Empathy or Apathy?

“In a high-trust relationship” writes Stephen Covey, “you can say the wrong thing and people will still get your meaning.  In a low-trust relationship, you can be very measured, even precise, and they’ll still misinterpret you.”

Suspicion has become more normative than trust.  Our highly anxious times fuel skepticism as readily as they fuel extremism.  How can we know whom to trust?

Distrust saturates a biblical Jacob’s world in this week’s portion of Torah.  We can chart a decline in trust across three experiences involving stones.  Trust is at its highest as the portion opens when Jacob turns his stone pillow into a pillar upon which he vows to God.  Next, Jacob rolls a large stone off the mouth of the well, indicating his love for Rachel.  Yet even this spousal bond will end tragically because of mistrust.  Rachel deceives Jacob when she steals her father Laban’s idols, inviting a fatal vow from Jacob: “let the person with whom you (Laban) find your idols not continue to live” (Gen. 31:32).  Finally, escaping from Laban, who thrives in distrust, requires a stone and the gathering of stones to consummate an non-aggression pact (Gen. 31:45-46).  God’s protection and promise save Jacob.

For us today, knowing ‘who to believe in’ can prove very elusive.  Perhaps an outcomes-based approach can help.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel applies such an approach to discerning divine authenticity. Does a sacred act or text generate excessive pride, indifference to the suffering of others, or an unawareness of evil’s dangers?  If it does generate these things, then it is counterfeit.  But when a religious experience has the effect of uniting what lies in strife, stirring empathy, or inspiring responsibility, then it is likely an authentic signpost along God’s way.

Deciding who to trust may depend as much on the impact she or he has upon us as it does on any prior record of reliability.  Does a person inspire within us duty or denunciation?  Empathy or apathy?

Where mistrust goes awry, ambush begins to feel like a natural habitat. But it is not.  The natural habitat of faithfulness is the soul, where the divine is within reach of all sentiments.  May the God who redeemed Jacob, sustain and guide us as well.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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