Last week I was asked to deliver a lesson during the upcoming Tikkun Leil Shavuot evening of study that takes place during the holiday, this year at the end of May. When I taught once before, two years ago, I chose to talk about kindness and giving of oneself. The world seemed to need people to be less judgmental and more thoughtful and I could draw from both the Book of Ruth and elsewhere in the Torah to make my points.
This year, instead of at the Rabbi’s house, we will gather on Zoom. I’ve picked my topic and have started researching. But no matter how much I had wanted to find something different from my previous foray into adult ed, my heart was pulled back in the same direction. And so, I will be focusing on empathy.
While I plan to pull from Torah and other Jewish sources for the lesson itself, with the blog I am taking a detour, looking at its root. As in English, אֶמְפַּתְיָה (empatia) in Hebrew is also derived from the Greek; its definition in Hebrew is emotional identification. I think of empathy as putting oneself in another person’s shoes, seeing what he or she is seeing, feeling what he or she is feeling.
In ancient Greek, εμπάθεια actually meant physical affection or passion, and it came from two words, in or joined with pathos (suffering) or passion. But what I found incredibly interesting was that in modern Greek, the same word, εμπάθεια, means prejudice, malevolence, malice or hatred, depending on context.
When we look at the news and social media, I know I see plenty of prejudice, malevolence, malice or hatred and not enough emotional identification. This past week was no exception. I think about the two months it took for charges to be brought against the men who pursued and killed Ahmaud Aubrey and the hell his parents must have felt then and now. I read a Facebook post from De Andrei Hall in which he shared his own experiences and fears as a black man and want to cry.
In one of my earliest blogs on this platform, I wrote about “Us vs them,” about the need to see everyone as individuals. But I think empathy requires more. Empathy, to me, means, of course, getting past labels and categorizations that separate us from others. It means trying to see the world from another’s perspective, picturing ourselves experiencing another’s lived experiences. This emotional identification shouldn’t only happen when we read awful headlines but all the time. Think before you speak. Better yet, just think. If I were the person I am talking to, how would I like to be spoken to? If I were out jogging in a neighborhood, walking through a store, having coffee out somewhere, how would I expect others to treat me? And when I see how others talk about or to people who I don’t know or who are different from me, how do I process that? Do I agree and blithely rub it off? Or do I identify emotionally, recognize the hurt and choose not to remain silent?
Ask yourself these questions. And then take your response and do something with it. Let it inform your heart, your behavior, the choices you make in your personal life, volunteer activities, professional world and what you teach your children.
In my blog about my earlier Tikkun Leil Shavuot lesson, I wrote that “I can’t help but wonder why more people don’t adopt the Golden Rule as a guiding way to live.” Two years later, and this hasn’t changed. I still wonder. Truly. “With so many versions of it shared by so many religions and its wisdom so clear, picturing yourself in another’s shoes before speaking or acting is a good way to live.” I honestly believe it really is.