Rabbi Zvi Teichman
In the realm of healthy human interaction one of the most vital traits for survival is compassion. We must be sensitive towards other people’s needs and feelings. Especially when someone else is in pain or facing a challenging ordeal we must sympathize with their plight. But what is even more critical in developing meaningful relationships is our ability to empathize, to actually ‘feel’ their suffering and anguish.
Although there are myriad of laws that define the responsibility we have towards one another in helping each other, there is only one law that specifically calls for our ‘fitting into another’s shoes’ and actually ‘feeling’ the emotional pain of someone else.
When someone is in need of a loan we are commanded to lend him the money he may need. In describing the attitude, one should have when rendering this kindness to a borrower, the Torah states: When you lend money to My people, — העני עמך to the poor person who is with you. (כב כד
The Midrash Tanchuma sees in this expression, ‘to the poor person who is with you’, not merely a description of the geographical location of the borrower who is part of your community, but rather as a directive to the lender to empathize with the dire straits of the borrower and for the lender to visualize as if the poor person ‘is with you’, i.e. is you!
Of all the numerous injunctions we have to extend compassion to the indigent, whether it be widows and orphans, converts, or charity to the poor, only here are we instructed , הסתכל בעצמך כאילו אתה עני, to imagine yourself as the one in need.
What is unique to this situation that specifically calls for empathy?
In this phrase אם כסף | תלוה, there is a פסיק, literally a ‘stop’ between the word כסף and תלוה. It is as if the Torah were stating: ‘If you have money — Lend My people…’.
It would almost seem to de-emphasize the money as being merely tangential to the cause, with the stress on the word ‘lend’.
But isn’t it the ‘money’ that is being lent the objective here?
Truth be told, the word we use for ‘lending’, תלוה, doesn’t really mean ‘loan’, but rather to ‘connect’.
When Leah bears a third child to Yaakov, she expresses her hope that in lieu of her worthy contribution to Yaakov’s legacy, This time my husband, ילוה — will become attached to me… (כט לד
What exactly is the Torah trying to teach us here?
A person who is seeking a loan is someone who clearly intends to make restitution. He evidently has a skill or profession that brings him an income but nevertheless finds himself in need of cash. While until now he felt secure and confident in his ability to provide for himself and his family he suddenly discovers he is vulnerable.
It is extremely difficult for an individual to share one’s vulnerability, it is often accompanied with a sense of shame and personal failure.
At this critical juncture it is not enough for a likely lender to simply sympathize with the plight of the borrower. Sympathy has the potential to cast an aura of distance and blame. How often do we react when we hear about another’s predicament with a body language that bespeaks, ‘Oh you poor thing’, intimating perhaps the victim’s poor choices or circumstances that brought him to that point? We at times instinctively offer instant advice on how to solve the situation or try to point out how despite their predicament it could have been worse.
Although our responses may stem from pity and compassion, nevertheless this sympathy alone will not provide the support for the petitioner in his time of need.
Only if we are brave enough to identify with the other’s pain by drawing from our own personal experiences, when we too were vulnerable and frightened and at a total loss as to what to do or where to turn, can we ‘connect’ with our friend in strife.
Sympathy allows one to project a sense of superiority. In our need to feel secure we dupe ourselves into thinking we are different, protected and invulnerable. That attitude merely ignites distance and at times even disdain.
Only when we are ready to concede our vulnerability can we expect to connect and effectively support those we truly care about in conveying a sense that ‘I am in this with you’.
So it is not the money that is really important in this command to lend, as much as it is the sincere empathic connection we make with others in fortifying them in trying times.
Might it be that in Leah’s naming of her first three children in the context of her precarious relationship with Yaakov that was due to his disappointment in the switch that took place on that fatal night of his ‘assumed’ wedding to his ‘beloved’ Rachel, she was attempting to teach us how she succeeded in restoring her vital ‘connection’ to Yaakov?
Upon the birth of her first son Reuven she calls him such to commemorate G-d having ‘seen my humiliation, for now my husband will love me’. She sets the stage for reconciliation by first drawing attention to her pain. Despite her tough exterior she courageously displays her vulnerability to Yaakov so he may begin to sympathize with her plight.
The next child is named Shimon to memorialize that G-d ‘has heard that I am unloved. He has given me this one also’. It is not enough to merely ‘see’ the pain, she intimates, but one must ‘hear’ it, subtly suggesting to Yaakov to identify more deeply with that sense of ‘distance’ she felt.
Perhaps her use of the specific term שנאה, literally hatred, in her describing how, כי שנואה אנכי, ‘for I was hated’, was a powerful hint to Yaakov to contemplate his own experience with his ‘hateful’ brother, Esav, hoping he would utilize that familiarity in ‘empathizing’ with Leah’s sense of painful isolation.
Finally when she begets Levi, whose name represents how ‘now my husband will become attached to me’, she achieves her goal in restoring the instinctive bond she had with Yaakov.
In the naming of the former children the Torah informs that Leah herself bestowed those names, whereas by Levi it states clearly ‘He called his name Levi’, referring to Yaakov loudly attesting to his now exquisite connection to Leah.
Dr. Brene Brown, a renowned scholar and therapist who has done extensive research on the topic of empathy writes:
“No one reaches out to you for compassion or empathy so you can teach them how to behave better. They reach out to us because they believe in our capacity to know our darkness well enough to sit in the dark with them.”
“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”
When the Torah calls on the lender to be responsive to the need of the borrower before him by ‘visualizing as if he is the impoverished’ perhaps it is not simply about imagining as if he were him, but a summons to realize our own ‘vulnerabilities’ and utilize that reality to lower our guard and enable ourselves to identify with those who desperately seek connection.
The word empathy doesn’t seem to have a counterpart in the Hebrew language. The word we use for compassion is רחמים, usually implying mercy. There are many who suggest that the word רחמים finds its root from רֶחֶם, the womb of a woman wherein a child is formed and bestowed with unparalleled motherly compassion and concern.
But perhaps in a more profound sense it reflects on that absolute ‘connection’ that exists between a mother and her fetus, where one is subsumed totally by the other.
Isn’t that the essence of empathy?
May we always be attuned to those who are willing to expose their vulnerabilities in allowing others to connect with them. May we permit ourselves the brutal honesty we need to admit our own weaknesses that empower us to connect and identify effectively with others in restoring the unity that bonds us as the children of the Almighty.
If we succeed in bonding with each other, we will merit that G-d, who too is called אישי, my Husband, will ‘attach’ Himself to us in fulfillment of the verse, הפעם ילוה , This time my husband will becomeattached to me…!