Parshas Shemos

To See or Not to See: Cultivating Accurate Empathy

by Miri Korbman

Parshas Shemos is teeming with inspirational and integral lessons and stories that form the foundation of the Jewish people and our collective history, including that of Moshe Rabbeinu’s birth and development into the quintessential Jewish leader. A glance at the pesukim reveals a striking pattern highlighting what made Moshe worthy of being chosen to lead the Jewish people, and teaching us how to live as connected, empathic people.

 

After Moshe is rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter and brought to live in the palace, the Pasuk tells us that Moshe grew up, went out to his brothers, “VaYar Bisivlosam,” and saw their affliction (2:11). The Pesukim then continue to describe how Moshe saw a mitzri hitting a Jew, and, after turning to look and “seeing no man,” subsequently struck down and killed the mitzri and buried him in the sand.

 

In just these two verses alone, the lashon of “VaYar,” - “and he saw” - is used three times. Later, after Moshe has fled to Midyan, we hear about Moshe’s encounter with the Sneh, the burning bush. There, too, the Pasuk says, “VaYar, v’hinei HaSneh Bo’er Ba’Eish,” - and he saw, behold there was a fire within the thorn bush (but it was not consumed). Moshe says to himself, “Asurah Na V’Ereh Maduah Lo Yivar HaSneh,” - let me turn and see why this bush is not being completely burned in the fire (3:2-3). Clearly, there is something important about the Torah’s use of the word “VaYar”. What is it that Moshe was seeing?

 

In several instances throughout his life before returning to take the Jews out of Egypt, Moshe made the incredible choice to look past what was right in front of him, and by so doing, was able to see beyond himself and notice nuances in the world around him. Moshe does not just notice a mitzri hitting a Jew; he goes out and looks for the Jews, goes out to be a “brother” among them, to try to understand their experience. He does not have to notice the Jews at all - as a prince of Egypt, the Jews are not his problem! Similarly, when he notices the Sneh burning, he turns to it, purposefully taking it in and analyzing it, making himself aware of the strangeness he was beholding. Then – and only then! – Hashem in turn “sees” that Moshe chose to take notice, “VaYar Hashem Ki Sar Liros,” and as such, speaks to him (3:4).

 

The ability to notice, to take in the world around us and perceive beyond what is visible, is one of the most important characteristics of a leader, and one of the primary means of interpersonal connection. Being able to see is what allows us to know what another is experiencing, and as such, to understand what he or she might need. In his Sefer Bein Shisha Le’Asor, also known as Olam HaYedidus, Rav Wolbe describes how connecting with others requires an extra level of awareness, which you only get from purposefully looking for that information, looking to see what others lack or might need, and it’s not always intuitive. Providing for others is not merely a matter of feeling for them (sympathy), or even trying to put yourself in their shoes to understand what they’re going through (empathy), as that is still through your lens. Rather it’s a matter of recognizing what THEY need, what they’re asking for, experiencing, or going through, even if you don’t get it and wouldn’t intuitively think that they need those things.

 

Moshe’s ability to see and his choices to take in the world around him enabled him to take care of his brothers, and, as the Midrash explains, also enabled him to take care of his sheep as a shepherd for his father-in-law. When one of Moshe’s sheep ran away from the flock, Moshe not only noticed, he was able to figure out that the sheep, being thirsty and having run to seek water, must also have been tired, and, as such, he carried it back to the flock. It was at this point that Hashem appeared to Moshe in the Sneh, because Hashem saw that Moshe had this trait, this ability to notice the needs of others.

 

Too often, we give to others by turning inward and considering what it is we would appreciate; we “treat others as we would like to be treated.” And of course, there is something to be said for this approach. However, accurate empathy, the ability to truly understand or intuit a person’s thoughts, feelings, experiences, or needs, requires turning outward, listening fully, paying attention to what others say they need, and to what we can ascertain from watching and looking closely at their experience.

 

Moshe clearly exhibited this ability to notice the needs of others, and this enabled him to accurately empathize with and provide for the Jewish people as their leader. Similarly, we see that Hashem puts His “stamp of approval” on this midah, as Rashi explains that Hashem appeared to Moshe in a thorn bush to symbolize the midah of “imo anochi bi’tzara,” that He was with the Jewish people in their pain, a clear form of empathy. How was Hashem able to accurately empathize with Bnei Yisrael? Because He took notice of them! As the Pasuk says, “Va’Yar… es Bnei Yisrael, VaYeidah Elokim.” Hashem looked, took notice of us, and saw that we were in pain – then, and only then! – did He truly “know” that it was time for our redemption, and immediately thereafter, He appears to Moshe at the Sneh to tell him to return to Mitzrayim (2:25).

 

Rav Wolbe notes that empathy, the midah of “Imo Anochi BiTzara,” is a difficult midah to master. Being with others in their pain requires being willing to see, to notice, to listen, to be curious; it requires turning to them and investigating what they are experiencing. The ability to notice the needs of others is the precursor to accurate empathy, and enables us to connect more deeply with people by being able to provide for their needs.

 

This week, let us go out to our brothers, and see what they need. The first step is to turn, to choose to look, to go and investigate. This will help us be able to respond to others with compassion, care, and empathy.