On Empathy

On Empathy

Oct 04, 2019

The following is a text version of Rabbi Dana Saroken's Rosh Hashanah (5780) sermon:

It was 1945 when Rabbi Robert Marcus was sent to Europe as a chaplain. He was an American rabbi, lawyer, and activist, and he had enlisted to be a part of the war efforts. World War II was coming to an end, and Rabbi Marcus was sent in. He was among the first people to walk through the gates on the day of Buchenwald's liberation. 

"As he walked through [the camp], [Rabbi Marcus] saw the indescribable inhumanity. Corpses piled high, the stench of burning flesh. And then, he came upon the living corpses. He called out to one person and then another and then another: "You are free! You are free!" And then, as he walked deeper into this hellish world, he found children - an unbelievable sight!"

As it turns out, 904 children were still alive on that day. 904 children had been hidden and protected by the others and had somehow managed to survive the years of unfathomable horrors. They were alive, but they had lost so much - their ability to laugh, to cry, they lost the spark in their eyes, their hope. Their trust. Their loved ones. Their everything.

Rabbi Marcus was the person who would stay with these children, all of these children who had no parents or families left to hold them or homes to return to. He would be the one who would take care of them until others would. Some he would take to a place in Germany that would function like a kibbutz. There, the children would learn to farm the land until they could get to Palestine. Others, he would take to orphanages in France. Adults were waiting to greet them in all of these locations, but there was a problem:

"The[se] adults were expecting to receive pitiful, well-mannered children, grateful for any drop of kindness [extended to them]. [But] That's not what they got. The [Buchenwald] boys were exploding with rage. They were suspicious of everyone. They were terrified of doctors who reminded them of Dr. Mengele. The boys hardly spoke at all. They were violent, and they obsessively stole and hoarded food. Most couldn't even remember their names, so whenever an adult asked a child, 'what's your name?' They [would respond by] calling out their concentration camp number. With shaven heads, emaciated faces, and cold, apathetic eyes, the experts who observed them made this proclamation: They are DERELICTS! Damaged beyond repair. Psychopaths, cold and indifferent by nature." 


Thankfully, there was a 21-year-old girl - her name was Judith Hemmendinger, who stepped in. Judith wasn't a psychologist, she wasn't a teacher or a mother, but she was a person who was willing and able to feel Empathy, and like Rabbi Marcus, she was intent on restoring hope and joy to these boys lives. 

 Judith understood the boys' need to self-protect. How could they be expected to trust after all that they had experienced? She knew she would need to earn their trust and teach them to trust again. She understood that their inability to connect was because they hadn't loved or been loved in so long that they only knew how to do what was necessary to survive. She hadn't survived such things herself, but she could use empathy to understand them. 

You might actually know some of those boys - those "psychopaths". Among them were Rabbi Herschel Schacter, who would later lead one of the largest synagogue communities in Manhattan. Also among the boys was Rabbi Lau, who would grow up and become the Chief Rabbi of Israel. The little boy who used to sit in a corner at the orphanage and write, that boy, Elimelech, the world would come to know as Elie Wiesel. 

Those "psychopaths" became some of the greatest leaders, thinkers, and moral guides of our times. And the empathy that those boys received from Rabbi Marcus and Judith changed their lives!

Empthy is a skill that we assume people will develop, but often (like the director) don't. We live in a world that is in desperate need of empathy. This morning we told the story of Hagar, who was banished from her home by Sarah and Abraham. Hagar was sent out into the wilderness with her young son, Ishmael, and a flask of water and a loaf of bread. She soon becomes paralyzed by fear - terrified that she doesn't have what she needs to sustain her son and herself. And so she puts her son down under a bush, unable to look on as he dies, and she moves away, filled with despair and helplessness. She leaves her son, moves away and she cries.

Many of us can probably empathize with Hagar. Who among us hasn't felt inadequate at some point as we've tried to care for children or parents or someone we love and had a moment where you're terrified that you don't have what it takes to keep that person safe, supported or to give them the care that they need? As Jews, God commands us to be empathetic. 39 times in the Torah, God instructs us to practice empathy and to perpetuate it to the upcoming generations. Every year, when we sit at our seders, this is the point. To experience our ancestors' enslavement and suffering as if it were our own. And eventually, we forget that it wasn't us, their story becomes our story. Their suffering becomes our suffering. Their liberation becomes our liberation. That's the act of "feeling with". 

In the story of Chana and Penina that we read this morning, we again, saw the glaring absence of empathy. Chana was distraught. Her only dream, her sole yearning, was to have a child, and she couldn't. Another woman, Penina, ridiculed her tears. Adding insult to injury, her husband Elkahanah responds to her crying by saying: "Why are you crying? And why aren't you eating? And why are you so sad? Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?!"

Every year, I want to interrupt the story and whisper into Penina's ear: "be kinder, be empathetic." Chana is in so much pain, just let her be. You don't need to say anything, but if you do - don't add to her suffering. Don't taunt her with what you have and what she doesn't. It's hard enough, Penina. And to her husband, I would whisper: Elkahanah, it's not about you at all. It's about her, and a child that she so desperately yearns for with all of her being. Don't try to offer a silver lining. Don't try to fix or advise. Just listen to her. Just witness her pain and hold it with her. And through your quiet and empathetic presence, Chana will know that she's not alone. And to Eli, that guy at the gate that accuses her of being drunk when she comes to pray out her anguish? Eli, I wish that I could pull you aside and have you look again. A little closer before you assume what is. Notice her tears. Notice her body rocking back and forth and back and forth as if she needs to be soothed. Notice her slumped shoulders and her furrowed brow and her lips moving. This isn't a woman who's drunk, as you accused her of being, she's a woman in need of compassion and empathy.

Empathy is the ability to recognize that someone else's perspective is their truth. (So in Hagar's story: Her "truth" was that she and her son were about to die. She was terrified, and, it didn't matter that there was a well nearby because she couldn't see it. All that mattered was her fear). Empathy is also the ability to stay neutral and to listen to what someone else is sharing without judging it — just being present to their emotions.

Sociologist Brene Brown describes it like this: "Empathy is when someone is in a deep hole, and they shout out from the bottom: 'Hey, I'm stuck, and it's dark, and I'm overwhelmed.' We look down into the hole, and we say: 'I'm coming down. I know what it's like to be down here, and you're not alone.'" 

It's a choice, and it's a vulnerable choice because, in order [for me] to connect with you, I need to connect with vulnerability inside myself. Our tendency nowadays is to try to put a silver lining around other people's pain and loss and suffering. Every time someone uses the phrase, 'At least...' you know we're in trouble. "My daughter is failing out of school." "At least, your son is thriving." "My mother died." "At least you had her for 90 years." It's people's way of offering a silver lining, but it rarely works. Because what we all need or want most, in moments of fear or despair or sadness, is someone who will listen and someone who cares. Because, as Brene Brown put it: "When we feel heard, cared about, and understood, we also feel loved, accepted, and a sense of belonging." 

As it turns out, Sarah, Penina, Eli, and Elkana, aren't the only ones who are failing in empathy. This summer, a book was published that questioned whether empathy was important or good or necessary. The author, Fritz Breithaupt, shared that over the past 20 years, there has been a 40% decrease in empathy among high school and college-age students, which means that the younger generations are 40% less inclined (than their parent's generation were) to try to understand someone else's point of view and that they were also 40% less inclined to care. It seems that the younger generations have started unabashedly expressing their beliefs that: "It's not my problem to help people in trouble. It's not my job to see the world from someone else's perspective." 

Fritz Breithaupt explained that: "students just stopped buying into the automatic logic of empathy. Like, why should they put themselves in the shoes of someone who is not them, much less someone they thought was harmful?" The new thought is that "there's a cost to empathy. It is not an infinite resource." The new rule is: "Reserve your empathy - don't use it for your enemies. Save it for the people you believe are hurt, or you have decided need it the most - for the victims, for your own damn team. That's how you make things better."

There is something to these ideas. Let's face it, do we need to spend our limited time and energy trying to understand horrible people? Can't we chalk it up to "he was an evil human being?" Or do we need to better understand what damaged him and wounded him so badly that he was filled with hate and an unfathomable capacity to murder and destroy? I get the challenge. But I also understand (and I've listened to enough pre-funeral stories) to know that most people are not entirely bad (or good). And empathy is truly the key to a more compassionate society and a better and kinder and nicer world. It's what ensures our connection to one another. It's what affirms our shared humanity.

Parents today are hustling to give their kids everything they need to have an advantage and to succeed (and no, Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin aren't the only ones). The message is clear: "My child's happiness and my child's success is most important. Our children are internalizing these values." Two-thirds of adolescents surveyed shared that they believe that their own "personal happiness" is more important than their "goodness." 93% of adults shared concerns that they and we are falling short in instilling values in our children. So, if we want our children and our grandchildren and our neighbors and our society at large to care about other people. And if we're going to create a world where goodness matters more than personal happiness, we have to change our ways.

There's a movement called Roots of Empathy, based in Alberta, Canada, that's working hard to shift the tide back towards empathy. They're doing this by bringing babies into classrooms. Through watching babies closely, they are teaching kids how to pay attention to body language, facial expressions; they're teaching children how to notice, care for, and respond to the emotional needs of others.

When the children were asked how this training impacted them, one elementary school student, Kanye, shared this: "People weren't always so nice at this school. But things are different now. They brought this baby in, and everybody changed. We just got more human or something. When you get empathy, you just get better at stuff like being nice. Empathy helps you be nice."

Most of our kids and grandchildren, (unfortunately) aren't blessed to have babies in their classrooms or curriculum that supports empathy. And even if they are, we need to be teaching it: How to look into another person's eyes, listen without judging and care about the emotional well being of another. Because we saw what was possible during the Shoah, and we see the hatred festering around the world today. A 40% loss of empathy should frighten us and inspire us because a world without empathy and compassion is a terrifying world. A world where people don't care about other people's suffering, where people hide behind screens as they lob hurtful words into cyberspace at real people on the other side of the monitor. A world where people walk away from a friend because they don't share the same political beliefs or didn't vote for the same person or don't feel the same way about the issues of the day - Is this the world we desire?! A world where people bully and torment one another on account of their differences and choices; an intolerant society that is dismissive and hard-hearted. A society in which we cast away those who threaten us (the Hagars of the world), and ridicule and chastise the Chana's? This is not the world we desire. Not for ourselves, not for our children or our grandchildren, not for our society, and we need to be a part of that change. 

Those camps in Buchenwald were the outcome of a society that was too desperate, too self-centered, and too threatened to care. Those children, Rabbi Lookstein, Rabbi Lau, Elie Wiesel, were children who experienced a society without conscience, without morality, without empathy. Let us not be like those directors, who could not look into a child's eyes and to imagine the depth of their wounds. Let us be the ones like Rabbi Marcus and Judith, who understood that goodness doesn't just happen - that we can't leave the caring to someone else.

As John Pavlovitz wrote in the Atlantic: "So many people in our world are grieving and worried and fearful, and yet none of them wear the signs: 'I'M STRUGGLING. BE KIND TO ME.' And since they don't, it's up to you and me to look more closely and more deeply at everyone around us and to never assume they aren't all just hanging by a thread. Because most people are hanging by a thread—and our empathy and kindness can be that thread."

If we want a better 5780, a kinder, more compassionate, and better world – we need to start with empathy, and we need to start with us! Let it all begin with us! Shana Tovah.