What brought about our eventual political emancipation from the shackles of dehumanization and servitude in Egypt?
The answer lies with Moses. Moses was a supremely empathic being. He chose loyalty to his impoverished and subjugated biological family, over the prospect of a luxurious and pastorale existence in the despot’s (Pharaoh’s) palace. Moses did this, because he had empathy for his parents and siblings.
When Moses intervened and killed an Egyptian officer who was afflicting a Hebrew slave, he again acted out of empathy, this time not empathy for a blood relative, but empathy for a fellow Jew.
Once in Midian, Moses witnessed a group of shepherds harassing a group of women in the desert. Again, Moses’s conscience propelled him to act, this time out of empathy for a group of non-Jewish women.
Finally, the midrash has it, Moses was shepherding Jethro’s sheep when one sheep strayed from the path, and Moses ran after it, and then saw this sheep drinking water from a small puddle.
Moses then scolded himself for not having given the sheep sufficient water earlier on during that day. Here Moses displayed empathy towards a non-human fellow living being.
It is at that moment, states the midrash, that Moses beheld the burning bush, and experienced divine revelation for the first time. In other words, it was because of all of these acts of supreme empathy, of feeling what author Susan Sontag calls “the pain of others,” that Moses finally merited the most sublime of spiritual encounters. And when that happened, G-d tells Moses, that He too, is a supremely empathic Being, and feels the pain of the Israelites’ enslavement. Says the Almighty to Moses at the burning bush: “I have heard their cries.”
Empathy at its best and loftiest is not just empathy for my blood relatives, or my close friends, or my ethnic and national kin. It is empathy for the stranger, whose soul and feelings the Torah explicitly commands us to know and to cherish and to love.
As Rav Kook teaches us, to have an expansive soul entails having empathy for people well-beyond our own tent. Consider this prospect this Shabbat: Pray for the health and well-being of someone you don’t like this Shabbat, or for their family, or to distinguish – pray for innocent children who are massacred in senseless wars thousands of miles away from us, or for the multitudes who are currently being tortured and dehumanized in North Korea. Consider the gift and prospect of cultivating cosmic empathy for all. It is the divine thing to do.
It is said that when the Ba’al Shem Tov immersed himself in the mikvah, he never prayed for anyone or anything in particular, he solely meditated for the shechinah (divine presence) to permeate the entire world. And that’s why, as the story goes, all his prayers were answered. Because his inner being was cleansed of malice, pettiness and smallness of mind. Because he was pure, and because he was empathic. I leave you today with the sacred and divine words of the legendary Rabbi Sacks of righteous memory, which he spoke as part of his special address to the US Senate, some nine years ago: “Sovereign of the Universe, help us remember that we are all created in Your image. And that the people who are not like us – are people – just like us.”
Shabbat Shalom, with love and blessings to all, Rabbi Sessler