Shabbat Message: Radical Empathy

Posted on January 22, 2021 by Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck

I like to ask my students if they think their parents would ever lie to them. Of course not, they assure me. Well then, I ask, is it true that your parents were slaves in Egypt and that God liberated them with signs and wonders? Yet, every year at the Pesach seder your parents tell you: we celebrate this ritual “because of what God did for me when I went free from Egypt.” (Exodus 13:8; Passover Hagaddah) The truth, I assure my students, is that your parents are telling you the truth. The story of the Exodus is your parents’ story, and it is your story, as well.

Quoting this verse from Exodus 13, the Mishnah tells us that it is our obligation “in every generation to see ourselves as if we had personally gone forth from Egypt.” (Pesachim 10:5) How do we accomplish this alchemy of identity? What enables us to make the experience of others become as if they are our own experiences? We Jews accomplish this through ritual, and particularly through the drama of the Passover Seder. We taste the bitterness of the maror, we eat the matzah, the bread of affliction, we drink in the experiences of suffering and salvation cup by cup, and, most importantly, we tell and retell them in the first-person, until we come to embody them.

When all is said and done, what are we striving to become? Who do we hope to be because we make this story our own? We aspire to be the Passover people, the ones who “know the feelings of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9) We aim to be people of greater empathy, who see ourselves in the experiences of those who are mistreated and oppressed.

Empathy, says my teacher Dr. Micah Goodman, is the highest form of human connection and the deepest form of understanding. Even more, it is the ability to feel what the other is feeling. This is a precious quality that we need now as much as ever, when so many people are suffering, and in so many ways. No one group. No single demographic has a monopoly on hardship and heartbreak. Everyone who is distressed yearns to be seen, heard, and acknowledged – to feel that they are not alone in their suffering. For suffering increases when it is met with the callousness of indifference, while pain is assuaged by compassionate caring.

Heartfelt listening, what Professor Carol Gilligan calls radical listening, is key to overcoming indifference and achieving empathy. Radical listening, says Gilligan, is transformational. It stirs moral imagination and has the power to move us in profound ways – ways that can lead to healing and love.

This past Sunday we shared an evening of bearing witness – of deep, heartfelt telling and hearing the personal stories of victimization and oppression of neighbors of color who are significant faith and political leaders. Many of you have shared with me the strong emotional response you had to these testimonies and truth-telling. It was for me an experience of radical listening that made a profound impact on me, as I know it did on many others.

With moving words that evening, Pastor Lukata Mjumbe reminded us that the commandment to love your neighbor requires more than mere sentiment. It demands of us that we encounter one another, listen to each other, form bonds of connection that generate empathy.

We cannot ever fully know the pain of another. But we can come close. We can come close by drawing near, by opening our hearts and truly listening to one another. And when we do, we can experience that alchemy of identity that enables us to feel each other’s feelings and to sow seeds of understanding, that we may reap a rich harvest of justice, healing, and love.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Arnie Gluck