Moving Forward with Empathy

Posted on November 13, 2020 by Cantor Risa Wallach

I recently purchased the Robert Alter translation of the TaNaKh, the Jewish Bible*. This award-winning translator offers a fresh look at the Biblical text, seen so often in less dynamic and precise language. Reading Alter’s translation gave me a new motivation to reread the texts of the Psalms, the 150 tehilim. These are poems from our ancient past, used by Jews for the purposes of worship, accompanying the sick and guarding or burying the dead, for sustaining ourselves through difficult times, and really for any spiritual practice that requires some form of written inspiration.

Even the liturgy of our prayerbook, our siddur, contains quotes from psalms sprinkled throughout, which the careful eye can detect, not to mention that we use a series of them in their entirety as a warm-up to the main service.

The psalms form a critical corpus of our Biblical literature, and were sung by the Levite singers in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. One example, which makes it clear that the psalms were used as music, is Psalm 88:

A song, a psalm for the Korahites; it is for the lead player on the mahalath to sing out, a maskil for Heman the Ezrahite….

Lord, God of my rescue,
by day I cried out
by night, in Your presence.
May my prayer come before You.
Incline your ear to my song.
For I am sated with evils.
and my life reached the brink of Sheol.
I was counted among those who go down to the Pit.
I become like a man without strength,
among the dead cast away,
like the slain, those who lie in the grave,
Whom You no more recall,
and they are cut off by your hand.

The psalms do not shy away from any human emotional state, no matter how sinister, agonizing or elated. The psalm continues:

 You put me in the nethermost Pit,
In darkness, in the depths.
Your wrath lay hard upon me,
and all Your breakers You inflicted. Selah
You distanced my friends from me.
You made me disgusting to them;
Imprisoned, I cannot get out.

High drama doesn’t even begin to describe the suffering ensconced in these words.

During the week of the election at the beginning of November, our country was wracked by emotions not unlike those so vividly illustrated by the psalmist. People on all political sides were anxious, on edge, afraid, angry, saddened, and even despondent. For so many, the election felt like an all-or-nothing scenario. I was struck by the fact that despite our vast polarization as a nation, we were all feeling many of the same things, at the very same time. We were glued to our televisions and computers, checking our phones, or trying to find a way to stay calm – praying, nervous, hopeful, and doubting that our highest hopes might, or might not, be realized.

In a moment of profound political division, citizens turned out to vote in the highest numbers in history. We proved that even in a time when democracy appears to be in danger, it is simultaneously summoned up to do what it was designed to accomplish.

The columnist George Packer wrote the following on Election Day:

Today, with the outcome of the election still unclear, these two parts of America are stuck with each other, seeing no way out and no apparent way through, sinking deeper into a state of mutual incomprehension and loathing. The possible exits—gradual de-escalation, majority breakthrough, clean separation, civil war—are either unlikely or unthinkable. We have to live and govern ourselves together, but we still don’t know how.”

Perhaps this spark of sameness, this moment of othering the other side while also feeling exactly the same as “them,” can wake us up to the ways that we are really, in truth, not so different. The fact that reality itself is no longer something we always can agree on is a real issue to be tackled. But at the root, we are really and truly all human. We all cry tears, or feel grief at the loss of a loved one. We all need safety, sustenance, shelter, family (most of us) and some motivation to get out of bed each day. We see the same sun rising each morning, and feel the rain falling on our bodies.

If, as we are taught in the book of Breishit (Genesis), that every person is created in the image of God, b’tzelem Elohim, do we really want to allow ourselves to be split up into simplistic boxes of either red or blue that someone else has invented for us? We already know that we could easily descend into fighting and despising each other. But there could be a different story.

What if empathy – trying to put ourselves in the place of another and even grasp what they feel and think – could actually be a way to the link between us, bringing us closer together a bit at a time, and starting the small steps toward building a more whole nation, the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the beloved community?

I pray that it can. Ken y’hi ratzon.


Cantor Risa Wallach

*TaNaKh stands for Torah, Nevi’vim (prophets) and Ketuvim(writings such as the book of Ruth and Song of Songs.)


Originally published in the November-December 2020 issue of the Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.