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Mishpatim: Empathy in Action

Following the fanfare of the lights and sounds show of Matan Torah in last week’s Parsha, Parshas Mishpatim reads almost like the fine print on a winning lottery ticket. Sure, there are laws and regulations and taxes on the winnings - but who’s really paying attention to those details when you’ve just found out that there’s a pile of millions of dollar bills somewhere with your name on it? A veritable LSAT study guide, Parshas Mishpatim details many of the laws related to slavery and indentured servitude, damages and restitution, and general Halachos regarding interpersonal justice. It is curious that these laws follow the awe-inspiring scene at Mount Sinai, the pinnacle of the Jewish peoples’ Divine revelation and foundation of our identity as God’s chosen people. Yet the juxtaposition of the splendor of Har Sinai with the legal minutiae of Parshas Mishpatim is anything but coincidental.

Anyone present at Maamad Har Sinai was sure to walk away with a bounce in his or her step; having just heard God speak to them directly, Bnei Yisrael had never been and would never again be at such a lofty, elevated status. As the Chosen People, just freed from bondage, privy to daily Divine miracles and God’s direct sustenance and protection, it would be reasonable for Bnei Yisrael to feel pretty good about themselves as they return to their camp after receiving the Aseres HaDibros. There is nothing wrong with feeling good about oneself, of course. The danger is that in walking away as new people with a shiny new status, it would be all too easy for the Jewish people to forget what it was like to be enslaved, to be downtrodden, to live in anguish and oppression and seek salvation. To lose this would be to risk losing our capacity for empathy, a cornerstone of Jewish existence – and of the maintenance of a just, moral, spiritually robust society, which we were setting out to create.

The theme of “rags to riches” is a common literary archetype. In these storylines, the protagonist is typically an unsuspecting person whose life is ordinary at best or tragic at worst when he is discovered, rescued, or otherwise transported from his humble beginnings to a life of fame, royalty, or fortune. But then the story veers toward conflict when the hero, swept up in his new life of glory and prestige, encounters someone from his past, a less fortunate soul with whom he used to share a kinship and deep understanding, but now there is a only a deep chasm between them. Hopeful that their former friend can come to their aid and use his position of power or esteem in their favor, the protagonist’s former acquaintances are devastated when faced with the reality of how far the hero has strayed from his roots. Ultimately, the main character – often with the help of a wise and kindly guide or amusing and well-meaning sidekick – must learn to reconcile his forlorn past with his exalted present to empathize with and help those in need.

Renowned social worker and researcher, Brene Brown, has authored many books and delivered multiple Ted Talks about the tremendous power of empathy. In one poignant short video[1], she describes that empathy, according to researcher Theresa Wiseman, is a combination of four factors: perspective taking, withholding judgment, recognizing emotion in other people, and communicating that through what DBT therapists would call validation. Empathy, says Brene Brown, is “feeling with people,” it is “going down into the hole [with them] and saying, ‘I know what it’s like down here.’” Empathy is “a vulnerable choice,” because when someone is struggling or in pain, true empathy means sitting in that pain with them, and connecting to their emotional experience by accessing the thoughts, memories, and experiences within ourselves that parallel those emotions. True empathy and compassion for our fellow man is therefore no easy task, even while it is essential to foster the kind of long lasting connection mankind needs to coexist safely and humanely.

In his 5778 Covenant and Conversation article[2] on Parshas Mishpatim, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l notes that many of the laws found in Parshas Mishpatim are about increasing Klal Yisrael’s empathy. We are given detailed laws regarding the proper treatment of slaves and servants, instructed to be mindful of how we treat the orphan and the widow, to heed the plight of the stranger, to be especially careful with our animals to prevent damages to other people’s property, and the list goes on. We are asked to do these things because we, too, were once slaves, and strangers in a foreign land, feeling abandoned and lost like a parentless child or widow. We are instructed to take heed regarding where our animals graze, and how we conduct our business, and the nature of our personal lives and how we involve others in them, because we cannot afford to lose sight of what it means to take advantage of someone else, just because we have finally gained the upper hand.

Rabbi Sacks explains that empathy is not a luxury, but the cornerstone of a functional society. As such, immediately as we come down from the high of Matan Torah, we cannot let our newfound grandeur get to our heads – we need to be reminded of who we were mere weeks prior, and to be instructed in how to treat our fellow men of ALL statuses, irrespective of who they are or how they treat us. No matter how mighty and superior we felt having just heard God speak to us directly, we cannot afford to forget how just months ago we were crying to God in desperation, and as such, we must vow never to be responsible for eliciting that same anguished cry from someone else. Whether the stranger, the orphan, the widow, our neighbor, or our business partner – however we wronged them, we must be prepared to remunerate the damage or loss, we must be reminded of how similar we are or were to them, instead of the difference we might feel from our new lofty position.

As we’ve discussed previously, Judaism is a behavioral religion, capitalizing on the idea that actions change our thoughts and feelings, as the Sefer HaChinuch (16:2) notes, “Acharei HaPeulos Nimshachim HaLevavos.” Through acting with compassion and empathy toward every human being, we keep that humane love for others alive, no matter our life circumstances. It is reasonable to assume that Bnei Yisrael felt a certain sense of spiritual superiority following the revelation at Sinai – and as such must be reminded that no matter another person’s spiritual or religious status, we are instructed to treat all people with kindness and dignity.

Rav Wolbe notes that we are even commanded (23:5) to help the fallen donkey of our “enemy.” On a simple level, this is asking of us to engage in opposite action, to deal with even those who have wronged us with kindness, in order not to decrease our empathy through inaction or inertia. Yet, R’ Wolbe explains that according to the Gemara (Bava Metzia 21b) the word “enemy” refers to a heretic, someone whose actions give cause for us to hate him according to Torah law. We are even required to come to the aid of such a person, to separate the person from his actions and still feel for his, and his animal’s, misfortune, and to not smother our empathy even in such a case – for we, too, have made mistakes, and been stuck with no one to help us.

This week, consider how you can increase your empathy toward the other human beings in your life – whatever their history, whatever their status. Though central to our origin story, Judaism is about more than just the lights and sounds of Matan Torah – it is about nurturing others, about caring for the wellbeing of our neighbors by tending to minute details in our business and agriculture and personal lives that no one may ever see. To be a Torah Jew is to access the experiences and emotions that connect you to your fellow man, to foster empathy, to be fair and kind and compassionate, within a set of just boundaries that can sustain a society of princes and a holy nation.



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