One of the most important Jewish values is “empathy — 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. Yet, we must also teach our children to be empathetic and compassionate. Rabbi Wayne Dosick in Golden Rules writes:
“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 has big, open hands when they watch you give of your resources — generously and often — and when they watch you give of the work of your hands — willingly and joyfully.
“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 God who is ‘gracious, compassionate and abundant in kindness; who forgives mistakes, and promises everlasting love.’”
Family talk time
What does it mean to be kind to a friend? What does it mean to be kind to an animal?
Think of a time when someone hurt you. How did it feel?
Try to “put yourself in someone’s shoes.” What does that mean? How does it help us to understand others?
Tell 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 and hear sad stories from around the world, we question how much to share with our children, and that is an individual family matter. We also must look inside ourselves to not only feel empathy toward those who are suffering and struggling but to decide how we can act to help others.
Laura Seymour is director of camping services and Jewish life and learning at the Jewish Community Center of Dallas.