Time for an Empathy Surplus ~ Rosh Hashanah 5781
Sep 28th 2020

Rosh Hashanah 5781 ~ September 2020

The word "essential" has been used more since March than I can remember. Who is an essential worker? What is essential travel? Which stores are essential and must stay open? 

Mark Wafer owned six Tim Hortons franchises in Scarborough. 

Mr. Wafer, who is hearing impaired, didn’t think he did anything extraordinary when he hired Clint, a young man with Down syndrome. Mr. Wafer said: There were other applicants, but because of the barriers I faced as a deaf youth trying to find jobs, I knew Clint’s chances were slim, so I took a chance and hired him.”

Mr. Wafer hired Clint because he has a high level of empathy. In a span of more than 20 years, Mr. Wafer hired 127 people with disabilities to work in his restaurants. While each hire came with the challenge of figuring out specific accommodations, each person turned out to be more capable than Mr. Wafer had assumed. 

On this complicated Rosh Hashanah morning, I would like to suggest that empathy is an essential human trait that we all need to lean into in this uncertain time. Everyone is experiencing their own form of grief and loss. They need us.

Empathy sometimes gets confused with sympathy, but they are two very different emotions. Sympathy is like when you say to someone: I feel bad for you. Empathy is like you saying to someone: I feel bad with you. Sympathy can make us feel more alone, while empathy can help us feel connected. 

To quote Dr. Brené Brown: "Empathy isn't about fixing, it's the brave choice to be with someone in their darkness - not to race to turn on the light so we feel better."

Long before he became president, Barack Obama publicly began to speak and write about the need for empathy. Most famously, in a 2006 Northwestern University commencement speech, he said:  “... we should talk more about our empathy deficit—the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us—the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.” When we use empathy, we connect ourselves to others. 

This past summer, Dr. Micah Goodman from the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem taught that responding to situations with empathy is a skill. Some people are good at it and some are not. He also presented empirical evidence that showed how empathy is down by 40 percent in the world. 

This is a huge challenge. We need to rewire ourselves to continuously cultivate empathy so that we can better connect to people and build a world of love and ẖesed.

Cultivating empathy can be difficult. There are many roadblocks to being empathetic. As Obama shared with those Northwestern graduates: 

“As you go on in life, cultivating this quality of empathy will become harder, not easier.  There’s no community service requirement in the real world; no one is forcing you to care. You’ll be free to ... narrow your concerns to what’s going on in your own little circle.”

That way of living runs contrary to our Jewish values. 

In Leviticus 19 we read: 

כִֽי־יָג֧וּר אִתְּךָ֛ גֵּ֖ר בְּאַרְצְכֶ֑ם

When a stranger resides with you in your land, 

לֹ֥א תוֹנ֖וּ אֹתֽוֹ׃

you shall not wrong him.

כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר ׀ הַגָּ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֗ם

The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; 

וְאָהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ

you shall love him as yourself,

כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the LORD am your God.

We are commanded 36 times to love the stranger, the person who is different from us. We are commanded to feel the feelings of the stranger because we have been the stranger. Said in other words, we should have empathy toward the other. 

But here is the paradox. It is easier for us to show empathy toward people who are like us. We are wired to pay more attention and have empathy for people like us than we are to people who are different from us. It is easier to be empathetic toward people in our own homes and families. It often comes less naturally with other people. Too often, the people who need our empathy the most, often have our empathy the least. 

To quote Rabbi Shai Held, “One of the Torah’s central projects is to turn memory into empathy and moral responsibility. Appealing to our experience of defenselessness in Egypt, the Torah seeks to transform us into people who see those who are vulnerable and exposed rather than looking past them.”

We must shrink the distance between ourselves and our past. We are reminded of this every Pesaẖ when we say: בְּכָל־דּוֹרוָדוֹרחַיָּבאָדָםלִרְאוֹתאֶת־עַצְמוֹכְּאִלּוּהוּאיָצָאמִמִּצְרַיִם.  In every generation we must look at ourselves as if we left Egypt. If we internalize that, then we know what it feels like to be a have-not. 

We often miss the mark at Rosh Hashanah, especially with our responses to the Torah readings. The narratives offer two great teachings about missed opportunities for empathy, but so often we seek and share other messages found within them. 

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we watch three characters of the same generation involved in a sort of love triangle. They are Abraham, Sarah and Hagar. 

Traditionally we  have been taught that the heroes of the story are Abraham and Sarah. The Torah sets it up that way, beginning with the words וַֽה`פָּקַ֥דאֶת־שָׂרָ֖הכַּאֲשֶׁ֣ראָמָ֑רAdonai took note of Sarah as promised. Eventually Sarah gives birth to Isaac and the promise from God is actualized. 

A few verses later, Sarah sees Isaac playing with Ishmael, the son of Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, the woman who was able to give birth first. And then Sarah says: 

גָּרֵ֛שׁ הָאָמָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את וְאֶת־בְּנָ֑הּ

“Cast out that slave woman and her son, 

כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יִירַשׁ֙ בֶּן־הָאָמָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את עִם־בְּנִ֖י עִם־יִצְחָֽק׃

for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

While we read that Abraham gets distressed about what happens to Hagar, God introduces Abraham to the expression ‘happy wife, happy life’ and commands Abraham to follow his wife’s request. Being that it is Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world, and a return to the beginning of our story, we naturally root for the Covenant to occur, for Abraham and Sarah to have land and progeny. 

Nachmanides, writing in the 1200s, was ahead of his time when he wrote about this crucial point in the narrative: Our mother (Sarai) sinned in how she treated Hagar, and Avram sinned as well in enabling Sarai to act this way … Sarah had no empathetic resonance. She did not for a moment tune into Hagar’s feelings. They should not have kicked Hagar out. That was not empathy. It was not kind. It was cruel. 

To be sure, God was empathetic toward Hagar and her son. We read in Genesis 21:17-18, God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.” Divine empathy was present in the narrative. The human characters, Abraham and Sarah, showed little empathy or tolerance. Being empathetic and exhibiting ẖesed, loving kindness, is one way we can aspire to live our lives in the image of God. 

If empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagine how they feel, do we pause enough on Rosh Hashanah morning and empathize with Hagar when we listen to this narrative being chanted? 

Have you ever felt left out? 

How many of us have never once felt pushed aside for not being part of the group? 

Because Hagar is not essential to the central story of the Jewish people and the Covenant that God made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, she is relegated to the role of the stranger, the other. 

How different would our central story be if each Rosh Hashanah we were explicitly encouraged to empathize with Hagar, along with our other explicit themes like the shofar, teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah

Empathy towards others requires us to pay better attention to those outside of our circle. Our devotion and empathy to our family and our community will not diminish when we show empathy to others. 

Using a 2020 COVID lens, the Rosh Hashanah second day Torah reading from Genesis 22 is also a missed opportunity for empathy. Abraham is tested by God and is asked to sacrifice his favourite child Isaac on an altar to God. Even though the Jewish people have never engaged in human sacrifice, as the story unravels, Abraham goes through the steps in order to actually do it.

Sarah, the mother of the child, is absent. Each year I return to this story and look at it with new critical eyes, but this year I can only empathize with Sarah. She was not with her husband and son. She dealt with the trauma alone, off stage, with her emotions not documented for us. Like Sarah, during and after the Akedah, so many of us struggled alone this year. 

As we practiced quarantine, isolation and physical distancing, so many of us suffered and are continuing to suffer alone. We could not reach out to hug others. We could not put our arms around our family and friends and say, “I don’t know what to say but I am here for you”. Even if we connected over the phone and on various video platforms, it is not the same as sitting next to somebody in their fear, grief, sorrow or disappointment. It is not the same as being physically present for someone. It may be a good second option, but it is not the same. And if we are not physically with someone, we don’t always know how they are feeling and how they are doing. We can’t pick up on physical cues.

A big challenge that we all face, according to Dr. Christian Keysers of the Social Brain Lab at the Netherlands Institute of Neuroscience, is that most people have an empathy “off switch” that is strong enough to override the instinct to be kind. Sarah and Abraham used their off-switch when they banished Hagar. 

From all that I have read about him, I don’t think that Mr. Wafer, the Tim Hortons franchise owner, had that kind of off button. He saw no hindrance to hiring people with disabilities at his restaurants. 

He said: “What I faced as a young man is the reason why I have empathy toward people with disabilities. All of society discriminates against them. It doesn’t matter if you’re deaf, blind, or in a wheelchair. I witnessed it firsthand, and I saw it happening to others. And that’s why I knew I was going to hire Clint the moment he walked through the door.”

It would be remarkable if instead of an empathy deficit, social scientists and researchers started to speak this year about an empathy surplus and how worldwide empathy was up by 40 percent and not down. 

It is a new year. Let us be the leaders and start this upward trend.

We all have the capacity to cultivate empathy toward others. It is a practicable and a learnable skill. We have room in our hearts to care both for those we love and those we have never met. 

Hillel said: “Do not judge your fellow man until you have reached his place.” We shouldn’t judge, but we need to put ourselves in other people’s shoes for a moment and connect to their pain and fear. 

It is easy to hear the loud cry of a shofar. We anticipate it and wait for it from one year to the next. The question to ask yourself as we enter into a new year is what cries am I not hearing and how can I be more empathetic toward them?