Posts Tagged 'Empathy'

The Reality of the Cave: Darkness and Empathy

So there I stood, in one of the cool and moist underground caves which typify the Dixie Caverns outside of Roanoke, Virginia; I was in charge of forty teenagers who I had brought there on a trip. Just as we finished the tour of the cave I said to the group, ‘Ok, everyone stand shoulder-to-shoulder up against the wall of the cave.’  Slowly, the kids began to move, and ultimately they stood in a tight line in relative silence.  ‘Face the wall,’ I shouted, and when they did I shined my heavy-duty flashlight toward their backs, casting their shadows against the wall.  ‘Read,’ I said, as I handed Joel Seltzer a small book.  So he read.

Dixie Caverns.jpg

The book I handed him was Plato’s The Republic, and the particular section was the famous Allegory of the Cave.  In it Plato imagines a group of human beings who are made to sit in a dark cave, chained so that they may only look straight ahead of them, staring at the wall.  Behind them is a fire, and men are walking, speaking and carrying objects in front of this fire – casting their shadows upon the opposite wall.  In this situation, Plato explains, a person who was forced to watch these shadows on the wall, and therefore knew of no other reality, would surely come to the conclusion that these dark images were actual beings, with real voices, carrying real objects, and that this world of mere passing shadow was indeed the very epitome of reality.

But then, Plato (through the character of Aristotle) asks us to imagine that one such person was freed from their chains and forced to look around at his true situation; would he not be overwhelmed by such a revelation: the existence of the fire, the reality of the players and the actuality of the objects they were carrying?  Furthermore, if that person were then taken up a rugged ascent and brought out of the cave into the sunlight, would not their understanding of the world be irreparably shattered?  Surely the light of the sun would pain them and, until their eyes adjusted, they would certainly be unable to even look at another human being and see their bodily image as it truly is. Thus, Plato proves, perception truly is reality.

What was I thinking when I was the Rosh Edah, division head, for the eldest campers? Did I think that this group of forty teenagers would remember a single detail of this story? I do not think I thought twice about it. They needed an extraordinary experience that day that they might unpack years later. And my counselors needed to understand that their work at camp was not just about having fun or entertainment. We human beings are sadly chained to our limited perceptions; we stare ahead at the wall, never daring to turn and see the world as it truly is.  We take both darkness and shadow as givens in this world of ours, and over time, we have allowed our eyes to adjust to this unnatural lack of light. Camp could change your perception of the world and free you to think differently.

It has been close to 20 years since I was standing there in that cave, but I was thinking about it this week as we read Parashat Bo, this week’s Torah portion, which continues the narrative of the Exodus of B’nei Yisrael out of the slavery and degradation of Mitzrayim. In Bo, God delivers the final three plagues upon the hardened-heart of Pharaoh, the Egyptian people, and their gods; the plagues of Locusts, Darkness, and the Killing of the First-Born.  While the final plague Makkat B’chorot, the Killing of the First-Born, is no doubt the most devastating, the penultimate plague, hoshekh, or darkness, must have been the most terrifying. There we read:

לֹֽא-רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת-אָחִיו, וְלֹא-קָמוּ אִישׁ מִתַּחְתָּיו שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים, וּֽלְכָל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיָה אוֹר בְּמֽוֹשְׁבֹתָֽם

People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was, but the Children of Israel had light in their dwellings. (Exodus 10:23)

This is a confusing plague.

Years after our experience in Dixie Caverns Joel Selzer who had since become a congregrational Rabbi and eventually the director of the camp that we grew up in shared much of this memory with me in the form of a Dvar Torah. In his Dvar Torah he shared the explanation of hoshekh of the Hasidic master Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Alter, better known as the Gerrer Rebbe. The Gerrer Rebbe explains this verse to mean that their inability to see one another was in fact both the cause as well the consequence of this plague.  He says that the greatest darkness of all is when a person cannot see the other, when they can not feel the pain of their fellow; and this leads to the terrible result that “no one could get up from where he was,” meaning no one arose to the alleviate the pain of their friend. The plague of hoshekh was and still is a plague of an empathy famine.

This, explains the Gerrer Rebbe, was the true sin of the Egyptians was their inability to see the suffering of the other.  They failed to see the sorrows of their neighbors as the suffered through the first eight plagues; and worse still, they failed to see the humanity of the Israelites who cried out to them bitterly from the hardship of their enslavement.  Thus hoshekh, the darkness, became both the cause and the consequence of these failures.

The truth is that in our modern world, sometimes it feels as though we are sitting in the overwhelming darkness of Plato’s cave.  We stare ahead thinking that the animus, the pessimism and the mistrust that abounds is indeed the very epitome of our reality.  We gaze at these ‘mere shadows’ of our world and we perceive them as though they were truth. Worse still is that we are in danger of falling into the apathetic trap of the Egyptians. We lack empathy for the people around us.  We teeter on the edge of constant complacency, not only do we not see the struggles of our neighbors, but even when we do see them, even when we recognize their pain, we too often shrug our shoulders and proclaim, ‘what can I do?’

Will we ever escape the cave?

*Adapted from a Dvar Torah from Rabbi Joel Seltzer

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

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.

 

Afraid of the Dark

Like many other people in the Tri-State area my family has had a tough week with Hurricane Sandy. We are thankful that we are all healthy and that we did not have any significant damage from the storm. Recently we got our power back and were able to return to our home and just in time for the most recent snow storm. There are many people who are displaced or living in the cold without power. And there are some who have sustained serious damages to their homes. In the moment it was hard to reflect on the experience.

This past Shabbat I went to California and got out of the grips of Sandy. While I hated leaving my family I had to go for work. I participated in a wonderful Shabbaton with a group of Assistant Camp directors. During my trip back I had the pleasure of trading stories about our children with Aaron Cantor the Associate Director for Camp Seneca Lake. There is one sweet story that he shared with me that helped me process part of my experience of Sandy.

As he explained, this past year he took his 5 year-old daughter Lily to synagogue for Yom Kipper services. When they were there Aaron pointed out the Ner Tamid in front of the ark. He explained to her that there is always a light on near the Torah.  Lily replied, “Is the Torah scared of the dark, is it a night-light?”

What a great story? I have been taught that the synagogue is a small temple, so this ever-burning light is there just as a fire burned in the Tabernacle. As we read:

And you shall command the children of Israel, that they bring you pure oil olive beaten for the light, to cause the lamp to burn always. In the tabernacle of the congregation without the veil, which is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall order it from evening to morning before the Lord: it shall be a statute for ever unto their generations on the behalf of the children of Israel.( Exodus 27:20-21)

But what is the value of having this ever-burning light? Lily’s story taught me a great lesson. Lily has an amazing sense of empathy. The Torah needed a night-light, because we all need a night-light. We are all afraid of the dark and not just little kids. The idea is that the community should always have a night-light whether in the Tabernacle of a synagogue.

Sandy has taught me a number of things. Sandy reminded me the value of having friends and a community. We need to invest in those relationships in the good times so that they are in place for the hard times. We need to support community institutions with our time, talent, wisdom, and money. I am also reminded that despite the advancement of technology in our civilization, we still live and die at the whim of nature. Control is just an illusion.  And Lily’s story taught be that being in the dark, whether without power, information, friends, or community, is just plain scary. So yes, we all need a night-light. In many respects, empathy is the light of the Torah itself.

From the Heart

The other day Yishama our 5-year-old was laying in bed with my wife and Emunah out 2-year-old. Emunah reached over and caressed his cheek. Yishama remarked to Adina :

I love it when she does that. It makes my heart hurt. You know Mami, when you heart hurts because you love someone so much.

When Adina told me this story my heart just melted. As a parent I aspire to have empathetic children.

I was thinking about it this week in the context of the story of Exodus. There we read how Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. As much as I marvel at my own children learning empathy at such a young age, I am stupefied to think of a grown adult not having empathy.

There are so many issues in this world that need to be fixed. I often feel if everyone only cared a little more we could solve some of these problems. But I also realize with the sheer volume of challenges, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. To get anything done at some level we need to have focus and harden our own hearts or else we would get engulfed in the huge number of issues. As parent I hope to cultivate this empathy in my children. For myself, I think I could use a little more toughening, but not too much. Out of the mouths of babes, Yishama reminded me a precious Torah. We all need to let go and be vulnerable. Life without that hurt in the heart would be slavery.


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