- Posted by Elaine Zecher
- On October 9, 2020
- 0 Comments
Welcome to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we make our toward Shabbat and this week, Simchat Torah.
It is said that the middle verse in the entire Torah is Leviticus 19:18.
Love your neighbor as you love yourself.
The great rabbi of the Talmud (Shabbat 31a), Hillel, when asked to summarize the Torah, responded:
What is hateful to you do not do to another person.
Shammai, another rabbi at the time was asked the same question. He immediately dismissed the inquirer by smacking him with a piece of wood. Many condemn what Shammai did. Violence is never a solution, and yet, I think there is another reason for his impatience and rejection of the question. Is it as easy as that to measure what is hateful to you as a metric to determine what is good or bad and then apply it to another person?
Maybe there is something to Shammai’s visceral reaction.
Our tradition speaks of the power of the experience of slavery to promote empathy:
וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)
In the 36 times, the Torah mentions what it deems a comparable experience between slavery in Egypt and strangers, and often the vulnerable among us, the Torah seeks to awaken compassion and awareness of others. It raises the question of where empathy begins. With us or with the other?
The answer is both since that is the power of empathy. If, in loving your neighbor, you are able to understand the pain, anguish, joy, and hardship they experience, it will lead you to a deeper sensitivity of them. It is also about the radical notion of how they feel and using that knowledge to inform our behavior and attitude. Without that recognition, it is a self-centered pursuit.
As Isabel Wilkerson writes: Radical empathy…means putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel. Radical empathy is not about you and what you think you would do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will. It is the kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it. (Caste, page 386)
When our spirit, our heart, our mind opens, we can overcome what separates us from one another. That may not be the only “most” important idea in the Torah but it makes a transformative difference in how we can repair and thrive in a world waiting to be redeemed.
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameah