Proper Empathy for Elul and Tishrei

Empathy. It seems to be a pretty innocent word, defined by the dictionary, using the psychoanalytical meaning as “the mental identification of the ego with the character and experiences of another person.” In more common usage, it refers to caring and concern for someone else’s problems and issues.

Last week, just in time for Selichos and Rosh Hashanah, the New York Times gave us an opportunity to examine the difference between the current view of empathy and the Torah’s ancient traditional approach. Molly Worthen, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina, wrote an article (Sunday Review, September 6, 2020) called “The Trouble With Empathy.” She quotes from such experts as psychologist Paul Bloom, who wrote an entire book in 2016 titled Against Empathy. In brief, Mr. Bloom’s complaint is that “what seems like empathy often may be another form of presumption, condescension or domination.” Although this might seem like just so much psychobabble and liberal self-hating guilt, the attack on poor old empathy gets worse. “The scholar and activist Bell Hooks [adds that] ‘White desire to feel Black experience is predatory, exploitative, eating the other.’ Alisha Gaines, a professor of African American Literature at Florida State University told me [Ms. Worthen] that ‘I don’t want to throw out what empathy is trying to do… I’m very critical of it, though. Empathy has to be considered in the context of institutions and power.”

Wow. So now, even one of the best character traits – empathy – is suspect. Although this may seem radical and a product of recent progressive trends in education and psychology, they may actually be onto something. Let’s use our Torah lens to shed light on what empathy can and should be. The connection to the Yomim Noraim will then become more than self-evident.

One of the major differences between this secular concept of empathy and the Torah teaching of nosei b’ohl im chaveiro is our mandate to physically do something. The liberal ideology of “feeling someone’s pain” often ends with feeling good because you have succeeded in feeling bad. Nothing comes of it and no action is needed. For this reason, identifying with a character in a novel or even non-fiction narrative is already considered an accomplishment, as explained later in the Times article.

However, the Torah tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu’s beginnings as the leader of Klal Yisroel was when he felt the pain of his people: “It happened in those days that Moshe grew up and went out to his brethren and observed their burdens” (Shemos 2:11).  Rashi states that “he put his eyes and heart to care about them.” But that was not all that he did. Chazal (Shemos Rabbah 1:27) teach that he cried for them, felt their pain, and then “put his shoulder to theirs and helped them carry their burdens.” Rav Shlomo Wolbe (Alei Shur 2:211-212) points out that since there were at least 600,000 adult male Jews carrying burdens, he could not help them all. However, “the Gemara teaches us that to share someone’s pain, it is not sufficient to feel an emotional or intellectual connection. One must also do something, meaning an action.”

He goes on to quote from the halachos of bikur cholim and nichum aveilim (Yoreh Deah 335) that one must analyze what the person suffering requires and provide it, to whatever extent possible. If one cannot do anything concrete, at the very least he must daven for the patient.

My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner (Igros Pachad Yitzchok, No. 33, page 56), suggests that the word bikkur, which is generally translated as “visit,” actually means “to investigate,” with the result of providing for some form of succor for the person in pain. This can also be demonstrated by the fact that when Rabi Akiva visited one of his talmidim when he was ill, he immediately made sure to improve the patient’s living conditions.

Interestingly, the Meshech Chochmah (Devorim 10:20) even proves that the Creator Himself fulfills the ultimate nosei b’ohl by empathizing with His children’s pain even more than they themselves.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe shares an incredible anecdote related by his rebbi, Rav Yeruchom Levovitz, mashgiach of the Mir. He had witnessed his own rebbi, the Alter of Kelm, being uncharacteristically pale one Shabbos. His face usually shone brilliantly on Shabbos, but that one time, his pallor was frighteningly like that of a weekday. After Shabbos, Rav Simcha Zissel groaned deeply and revealed that “Peretz Smolenskin had died.” Now, we must realize that the deceased man had been one of the leaders of the Haskalah movement, a man full of blind hatred for anything to do with the Torah and its adherents. The Alter sensed the lack of comprehension in his listeners and explained: “Who can imagine the depth of the chastisement and retribution this soul must be suffering when it comes before the Heavenly tribunal to be judged for its sins?”

Now let us imagine, to whatever extent possible, what was going on inside the Alter’s mind and heart. His Shabbos was so disturbed and disrupted that he physically changed. He was not fulfilling some vague psychological, political or even personal moral need. He was so saddened by the heavenly suffering of a man who had vilified everything he stood for that he was nearly unrecognizable. That kind of empathy must yield results on numerous levels of human interaction.

Furthermore, Rav Wolbe’s conclusion in this essay is that “when Moshe Rabbeinu took each person’s burden momentarily, making it his own, he fulfilled the mandate of nosei b’ohl im chaveiro. In other words, as all the contemporary scientists are discovering – as usual belatedly – just “feeling someone’s pain” accomplishes nothing. It is only actions of chesed and practical help that can be considered efficacious and life-changing. The psychologists and professors are struggling to discover what we have known for centuries. In the world of bein adam lachaveiro – interpersonal relations – there can be no “fake news” about empathy. Whatever does not result in a substantive change, as Moshe Rabbeinu later brought about, is worthless as a moral or ethical imperative.

The Maharal codifies this elegantly and simply in the following words: “Being nosei b’ohl im chaveiro means that when a person sees something difficult coming upon his friend, he shares his burden in order to remove the problem from him” (Derech Chaim, Mechon Yerushalayim edition, chapter 6, page 203). In other words, the goal of being empathetic is to solve the issue. Any goal less than that is not worthy of the term empathy.

Rav Michel Yehudah Lefkowitz (Darchei Hachaim, page 368) records that he heard from Rav Yechezkel Levenstein that when the Chazon Ish wrote letters to those in distress, he sought to alleviate their pain through various pieces of advice, comfort and guidance. In other words, he, too, did not just “feel their pain,” but sought to alleviate it in his own unique way.

Another gadol in both halacha and mussar, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, brought it into our time of the year dramatically and simply: “During the days of Elul in particular, we must elevate our interpersonal relations…to be nosei b’ohl…to help others and to attempt to do them no harm and only good. This will help us all elevate ourselves.” Clearly, the mistake modern professionals make is that they equate thoughts and good intentions with actions. However, true empathy must result in an improvement in the lot of the one whose condition was brought to our attention.

A beautiful story with Rav Chaim Shmulevitz has been mentioned before in these pages, but the contrast with current “trouble” some people have with empathy requires a review. The great rosh yeshiva was walking with his talmidim, when he suddenly stopped at an old shoemaker’s shop. Drying in the sun were cute little “starter shoes” designated for the first real shoes for a newly walking toddler. Rav Chaim explained to his talmidim why he uncharacteristically seemed to be mevatel Torah for a mundane matter. “I am thinking of the great joy the father who buys these shichalech will derive from the precious moment. Regarding the happiness it will bring to the proud mother I cannot even imagine.”

Now, as touching as this vignette is, I have heard that the story continues with the students being inspired to buy and make available such new shoes to the poor families in Yerushalayim of the 1960s, when the story occurred. During Elul and beyond, we must make sure that we don’t fall into the trap of politicizing empathy and of reducing it to a fleeting “good feeling” that goes nowhere.

Rav Eliyohu Eliezer Dessler teaches us that Elul and Tishrei beyond are times for action, mitzvos and chesed (see first maamar in Pachad Yitzchok on Rosh Hashanah). If we truly want to triumph on the Day of Judgment, the days we have left can be permeated with acts of chesed, not theories or philosophies. That will hopefully bring us the results we all so desperately need in what we hope will be the wonderful year of 5781 ahead.