Reflections on empathy drawn from the Torah


Early in my postgraduate training, I became familiar with the important role that empathy plays in successful psychotherapy. As the eminent psychotherapist Carl Rogers wrote, “Empathy is the accurate understanding of the other person’s world as seen from the inside.” In colloquial terms, a person possesses empathy if he can honestly say to another person, “I know where you’re coming from.” Borrowing from the language of Native Americans, empathy is the ability to “walk in the other person’s moccasins.”

Over time, I began to appreciate that empathy is an important ingredient in every area of human relations, and not only in the counseling profession. Furthermore, I came to learn that the dictionary definition of “empathy” goes beyond Rogers’ call for “accurate understanding” and transcends the capacity to “know” where the other person is coming from.

The second source of my interest in empathy is the Torah. That “empathy” is an important concept in the Jewish religion is amply demonstrated in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, where we find sound evidence that besides “knowing” where the other person is coming from, it is important to, using another colloquial phrase, “feel his pain.”

Consider the following verses:

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me. … If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor. … If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets; it is his only clothing. …  In what else shall he sleep? Therefore, if he cries out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate.” Exodus 22:20-26

These verses make it clear that it is not only decent behavior toward the needy that is expected of us. Rather, we must “know where they are coming from,” for after all, we too were once strangers. And we must “feel the pain” of the widow and the orphan and the poor, and we must appreciate how close they are to tears of desperation.

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Rashi demonstrates how very well he understood the concept of empathy in his comment upon the phrase, “the poor among you, et he’ani imach.” Literally, this can mean “the poor person within you,” prompting Rashi to recommend that we “look well at ourselves and imagine that we too are poor.” Rashi thus urges us to “walk in the moccasins” of the unfortunate impoverished person. For Rashi, the Hebrew word imach is synonymous with einfuhlung, “in-feeling,” or empathy.

There is a nuance in the Hebrew text of the first verse quoted above which is typically lost in translation. Literally, the verse reads, “If you do mistreat, mistreat him, then if he cries out, cries out to Me, I will heed his outcry.” That is, the verb “mistreat” is doubled, as is the verb “cry out.” There is a passage in a Midrash known as Yalkut Shimoni, which comments upon the repetition of the verb “cry out.”

I quote from the Yalkut on Psalms 62: “A human being, mere flesh and blood, cannot hear the cries of two individuals who are crying simultaneously. However, the Creator can. Even when all of the world’s inhabitants cry out at once, He hears every individual cry, as it is written, ‘All mankind comes to You, You who hear prayer.’ (Psalms 65:3)”

This passage implies that, whereas a person’s auditory capacities allow for two or more voices to register, no man can feel the pain of two different individuals at the same moment. The emotional effort needed to truly empathize with one other person is all-consuming, and there is no room left within us to feel the pain of yet another person at that same time. Only the Almighty Himself can “multi-task” empathy.

Both the faithful Jew and the secular ethicist have traditionally valued empathy in interpersonal affairs. However, a contemporary philosopher has recently expressed his opposition to empathy.

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Irefer to Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom, whose book “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion” is a scathing critique of empathy as a moral guide. Among other things, Bloom feels that empathy wrongly prioritizes the sufferings of specific individuals over those of nameless multitudes. For example, he writes that it is easy to empathize with a baby who’s fallen down a well but hard to feel the pain of the billions of people whose lives will be ruined by climate change.

Bloom’s book forces us to think deeply about the limits of empathy. It is interesting to me that in some ways, his argument is in tune with the Midrash that I just quoted. Since the empathic response of the human being seems to be limited to one individual at a time, passionately caring for one unfortunate person may indeed blind us to the pain of the many who are otherwise suffering.

How relevant here is another passage, this one from the Talmud, which modifies the position taken by the Midrash. This second passage encourages us to transcend our empathic limitations, and in the spirit of imitatio dei, imitate our Creator and expand our empathic capacities to include the larger community.

This passage reads:

When the community is suffering, a person should not say to himself, “I will go to my own home, and eat and drink, and imagine myself at peace.” But rather, he should share in the community’s pain. So we find that Moses our Master shared in the pain of the community, as is written: “But Moses’ hands grew heavy; so they took a stone, and put it under him and he sat on it.” Did Moses not have a cushion or pillow to sit upon? No! Moses insisted, “Since Israel is in pain, I will be with them in their pain.” Babylonian Talmud Tractate Taanit 11a

Nachmanides, or Ramban, supplements this passage by noting that Moses positioned himself on a hilltop, “so as to better observe the people in their suffering, and so that he could direct his heart toward them.” Clearly Moses exemplified the ability not only to “know” but to “feel” the pain of a multitude of others. Moses demonstrated that empathy is not merely a helpful moral guide. It is an indispensable prerequisite for a leader and, quite possibly, an obligation for us all.

How telling it is that Moses understood the power of empathy even at the very beginning of his leadership career.

As we read some weeks ago in parshat Shemot, “Moses grew up and went out to his brethren and saw their suffering”. Rashi is apparently troubled by the following question: “If he went out to his brethren, do we need to be told that he saw their suffering? Obviously, he had eyes and he saw their suffering!”

To which Rashi responds, “He directed his eyes and his heart toward them so that he would suffer along with them.”

In this, the very first step that Moses took along his path of leadership, he used his eyes to “know” what his people were experiencing, and he used his heart to “feel their pain.”