Empathy, compassion and humanity

Dear Families,

We are almost to the New Year and all hope for a good one, yet we are challenged by what is going on in the world. This is a good time to reflect on our common humanity. One of the most important Jewish values is “empathy/compassion — rachamim” and one of the best ways to teach it is by modeling. Rachamim, the Hebrew word, is usually translated as compassion. As we acknowledge other people’s feelings, thoughts and experiences, we feel compassion for them — we identify with them and want to help them, which is also called empathy. Psychologists tell us that compassion and empathy begin to develop in the first years of life. In fact, scientists assume that we are biologically wired for these feelings. So how do we develop these values?

Brene Brown in her new book “Atlas of the Heart” (which explores in depth so many of our emotions) writes of the relationship between compassion and empathy: “Compassion is a daily practice and empathy is a skill set that is one of the most powerful tools of compassion. Compassion is the daily practice of recognizing and accepting our shared humanity so that we treat ourselves and others with loving-kindness, and we take action in the face of suffering. It’s not just feeling, it’s doing.” This is so Jewish, as Judaism is action-based — we must feel but, more importantly, we must do!

Brown, in her deep thinking about emotions and actions, goes on to talk about what the “doing” looks like, and it is often counterintuitive to us. The action is not about making things better or fixing, but about connecting with another and from there recognizing and sharing that we are all connected and all suffer and struggle at times. This quote from Brown is key: “We need to dispel the myth that empathy is ‘walking in someone else’s shoes.’ Rather than walking in your shoes, I need to learn how to listen to the story you tell about what it’s like in your shoes and believe you even when it doesn’t match my experiences.”

Empathy and compassion are modeled in the lessons from our sages on visiting the sick. The guidance for this mitzvah reminds us that it is a commandment, meaning not a choice. Of course, there are details in how and when and even what to say (or not to say). The empathy and compassion are in your presence — just being there is important. Rabbi Wayne Dosick in “Golden Rules” says:

“You can teach your children that a good decent, ethical person has a big, loving heart when they feel you feeling another’s pain, when they know that you are committed to alleviating human suffering.

“You can teach your children that a good, decent, ethical person can fulfill the sacred task of celebrating the spark of the Divine in each human being and the preciousness of each human being when you teach them to imitate G-d who is ‘gracious, compassionate, and abundant in kindness; who forgives mistakes, and promises everlasting love.’”

Here is a story about Rabbi Tanchum, of whom it is said, “When he needed only one portion of meat for himself, he would buy two; one bunch of vegetables, he would buy two — one for himself and one for the poor.” How could you do this in your family? Make a promise to think of others when grocery shopping — buy a second portion of something for the food bank.

Today as we read, hear and watch the sad and frightening stories of hurricanes, fires, sickness and more, we question how much to share with our children or ourselves. We often feel like we can’t listen to the news anymore. Yet, we must look inside not only to feel empathy toward those who are suffering and struggling but to decide how we can act to help others. This is part of the healing for those in need and for growing for each of us as we reach out to help. 

Laura Seymour is Jewish Experiential Learning director and Camp director emeritus at the Aaron Family JCC.

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