The Import of Empathy

The other day, waiting to board a bus, I was moved to think about empathy.

Unfortunately, the prod came in the form of the opposite, crass selfishness. A young woman approached the group of us waiting to step up into the vehicle and insinuated herself at the front of the long line. She had no visible physical impairment, made no request for anyone’s permission, offered not even a perfunctory “excuse me.” She seemed entirely oblivious to the fact that other people occupied the universe at the time, some even in her immediate vicinity.

I could read the minds of my fellow future passengers. Their faces telegraphed my own mental reaction: Who does she think she is? How would she like it if someone cut before her in a line? Yes, she would probably reply in puzzlement. “But that’s not what’s happening. I am the one cutting in here, not someone else cutting in before me.” The lady, in other words, was empathy-impaired.

“My sins I recount today,” as the waiter, just released from prison, told Pharaoh. I recall myself as a small boy armed with a magnifying glass on a sunny day, incinerating individual ants out of sheer curiosity. I even remember watching without pain or protest as my buddy devised creative ways of dispatching grasshoppers, ever-present victims of little boys in early-60s Baltimore summers. Some claim that killing insects as a child presages the eventual emergence of a serial killer. So far, though, thank G-d, I haven’t much felt the urge to commit murder; and when I have, I have managed to overcome it.

Today, in fact, when an insect finds its way into my home, I always try to capture the invader and escort him or her safely to the great outdoors. (All right, mosquitos are an exception, but they are the aggressors.)

After all, I wonder, how would I like it if I were a stinkbug and someone chose to squash me or spray me with poison or flush me down the toilet? Empathy, again.

Being concerned with the wellbeing of an insect, or for that matter a dog or cat or cow, is but one rung on the empathy ladder. The Torah teaches us that animals, in the end, although they may not be needlessly hurt, exist for human servitude and food, things we would surely not wish for ourselves. Our ultimate and most powerful concern for “the other” is meant to be for other human beings.

What occurred to me at the bus stop was that, while some may gauge human spiritual growth by religious meticulousness or proficiency in texts or the ability to deeply meditate, the most essential marker of spiritual progress may well be how far one has progressed from the selfishness that defines us at birth toward true, encompassing empathy. (I have far to go; caring about bugs is easier than truly caring about people, especially some people. But most of us have, over our years of living, grown, to various degrees, to appreciate empathy.) The severely empathy-impaired, like the girl on the bus line, are essentially children, perhaps infants.

It is the import of empathy, of course, that imbues Rabbi Akiva’s statement (in the Midrash, quoted by Rashi) that the verse, “Love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra, 19:18) is a “great principle of the Torah.” And Hillel’s famous response to the potential convert who insisted on learning the entire Torah on one foot: “What is hateful to you do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and study it” (Shabbos, 31a).

Jews the world over are reading and studying these days about Avrohom, the subject of the weekly Torah readings. It is not insignificant that the first of our forefathers is characterized by our tradition not only as the champion of monotheism – the quintessential Jewish idea – but as the paragon of chesed, or “kindness to others.” His rejection of idolatry, even to the point of risking his life, is of a part with his pining for strangers to welcome and feed even when in great pain from his adult circumcision.

Which points to a deeper truth, one that might be germane to the akeida, Avrohom’s “binding” of Yitzchok his son: Although some choose to see human empathy as a simple evolutionary adaptation that helps protect the species, a believing Jew’s dedication to the other is ultimately expressed in the context of his dedication to the Other, that is to say to G-d. We are born utterly selfish; we are meant to strive toward utter selflessness, to care about and for our fellows, and to be, in the end, selflessly dedicated servants of the Divine.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

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