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 empathic and compassionate. 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 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 G-d 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, hear and watch the sad and frightening stories in the world, we question how much to share with our children and that is an individual family matter. Yet, we 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. This is part of the healing for those in need and for growing for each of us as we reach out to help.
A Story about Empathy
Mendel the shoemaker was working quietly at his cobbler’s bench when who should burst in but the Emperor Napoleon! “Save me,” the emperor screamed in panic. “They’re going to kill me.”
The good-hearted shoemaker hid Napoleon in his bed under a pile of old quilts, just as three enemy soldiers stormed into the room. They pierced their swords into everything, including the quilts on the bed, but found nothing and left.
Miraculously unharmed, Napoleon granted Mendel one wish as a reward for saving his life. Mendel was perplexed, since he was basically happy and had everything he needed. Finally, he asked Napoleon, “Tell me, if you don’t mind, how you felt when the soldiers poked their swords into the quilts?” Suddenly Napoleon turned red. He ordered his troops to tie the terrified shoemaker to a tree and shoot him.
Ready!” The soldiers lifted their guns.
“Aim!” The soldiers aimed. Mendel said his last prayers.
“But the emperor didn’t say “Fire!” What did he say?
“Now you know how I felt!”
from “Brainteasers From Jewish Folklore” by Rosalind Chaney Kaye
Laura Seymour is director of camping services at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center.