Behar: Does Sympathy Equal Sensitivity?

There I was, standing in a Shiva home in a crowded apartment, offering condolences to someone who had lost his father less than seventy-two hours ago. The house was bustling with people who had come to offer their condolences to the mourner. Awaiting my turn to offer condolences, I took part in a conversation that was not meant for my ears. 

A friend had approached to the mourner and said with a voice projecting sincere sympathy: “what a terrible week this has been!”

The mourner, having just lost his father who he loved and adored, put his face down, nodding his head in disbelief and said: “indeed a hard week.”

The friend’s voice suddenly changed a tone. In a voice full of self-pity, he said:” yes, it has not been an easy week for me either,” going on to mention some relatively benign thing that has happened to him that week. 

Suddenly, I realized. This man did not come to offer others comfort; he has come to provide himself with support. What had begun as an act of empathy, has become an act of self-pity. Anyone who has been to enough Shiva homes has seen this in action; people who come to offer their condolences but end up causing the mourners even more distress than they have already endured. Lines ranging from “I am sure she has died as an atonement for her sins”, to “well at least you guys get the inheritance,” insensitivity in all too common. 

Why is it that people who attempt to be empathetic do not always accomplish their goals? How can we avoid these pitfalls when trying to be kind and sensitive to others? 

In this week’s Parsha, we are given a key to addressing this:

“And you shall not wrong, one man his fellow, and you shall fear your God, for I am the Lord, your God. “(Vayikra, 25:17)

Rashi, following the Talmudic tradition, states: 

“scripture is warning against wronging verbally, namely, that one must not provoke his fellow nor may one offer advice to him that is unsound for him”

The rabbis (Talmud, Bava Metzia 58b) elaborate on this prohibition of Ona’at Dvarim and give more examples:

How so[is this prohibition]? If one has repented, another may not say to him: Remember your earlier deeds! If one is the child of converts, another may not say to him: Remember the deed of your ancestors. If one is a convert and he came to study Torah, one may not say to him: Does the mouth that ate unslaughtered carcasses[non-Kosher food] and animals that had wounds that would have caused them to die within twelve months [tereifot], and repugnant creatures, and creeping animals, comes to study Torah that was stated from the mouth of the Almighty?”

In a surprisingly uncharacteristic way, the Talmud does not spare examples. The focus? The results. The Torah is strictly forbidding the notion that someone can be intimidated or made to feel uncomfortable by another person. No one has a license to inflict pain on another person. All of these examples are pretty obvious cases where the speaker either meant to be offensive or lacked the most basic intuition on how it would make another person feel. 

But the Talmud does not stop there; it gives several more examples:

“If torments are afflicting a person, if illnesses are afflicting him, or if he is burying his children, one may not speak to him in the manner that the friends of Job spoke to him: “Is not your fear of God your confidence, and your hope the integrity of your ways? Remember, I beseech you, whoever perished, being innocent?” (Job 4:6–7). Certainly, you sinned, as otherwise, you would not have suffered misfortune. “

How many times have we heard this? 

When there is a natural disaster, illness, or tragedy, someone playing Monday night quarterback for God and telling people why they deserve this punishment, people who are themselves struggling with questions of theodicy, thinking aloud while not realizing the pain they are causing. The Talmud gives these examples of what not to do in such abundance so that we know that even if you don’t have any negative intentions—and in fact may have good intentions—we still have no right to hurt someone’s feelings. 

The Talmud continues to be generous with examples, taking the prohibition of Ona’at Dvarim to a whole new level:

“Rabbi Yehuda says: One may not even cast his eyes on the merchandise for sale, creating the impression that he is interested, at a time when he does not have money to purchase it. “

Not only do we need to avoid outrightly hurtful words, but we also need to make sure that things we do in our own interest, take into account the emotions that might provoke in others. So how do you regulate something so intense and intuitive? You guessed right; this too is addressed in detail in the same passage:

“Verbal mistreatment is not typically obvious, and it is difficult to ascertain the intent of the offender, as the matter is given to the heart of each individual, as only he knows what his intention was when he spoke. And with regard to any matter given to the heart, it is stated: “And you shall fear your God” (Leviticus 25:17), as God is privy to the intent of the heart.”

There is no way to regulate this. There is no way to punish bad behavior or reward good behavior. There is not standard that can be enforced, how we treat others is an intimate matter between our Creator and us. 

So, what is the incentive to stick to the rules? How serious is this?

“Rabbi Yohanan says in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai: Greater is the transgression of verbal mistreatment than the transgression of monetary exploitation, as with regard to this, verbal mistreatment, it is stated: “And you shall fear your God.” But with regard to that, monetary exploitation, it is not stated: “And you shall fear your God.” And Rabbi Elazar said this explanation: This, verbal mistreatment, affects one’s body, but that, monetary exploitation, affects one’s money. Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani says: This, monetary exploitation, is given to restitution, but that, verbal mistreatment, is not given to restitution.” (Talmud ibid) 

The Torah takes the issue of other people feelings so seriously that even something that may seem harmless to us and within our full rights will be forbidden because of the other person’s feelings. The Torah writes this in the same passage it warns against financial wrongdoing. When you take money or belongings away from someone, you can usually give them back; when you “take away” a person’s feelings, you can never give those back. The Torah is aware of human nature, and so it warns us that we should “fear God”, for only He can know what we meant. Intentional or not, within our rights or not, reasonable or not, we never have the license to hurt someone else’s feelings. This is why the Torah includes this prohibition alongside the prohibition against financial wrongdoings. You don’t need to be sympathetic to the other person; you need to understand you have no right to hurt their feelings. 

In 2016, Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology in Yale University, shocked the world with his book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. In a subsequent interview, Bloom explained:

“Empathy as we’re talking about it is, “I put myself in your shoes.” So how many people can you do that with? Well maybe I could do that with you and some other guy at the same time. You’re feeling different things and I kind of got them both in my head. Can I do it for 10 or 12 or a 100 people? No. Maybe an almighty God could do that, could empathize with every living being. But typically, we zoom in on one. And so it’s different from morality more generally. When I make a moral judgment, I can take into account if I do this, 10 people will suffer but a thousand people will benefit. “

When the Torah tells us to treat others with dignity and respect, it does not expect us to understand. You do not need to sympathize with another person in order not to hurt their feelings. Feelings—in some ways like possessions—belong to a person and are not to be damaged. This does not need to come from the kindness of our hearts, we have no right to cause others emotional distress or intimidation. “monetary exploitation, is given to restitution; but that, verbal mistreatment, is not given to restitution”. Sticks and stones may break my bones, names may or may not hurt me. That is not for you to determine; that is for God to decide. Shabbat Shalom! 

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger ( He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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