Shoftim: Can Empathy Hurt?

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No one likes people who are not empathetic, but are they right? When seeing someone who is focused on their own benefit, a cynical thought may sneak into our hearts. We may think the person is better off because of their lack of empathy. “Well, they did what was good for them…”, we may think to ourselves. Research shows that is not the case.

In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review (May 2019), the author, a Stanford University professor, writes: 

“In Tim Cook’s 2017 MIT commencement address, he warned graduates, “People will try to convince you that you should keep empathy out of your career. Don’t accept this false premise.” The Apple CEO is not alone in recognizing and emphasizing the importance of empathy — the ability to share and understand others’ emotions — at work. At the time of his remarks, 20% of U.S. employers offered empathy training for managers. In a recent survey of 150 CEOs, over 80% recognized empathy as key to success.

Research demonstrates that Cook and other leaders are on to something. Empathic workplaces tend to enjoy stronger collaboration, less stress, and greater morale, and their employees bounce back more quickly from difficult moments such as layoffs.”

Empathy works, so much so that companies pay people to come in and train their members in empathy in compassion, creating a better work environment. This helps us understand one of the most difficult passages in the Torah. 

In this week’s Parsha we are told (Deuteronomy 21):

“If a slain person be found in the land which the Lord, your God is giving you to possess, lying in the field, [and] it is not known who slew him, then your elders and judges shall go forth, and they shall measure to the cities around the corpse.”

This is a situation of a mystery murderer. Someone is found dead and no one know who killed that person. It is likely the person is lonely, perhaps homeless, as they are straying in the area surrounding the city all alone. There are no witnesses and investigators and raise their hands in despair, lacking, and a clue that will lead them to the murderer. While historically communities and systems of justice tend to be lax with investigating when little is know about the victim, the Torah does not allow for business as usual. 

“And it will be, [that from] the city closer to the corpse, the elders of that city shall take a calf with which work has never been done, [and] that has never drawn a yoke, and the elders of that city shall bring the calf down to a rugged valley, which was neither tilled nor sown, and there in the valley, they shall decapitate the calf. And the kohanim, the sons of Levi, shall approach, for the Lord, your God, has chosen them to serve Him and to bless in the Name of the Lord, and by their mouth shall every controversy and every lesion be [judged]. “And all the elders of that city, who are the nearest to the corpse, shall wash their hands over the calf that was decapitated in the valley; And they shall announce and say, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see [this crime].” “Atone for Your people Israel, whom You have redeemed, O Lord, and lay not [the guilt of] innocent blood among your people Israel.” And [so] the blood shall be atoned for them.”

This is not business as usual. 

Everything comes to a stop. 

The elders of the town gather at the scene of the crime. They wash their hands and declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see [this crime].”

While it seems commendable to make sure no innocent life is taken with dismissal and that full attention is given to any life that is lost, no one would entertain the possibility that it is the elders who killed the unknown victim. The Rabbis (Mishnah Sotah 9:6), is troubled by this very difficulty: 

“But did we really think that the elders of a court of justice are shedders of blood?! “

The Mishna then goes on to answer:

“Rather, [the intention of their statement is that the man found dead] did not come to us [for help] and we dismissed him without supplying him with food and we did not see him and let him go without escort.”

Just imagine. 

If someone came to a city and then left the city with no food or escort, Jewish law would now allow the elders of the town to wash their hands and say “our hands did not shed this blood”. 

If we were able to help someone and didn’t, we can no longer absolve ourselves of responsibility. No lesson is more relevant to these changing times as much as this one. We live in a world of “you do you”. Sure, people are kind and gracious and respond to those who come and ask for help, but do we seek out those who need our help? Are we sending people off without food or escort? Are we empathizing with people around us? Are we asking ourselves what is bothering our friend?

As we approach the High Holidays, we must not wait to be approached; we need to make sure we ask ourselves, who needs our help? What can we do for them? Whether it is an elderly neighbor, a friend who is struggling, someone at the hospital, or someone we know we can help. Don’t wait, reach out. One of the more cynical sayings I heard in my youth was: “the definition of a fool is someone who gives a full and sincere answer when asked how they are doing.” Let’s not get to that point where people’s one way of expressing a crisis is when asked how they are doing. In every situation we must look around and ask ourselves if something here goes wrong, will we be able to say our hands have not spilled this blood? Will we be able to say we did send them off with food and an escort? Asking ourselves these questions is not only the right thing to do and what we are called on for, but it will also make our workplaces, families, and communities happier and healthier.

Shabbat Shalom

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