This is not “The Last Lecture”, but it is “The Last Letter” I will write to you, at least for a while.
You patiently sat through my letter-sermons on education on Rosh Hashana evening, on identity on Rosh Hashana morning, and last night, on Yom Kippur evening, I spoke to you about community. My final subject this morning is: empathy.
Webster’s defines empathy as “the action of understanding… and vicariously experiencing the feelings and thoughts of another.”
Empathy involves actively imagining yourself in another’s place. It goes beyond sympathy, which are expressions of understanding and support for another without necessarily understanding or experiencing what they have gone through.
The thesis of this letter-sermon is that empathy is a fundamental Jewish imperative; that empathy is key to understanding why Jews act as they do; that, in fact, there is a unique historical Jewish empathy that defines us.
But before I make this case, allow me make the even broader point that empathy defines us as human beings. Empathy is a fundamental human trait that we must strive to express in our lives in order to overcome our more undesirable but all too human characteristics. Empathy births compassion… and compassion must carry the day.
I love archeological stories, and I was struck by one a few months ago. A pair of archeologists from Australia National University was excavating an ancient burial site in Vietnam, south of Hanoi, called Man Bac. Lorna Tilley and Marc Oxenham uncovered the skeletal remains of a young man in grave 9. Man Bac Nine, as he is known, was gently laid to rest in a fetal position. No one else was laid to rest in this manner. When the archeologists studied the bones in detail the reason became clear. Man Bac Nine lies in death as he was in life, bent and crippled. The scientists identified a congenital disease, Klippel-Feil syndrome that paralyzed him from the waist down before adolescence. And with little if any use of his arms he could not have fed himself or kept himself clean.
Yet this young man lived at least another ten years. The people around him did not cast him out. To the contrary, they took care of his every need. Man Bac Nine lived four thousand years ago. His case echoes others. Windover Boy, from Florida, who lived 7,500 years ago, and suffered from spina bifada and was cared for by his community. Romito Two, from Italy, who lived 10,000 years ago, with severe dwarfism that meant that his nomadic clan had to carry him from site to site. And Shanidar One, from Iraq, who lived 45,000 years ago, and was largely blind and without the use of arms.
Some thirty cases like this testify that it is not only violence toward each other that is in our DNA, but compassion as well.
Judaism takes this latent human quality to a whole new level. You might almost say that seeking justice and compassion on behalf of others is Judaism’s raison d'être.
Our Torah teaches that every human being is created in the image of God.
Our Torah teaches that we are to pursue holiness and that the highest expression of that holiness is to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Our Torah teaches, and this refrain repeats itself over and over again, “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
There it is—the classic statement of Jewish empathy. “For you were strangers.” You have been there. You know what it is like. You were oppressed. You were outcasts. You know the heart of shunned and the exploited. You can more than sympathize: you can empathize because you lived through it.
“Wait a minute,” you’re saying. I never lived in Egypt. I was never a slave. That was my ancestors, three thousand years ago.
Wrong. You were there. You were in Egypt. You were at Sinai. How so? It’s called “corporate memory.” You are part of a people that remembers everything. That never forgets. As one of the people, as a member of the tribe, you plug into that collective experience.
The whole point of the Passover Seder, arguably Judaism’s most important ritual, is to reenact the experience of liberation from slavery. And what is the single most important line of the Haggdah? “B’cal dor hayav adam lirot et atmo k’ilu hu yatza m’mitzrayim.” “In every generation each person must see himself as if he went out from Egypt.”
K’ilu. As if. Use your imagination, your moral imagination. Put yourself in your ancestor’s shoes. Don’t forget your roots, your origins, where you came from, what you went through. It explains what you are made of. It explains who you are.
In the Book of Exodus, Moses, speaking for God, says: “You shall not oppress a stranger—[and now listen to the exact words]—v’atem yadatem et nefesh hager,” for you know the nefesh, the soul, the deepest feelings, of the stranger, “having been strangers yourselves in the land of Egypt” (23:9).
Again, in Leviticus: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (19:33).
Again, in Deuteronomy: “For the Lord your God… upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow, and befriends the stranger… You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (10:17-19).
That trio, the orphan, the widow and the stranger, occurs together so often. Who are they? They are the powerless. They are the poor. They are the marginalized. And they are the precisely the people we are commanded to help.
Toward the end of the Torah, Moses and God go even one step further. We are commanded not only to aid the victims of exploitation, but to reconcile with the agents of our oppression. In Deuteronomy 23, Moses, when recalling the Exodus experience to the Israelites, says, “Do not hate an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land” (23:8).
Well, after what the Egyptians did to us, there would be every reason to hate them. If someone had enslaved your people for 400 years, wouldn’t you hate them?
As Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes,
So what is Moses saying? He is telling the Israelites: You have left the physical Egypt. Now you must leave the mental experience of Egypt. You have to let go of hate, because otherwise you will never be free.
Rabbi Saks adds,
Had the Israelites continued to hate their enemies, Moses would have taken the Israelites out of Egypt, but he would not have taken Egypt out of the Israelites.
And he concludes,
They would be slaves to their past, slaves to their feelings of pain, injustice and grievance. This is what we have to repeat, day after day, in this difficult, dangerous 21st century. You have to let go of hate if you want to be free.
To be truly empathetic human beings, we must identify with the oppressed, remembering our own collective misfortune. And to cultivate that selfless love, we must try to be as hate free as possible. Because an embittered soul is not an open soul and a resentful heart is not a willing heart.
Perhaps the most inspirational example of this incredibly difficult journey to true freedom is Nelson Mandela. I have told this story once before; allow me to tell it again.
President Bill Clinton writes in his memoirs that:
Early on the morning of February 11, 1990 I woke my daughter, Chelsea, and took her down into the kitchen of the governor’s mansion in Little Rock, Arkansas.
I wanted Chelsea, who was then ten years old… to watch his release. I felt it would be one of the most important political events in her lifetime, just as Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 was one of the most important in mine.
So I sat her up on the kitchen counter and turned on the television. I still remember it like it was yesterday—Mandela walking slowly toward that gate and then waiting; Chelsea, like so many millions of others, moved by the power of his unbreakable dignity and strength. As I watched him walking down that dusty road, I wondered what he was thinking about the last twenty-seven years and whether he was angry all over again.
Many years later, when we were both Presidents of our nations, I had the chance to ask him. I said, “I know you are a great man. You invited your jailors to your inauguration. You put your persecutors in the government. But tell me the truth. Weren’t you really angry all over again?
And he said, “Yes, I was angry. And I was a little afraid. After all, I had not been free in so long. “But,” he said, “when I felt the anger well up inside of me, I realized that if I hated them after I got outside the gate they would still have me.”
The he smiled and said, “But I wanted to be free, and so I let it go.”
“I wanted to be free, so I let it go.”
Clinton said that hearing these words was “an astonishing moment in my life.”
And so I reach the end of this letter by posing a question: What does it mean to be an empathetic Jew in our world today?
Who is the stranger? Who are the needy? Who are the marginalized?
Who are the silent victims who have no voice?
What can I do in my little corner of the world?
What measure of justice (tzedek), of compassion (rachamim), of healing (tikkun olam) can I bring?
My dear children: I have spoken to you of education, of identity, of community, and now of empathy.
I want you to reclaim your love of learning, secular and Jewish.
I want you to reclaim your namesake, Yisrael, for we are all Jews by choice, who must wrestle with our faith.
I want you to reclaim your community for all Israel is responsible one for another.
And I want you to change the world, your corner of it, because you remember that you were once a stranger and even a slave.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it… was spoken more than two and half thousand years ago, by the prophet Isaiah. I close with his words:
To unlock the shackles of injustice… to loosen the yoke of the burdened… to let the oppressed go free… to share your bread with hungry… to give shelter to the homeless… to clothe the naked.
I, the Lord, have called you and given you power, to see that justice is done;
I created you, and appointed you, a covenant people; a light to the nations; to open the eyes of the blind; to set free those who sit in darkness.
A light to the nations; that all the world be saved.
My dear children: You are not children any more. It’s your turn.
With all my love, Abba.