From Egypt to empathy

“Why would we put a symbol of hate in our holiest place?” My 10-year-old whispers loudly during our Purim spiel. Darth-Haman has stolen the ‘great grogger’ and hidden it from the other superheroes of the story. You know Wonder-Esther, Super-Mordechai and the crew…

“What do you mean?” I ask, fully prepared for sophisticated insight into something he sees beyond the surface. This is his m.o., since he was little and he would point out something he saw from the car, which no one else noticed, couldn’t even find, we always knew it had to be there and it was. “The grogger represents our anger at Haman and his violence, but the ark is where we keep the Torah” sighAlso, I don’t like the way we treat Haman…. don’t you always tell me mean people have issues and we should consider that?” Touché, my son. His growing skill for using my own parenting against me aside; how could I not feel pride and awe for this kid? Don’t get me wrong, he gives us more than his fair share of infuriating pre-adolescent reality, but this, his essence, never ceases to amaze and gratify.

This was Purim, 5777 (2017), a year later, my now 11-year-old has taken a convicted stance. He refuses to spin the grogger and preaches that Haman is treated unjustly, because “no human being deserves to be hated, they are still human;” OK, kid, maybe we can save that one for after homework, dinner, showers, making tomorrow’s lunch, finishing up my own work for the day…but I promise, the conversation will continue. My revered colleague and mentor Rabbi Tamara Cohen has taught me this precious notion – small conversations. Trust the process, parenting does not happen all at once. Well, thank God for that.

We have never sheltered our kids from anything – while we don’t binge watch CNN and we limit discussion of daily “Breaking News,” …we talk… A LOT about the world, our values, Jewish perspectives and the actions we can take in our own environments and communities to be change agents. The core theme of these discussions, repeats again and again, empathy: “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

Our Shema, resounds, “Hear, Oh Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is ONE.” This declaration is the foundation of Torah. As my children recite Shema every night, I sometimes remind them, that for me, God’s singularity is not only our commitment to a monotheistic belief structure, it is also a statement of the oneness of humanity. If God is one, we are one, and if we are one, then we all have the same capacity to “understand and share the feelings and experiences of others,” to access and practice empathy.

“The human condition,” a phrase we use all the time, does not refer to the individual, but the collective. The basic physical needs for food and shelter are universal. Human emotional and spiritual needs are more complex. A sense of love and belonging, human interaction, and community, are crucial to our ability to feel seen and to self-actualize. When these needs go unmet, a spectrum of responses occur creating need for control and power. This manifests in obsession with wealth, prestige, ideal body and perhaps, most often, endless doing; a fruitless search for external proof that our lives are full, that we are enough. Further on the spectrum of response, we see depression, withdrawal, abuse, and brutality. These can lead to behaviors that range from playground bullying to Vegas and Parkland.

Just last week at our Seder tables, we retold the epic story of our people’s journey from slavery to freedom. It’s no short walk, it takes 40 years, multiple generations, and some serious stumbles, to become a free people with discernible values and a sense of collective responsibility. Along the path, we are instructed no less than 36 times to “Welcome the Stranger,” because, we too have wandered. Many of us have had experiences of being the “stranger.”

Don’t we all have our own Egypts (mitzrayim) – the narrow places, constricted and enslaved, where we feel no power nor capacity for change, where we are unseen?

The Haggadah teaches, “In every generation, a person is obligated to see oneself as though one had gone forth from Egypt.” To imagine ourselves in this immersive experience – that of our ancestors, is to turn towards freedom, as we strive to see others as we see ourselves, we cultivate empathy.

How do we begin? The Israelites were led by a cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. It would be great to have such clear direction, but mostly, we must rely on our own internal compass, always available and usually quite reliable. Our people left Egypt with no security, no guarantees. We can muster the same courage to walk slowly toward freedom, our birthright. We pause, step back, and look inside the holy ark (our personal sanctuary of heart and soul), and cultivate the willingness to wander.

Start with just a toe in the Yam Soof, the water we must cross – leave work 5 minutes early to add 5 minutes at the dinner table; close the computer no matter how loudly that last email calls; commute in quiet, even if only for 5 minutes a day; skip 1 practice, dance class or meeting just to watch a silly show together as a family; allow someone to pass ahead of you on the highway; practice “thank you” rather than self-criticism when you are complemented; simply take a deliberate breath 1 out of the 10 times you might be feeling angry, frustrated, or resentful. We will want to return to Egypt, just as the Israelites did – despite enslavement. It is comfortable, familiar, and has certain absolutes. However, when we remain in the narrowness of Egypt, it leaves us little or no space to seek freedom, we can barely even imagine the place that is expansive, empowering and open.

As we have entered into our season of counting the Omer, consider a question: what are the metrics by which I want to measure my life? How much I did, owned, pushed – or how much freedom, connection and joy I felt and brought to others?

Walking slowly toward freedom, empathy for ourselves grows, and we have more for others. Perhaps, if enough of us challenge ourselves to wander, fewer Hamans will arise. As more of us feel seen and whole, the Promised Land comes into view, becomes a place we can visit more often. One day, maybe, we even dwell there.

About the Author
Nicole Nevarez is the New York Director for Moving Traditions, a national Jewish organization that applies a gender and Jewish lens to engage and empower healthy teens. She is a longtime Jewish educator, facilitator and spiritual seeker. Nicole combines her experience in theater with her years of teaching adolescents, and leading empowerment programs to create workshops for parents to connect more deeply to themselves, their children and each other.
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