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Empathy & Hope


This year, the Jewish world will be experiencing the nine days and Tisha B’Av in a very different way than any other time in recent History (I don’t have to point out all the differences. I’m sure they are obvious to anyone with a pulse).

In the past, when we have read Eicha (the book of lamentations) and engaged in prescribed mourning practices, how many of us truly felt the magnitude of destruction that has faced our community in Av throughout our history? Have we ever wholeheartedly felt it to the core? Have we really ever taken the time to lament and engage fully with feelings associated with those horrific circumstances? Have we, in our own lifetime, ever felt the instability, uncertainty, fear and betrayal that our ancestors felt when they lived through destructive and traumatic times, completely altering the way they viewed their priorities, lived their lives and engaged with their religion?

Have we taken the time to imagine ourselves in the heads of someone who was actually a victim in; the Bar Kochva betrayal / massacre at Betar, the complete destruction of Jerusalem the Batei Hamikdash during both Temple periods, the banishment from Spain and the torment of the Inquisition, expulsion from England and surviving two world wars (to name just a few historical incidents that happened on Tisha B’av throughout history)?

Unless we have experienced these sorts of circumstances first-hand, it’s hard to say that we fully grasp the magnitude of these experiences.

Over the years I have contemplated these tragedies from an intellectual, historical and spiritual perspective, but until recently I have never contemplated these experiences through the lens of empathy.

What's the value in connecting to our past with empathy? After all, the people who suffered during those times are long gone. We don’t know them. We are never going to be put into a situation to have to provide them with comfort…

Instead of giving you a straight answer, let's explore the value of empathy together.

Brene Brown, renowned Shame Researcher and Author, references a study in her book, “I Thought it Was Just Me (But It Isn't)”, the four attributes of empathy, by nursing scholar, Theresa Wiseman. Weisman identified the following attributes of a truly empathetic person (which I have shortened and simplified):

  • The ability to see the world as someone else sees it, putting aside your own preconceptions and baggage that might influence your perspective.

  • The ability to be nonjudgmental. Judgement discounts the experience of others and is actually a defense mechanism used for protection.

  • The ability to truly understand the validity of another person’s feelings. This can only happen if we are in touch with our own feelings. Otherwise, the feelings of others can feel like a threat.

  • The ability to effectively communicate your understanding of another person’s feelings.

These abilities are not necessarily innate. They are learned skills that need to be continuously practiced and nurtured. Kind of like building muscles.

Someone who was brought up without nurtured empathy skills, will not likely understand what true empathy looks, feels and sounds like (and because of this, will have a very hard time connecting with others emotionally) unless they commit a lot of time and effort to the lifelong practice.

Sympathy is natural. Empathy requires an investment.

When you see someone else suffering, you might be able to envision yourself in their place, you might even feel sympathy for what they are going through, but without honed empathy skills, your support for them will never be effectively communicated and will be rightfully construed as judgmental.

We see this a lot in recent social media hashtag trends. Because without the practice of empathy, one can never truly communicate an understanding of why, given the set of circumstances the other person has gone through, it makes sense for them to react the way they do. There will always be a disconnect. You won’t understand why sympathetic gestures are coming across as offensive.

It can be effortless to feel your own feelings and emotions (unless you are completely and utterly emotionally stunted), but trying to be attuned to the emotions in someone else's head is an entirely different beast.

In order for us to get to a place of true peace, connectedness and healing, as individuals, as a community and as a society, we need to be able to think differently. We need to build our empathy muscles.

The Jewish calendar presents us with specific moments in time that are most conducive to our growth and development in specific areas. For example, Ellul is historically a time we get into gear and reevaluate our goals, so we can make resolutions that we will put into practice in Tishrei.

So what opportunity does the month of Av present us with? Empathy and hope.

I think this year, we are better positioned than other years to understand the importance of honing this power.

When we reflect on the last year, our collective and individual sense of security has been compromised; with ongoing attacks on businesses, synagogues, and institutions from all affiliations. Each group blaming the next for the causes leading up to these vile expressions of baseless hatred. There is infighting and outfighting. Lots of blame and shame. If that’s not enough, a global pandemic rocked the very foundation of our sense of safety and security in our physical and emotional health. Add to it the fragility of economic uncertainty and we have a recipe for disaster… or do we?

We, as a community, have never experienced this kind of rapid shifting reality first-hand, but we do have a formula that allows us to “feel, deal and heal” in the month of Av.

During this time we tend to explore the inter-generational repetition of baseless hatred.

As a community, we have always used this time to try and change things... but without genuinely understanding how other people’s and community’s experiences helped to shape who they are and why they do what they do, we end up missing the mark.

But now, things are a bit different. There is more dialogue. There are more people who feel comfortable sharing that they are "not OK" without fear of judgement. There has been a lot of pain, but there has also been a lot of progress. During this time, as a community, and as individuals, we need to continue this incredible work of building bridges and having open dialogues. And we need to practice connecting to others with stronger empathy.

As you can probably tell, empathy is not a natural universal response to the suffering and pain of others, but it can be...

My personal goal for the season... When I see extreme reactions, either with hostility or indifference, I want to try and remember that it is coming from a place of pain or insecurity or abandonment etc. that I can’t fully grasp. This has always been challenging for me, since I tent to take things personally even if a message is not directed at me. But I am committed to trying. Feel free to join me. It’s all about the practice.

This year when we read Eicha, let’s use the recounting of this nightmare to practice working our empathy muscles. There are many opportunities throughout the book... I mean it’s called Lamentations for a reason.

And then... on the 10th of Av, when it's time to get up from mourning as prescribed, we will all enter into a new phase with new opportunity. An opportunity to work on a different set of muscles - hope.

Because as devastating as our circumstances have been throughout our history, and as unpredictable and anxiety provoking as our current situation is today, we have good reason to hope.

Throughout our lives we have had times when we have fallen, and then, eventually, we get back up. No matter who we are.

As we begin the arduous climb out of our grief, out of the lowest point of the entire year, we start to shift our perspective (slowly and steadily). We pray that it will only be uphill from here.

There is a midrashic story in Makkot 24b that illustrates this concept for us perfectly: Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva went up to Jerusalem after the Romans plowed it to the ground. When they saw the destruction from Har Hatzofim, they wept and tore their garments. When they reached the site that once housed the Beit Hamikdash, they saw a fox coming out of the place where the Holy of Holies once stood. They all started crying except for Rabbi Akiva who laughed. They were so confused and asked Rabbi Akiva why he was laughing. He responded by asking why they were crying. They responded by quoting the verse, "A place [so holy] that it is said of it, 'the stranger that approaches it shall die’, (Bamidbar 1:51) and now foxes are swarming it, why shouldn't we weep?" Rabbi Akiva responded, "That’s precisely why I am laughing. Because if this prophecy came true, it means that the next prophecy will also come true - because one was dependent on the other. Now I know for certain that peace will be restored once again”. The story concludes with the Rabbis thanking Rabbi Akiva for consoling them.

When each of us as individuals commit to building muscles of empathy and hope, I truly believe that we will see an upturn in our collective experience. And in the merit of our efforts, we will, G-d willing, see an era of peace ushered in very soon.

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Devora Shabtai
Devora Shabtai
23 lug 2020

What a powerful article.

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