Empaths have a higher level of empathy than the average, enabling them to better understand others, and have a stronger connection to other people’s feelings or experiences. Some express that connection through mirroring other people’s actions or even emotions. This may be an unconscious movement in which the empath’s brain might activate the same motor and sensory areas they are witnessing in others. A select group might even possess the uncanny ability to feel someone else’s pain!
This novel theory that scientists are just beginning to explore, was recognized by one small study which has shown that some more empathic people can actually feel the pain of another, albeit in an attenuated (weakened) form. In an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a study showed that a group of women receiving shocks to their hands developed a ‘pain matrix’ in their brains. Afterward, they were told that their spouses received the same shocks and their brains lit up with a similar (though weaker) pain matrix! They really ‘felt’ the pain of their spouse!
This study confirms a story about the famed Rabbi Aryeh Levin of Jerusalem, who once came to the doctor’s office with his wife and announced, ‘Our leg hurts’. After a few moments the doctor understood it was his wife’s leg, and yet both were in pain. This story was generally understood that Reb Aryeh was so close to his wife that it was as if he felt her pain; no, say the scientists, he actually felt her pain!
An empath is an extreme version of a functional member of society who feels sympathy for those in their inner circle (spouse, children, parents) but then it lessens with each widening concentric circle (close friends, acquaintances, community, nation, humanity). The empath goes even further; not only do they feel for others who are in pain, they feel other’s pain! And joy!
Empaths have certain advantages but also challenges. They are able to reduce people’s aggression and discord and promote harmony in a society and they may naturally have a proclivity to help, share, and create an intense relationship with people very quickly. The drawbacks, however, are burnout, emotional fatigue, and pervasive sadness if they exceed the point of functional empathy and just share the hardest moments of others all the time.
The opposite extreme of an empath is a sociopath; one who has antisocial personality disorder, with an inability to feel anyone’s feelings, a lack of remorse of any type, and is filled with deceitfulness and aggression. These people exhibit evil traits and generally try to manipulate society into accepting them despite their complete contempt for society and morality.
Parshat Yitro might portray the spectrum of empathic behavior with Amalek taking its position of ultimate evil, as the sociopathic nation who attack the weak, have no honor, and have no regard for repercussions even to their own detriment. (Have Hamas secretly been reading Torah as a guidebook for evil?) And then we read of the children of Israel who fall somewhere in the middle as they are emotionally unstable: one minute fighting with each other, the other fighting against Moshe, the third singing praise to God, and the fourth fighting against an enemy. They must worry about their own and find a way to survive externally and more importantly, internally.
Finally, there is Yitro who ‘hears and comes’. Our parsha opens with Yitro hearing the stories of Exodus and notes how he immediately comes to the Israelite camp. Rashi wonders: ‘What did Yitro hear that prompted him to come?’ He responds, ‘the splitting of the sea and the battle with Amalek’.
I understand why the miracle of the splitting of the sea would prompt Yitro to come and praise God; after all, it was the greatest miracle ever experienced. No prophet felt the same degree of miraculousness and revelation that day as much as an average person by the sea. But what of the war with Amalek? The Torah does not record a victory; instead, Joshua weakened them a bit, and more battles would come. Why then would that be a motivating factor in Yitro’s arrival?
Perhaps Yitro heard both the joy and the tragedy; both the miracle of the sea and the atrocities of Amalek’s attack, and that juxtaposition motivated him to come because he was an empath, he absorbed the emotions and felt them too, the joy and the pain. He needed to come and hug Moshe, bring his family, and express great emotion (his skin trembled at the fright and danced at hearing of the joy) and bless and declare and bring sacrifices to God…and stay!
Yitro felt our pain, so he came to share in it with us; he also felt our joy at having freed ourselves from Egyptian tyranny and found a leader in Moshe. He stays with Moshe and feels his discomfort the next day as well and tries to allay Moshe’s pain.
Some people are different; they are empaths; feeling more than others, giving above and beyond, and experiencing the pleasures and pains of those who are not even his blood brothers. Yet, he comes to comfort because ‘our leg hurts’ and also to rejoice because ‘our nation is free’.
These past few months I have witnessed the entire psycho-emotional spectrum of empathy or lack thereof: Hamas exhibited sociopathic and psychopathic behavior to the point that despite videoing the evil themselves, their supporters claimed it was all fabricated by Israel. After all, nobody could be that evil, right? I have also seen remarkably empathetic and perhaps empathic individuals who have gone above and beyond; they put their lives on hold, picked up and flew to Israel, and spend all their time volunteering, comforting, and sharing the pain of the victims. Their capacity to absorb all the pain they feel from others, they read about, and watch is almost supernatural, and one hopes they don’t experience the burnout that comes to empathic people.
Volunteering down south at a refreshment station that opened weeks after the war began, I met a non-Jewish Swiss man, Mattias, who has been there from the beginning. Asked why he is there he says he may be Christian in his heart, but he is Jewish in his blood, and he feels he needs to be here for every soldier in need. He helps prepare over 2000 sandwiches a day and he’s not planning on leaving anytime soon. He and hundreds like him heard the call and stopped everything in their lives and just came.
And then there is the rest of us; we who care about our inner circle first and foremost, and who try to provide as much empathy as we can for them and for those in outer circles. But we simply can’t do it endlessly, we must engage in self-preservation and the pain is sometimes too much to bear. We attempt to divide our time between absorbing some national sadness, caring for those in our orbit and beyond, and caring for ourselves, and our mental and physical well-being. It is selfish but otherwise, we might not manage.
Our nation’s ‘foot is hurting’; we must muster up the energy to be as empathetic as we can, while still holding on to our sanity, our functionality, and our hope for the future.