A cartoon features two dogs sipping martinis. One says to the other, “You know, it’s not good enough that dogs succeed. Cats must also fail.”
Today’s climate finds this sentiment much too common. Many have moved beyond a zero-sum worldview. Their good fortune is insufficient. What is also required is that others experience bad fortune. The normalizing of schadenfreude, the taking pleasure in the downfall of others, points to a troubling trend. Yet, role models exist who can school us toward healthier ways and means.
Moses offers a compelling case-study. In this week’s portion of Torah when we learn about the first seven plagues, Moses’s familiarity with Egyptian ritual practice seems curious. He and Aaron ask Pharaoh to permit the Children of Israel to go three days distance into the wilderness to sacrifice and make a Festival to their God. Why not bring the offering in the midst of Egypt (which they eventually do with the Pascal Sacrifice)? “It would not be right” Moses says, “because sacrificing to the Lord our God here in the land would be an offensive abomination in the eyes of the Egyptians” (Ex. 8:22). How does Moses know this? He knows it because his entire life – until he meets God at the Burning Bush – is lived as an Egyptian. He grows up in Pharaoh’s house. He is explicitly described as an Egyptian man just prior to this meeting with God after he defends Jethro’s daughters at the well in Midian (Ex. 2:19).
Yet even though Moses identifies as an Egyptian, he empathizes with those who may be unlike him. When he matures and leaves the palace, he sees the suffering of the Hebrew slaves and rises to the defense of one of his kinsmen (echav) who is being beaten by an Egyptian. Most readers assume that he must have known about his Hebrew identity all along. But there is little scriptural basis for such a claim. Rather, something far more significant is being expressed when he encounters his kinsmen. Moses’s kinship is with those who are mistreated. His is not a world made up of ‘us vs. them’. Moses sees ‘us and them’. The different ways of others are not meant as aggressions against us.
Our subject is not about hostile competitors. Nor is it about wicked adversaries. Rather, it is about our rapport with the misfortune of those unlike us. We may not like the unlike. But when we feel for them, we become more likable.