion I am more interested to imagine how Moshe interpreted Pharaoh’s actions.

While Moshe was the leader of this slave rebellion, he was also someone who grew up in Pharaoh’s home.  Moshe was someone who had conflicting loyalties. Was Moshe saddened to see his Egyptian friends suffer through the plagues because Pharaoh would not let the Israelites go? Did Moshe resent Pharaoh? How must it have felt  to see Pharaoh coming over the horizon with hundreds of chariots pursuing him and his people?  Did Moshe struggle with having to decide between the death of one or the other of his people? How did Moshe judge Pharaoh’s behavior?

Thinking about these questions I realized that you might have answered them with a simple question you asked in Rising Strong. There we read, “It got me thinking about the people I’ve been struggling with and judging. I asked myself – are they doing the best they can with the tools that they have?” God told Moshe and us the readers that God “stiffened the heart of Pharaoh” so he and we could understand that Pharaoh was doing the best he could with the tools he had. I like to think that Moshe learned this lesson from you so that he would not judge Pharaoh. In this imagination I can also strive to have a positive attitude toward everyone.

So now I can get to the thank you note. The last time I saw my father I went to visit him to talk about getting better support in place for my ailing mother and help him think about shifting into semi-retirement. My mother has many health issues and at 82 it seemed as though it might be time for him to cut back at work. There were many times in that conversation that I found myself completely outraged by his obstinance. Over the day of talking with him there were many times that I almost lost it and wanted to scream at him. Instead of expressing my judgement of his pigheadedness I kept saying to myself, “He is doing the best can with the tools he has”. Repeating this mantra let me maintain an openness to the person he was instead of holding on to the futile imagination of the person I wanted him to be.

My father died three days later.  If it was not for your teaching I am certain that my last interaction with my father would not have been a good one.  I can only imagine the scars in my soul if my last interaction with my father would have been plagued by screaming and judgement. Your lesson softened my heart so I could come to grips with his stiffened heart. Your teaching helped me show up and allowed me to leave space for my father to be seen. I am forever indebted to you. I find your teachings profoundly liberating. Thank you. I wish you many blessings.

Sincerely,

Avi

 

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.

 

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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