Kol Nidre 2016: Seeing Others in Ourselves

Empathy: For Others and Ourselves

One of the tributes to Israeli leader Shimon Peres upon his death read as follows: “Most leaders in the Middle East have become so hard-bitten that they have completely lost their ability empathize with anyone other than their own tribe. Peres was unique among both Arabs and Israelis in that he could stand in the other guy’s shoes.” Empathy is the cornerstone of reconciliation: between world nations, between groups within the same community, and between individuals.

Last week, my Rosh Hashanah sermon focused on the commandment: “you shall love the stranger as yourself,” as the first step toward restoring harmony within American society. On Yom Kippur, let’s take up a more personal concern: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” as the basis for restoring harmony in our relationships with one another. The Golden Rule entails more than simply treating the other person as you would like to be treated. After all, her needs and desires may be different from yours. What you want for yourself may not be what she wants. “Love your neighbor as yourself” means looking at yourself from her perspective, and treating her accordingly.

Let’s say a friend calls you on the phone to berate you for a slight that you committed. (By the way, by reproaching you, she’s fulfilling the Levitical commandment that immediately precedes “love your neighbor”: “you shall surely reprove your kinsfolk;” plus, she’s acting to your benefit. Better for her to confront you directly than nurse silent grievances and avoid you without telling you why, or—worse still—complain to others about you behind your back, which is quintessential lashon hara. But that’s another sermon.) She accuses you of asking her to do something, and then you went ahead and did it yourself. If you’re anything like me, your first reaction will be defensive: “I was doing you a favor! I was trying to spare you the trouble.” Then she says: “but you never let me help you. You always brush me aside when I offer.” By now, you’re feeling flush, your head is pounding, and thoughts are racing: “she’s making a mountain out of a molehill. What’s the big deal? I don’t have time for this.” So you blurt out: “Look! You’re making this too complicated. I wasn’t trying to offend you; I was just trying to meet my deadline.” Then you go a step further: “Besides! I can never depend upon you. The last time you were supposed to come over to give me a hand, I was waiting on you for hours.” (As the saying goes: the best defense is a strong offense!) At this point, both parties are consumed by their own grievances, and the conversation is unlikely to end amicably.

But let’s consider an alternate scenario. Let’s rewind the altercation to the moment you feel the surge of anger well up. This time, instead of ramping up the counterattack, you take a deep breath. You remember that there have been times when people other than she have been upset with you for taking over tasks that you had assigned to them. You see that it’s a pattern of behavior that you occasionally fall into. So you reply: “you know what. I’m sorry. Maybe deep down I don’t want to be beholden to other people. I guess somewhere inside I believe no one will ever do as good a job as I can, and that’s an attitude I need to let go of.” This is the moment of teshuvah, which is the act of turning away from blaming others and external circumstances and instead turning inward, examining one’s own motives.

Now, contrition is a curious thing. It’s amazing how one person’s admission can sometimes spark another’s. She responds: “Well, to tell you the truth, I got agitated because I worry what I do is never going to live up to your standards. In fact, the reason why sometimes I promise to come over and give you a hand, and then I change my mind and not show up, is because I don’t feel that I have anything of value to contribute.” Suddenly, you gain new understanding of the entire situation. You begin to realize that your fear of letting go of control dovetails with her lack of confidence in her own abilities. Like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, each character flaw fits with the other to elicit mutual feelings of hurt and recrimination. Now not every interchange is going to feature this level of candid confession, nor is it necessary. The point of moral growth is to cultivate an attitude of humility concerning our own character traits and empathy for those of others.

Empathy, meaning viewing situations from the other’s perspective, is the basic ingredient in apology. Consider Maimonides’s basic steps of teshuvah: acknowledging what we have done to the person we harmed, expressing remorse, taking responsibility for our misdeed, and making restitution. These actions are effective for restoring harmony because they focus on the other person, not on us. When want to say “I’m sorry,” we need to be specific; we should avoid expressions such as “I regret it if I hurt you.” We mustn’t qualify our apologies, with statements such as “it was not my intention to cause you distress,” nor justify our behavior, as in “I was stressed out,” or “you made me so mad,” because that’s taking away with one hand what we are trying to give with the other. An apology works only if it is offered in humility: when we make the other person’s feelings paramount and our own experience insignificant. Genuine repentance is painful, which is why we avoid it in the first place. But, here’s the thing: if it hurts, if you’re feeling bad, then take that is a sure sign that your apology is genuine.

Conversely, empathy is also necessary to forgive. In Judaism, granting forgiveness is not an act of generosity that we perform out of good will, but a commandment. But how does one grant forgiveness, in practice? Unforgiving people tend to be those who are conditioned to experience negativity concerning those who offended them, especially fear, and that leads to avoidance and retaliation. Any stimulus that reminds them of past wrongs, even just seeing the offender in passing, reawakens the old hurts and resentments. Victims do not have to wait, and should not wait, until feelings of warmth well up spontaneously, because that may never happen. They can train ourselves to be empathetic.

In his book Wounds Not Healed by Time, Dr. Sol Schimmel presents several clinical models of forgiveness, which include the following practical suggestions: Try to speculate what the offender might have been thinking of feeling during the hurtful event. What were some of his preoccupations that might have had nothing to do with you? Assume that he was not acting with malice or intent to wound you but that his motives were understandable. If so, what might be some explanations for his behavior? Maybe you could even see yourself acting that way under similar circumstances. In fact, call to mind times when you yourself have misbehaved and caused hurt to someone else. Viewing his failures in light of your own will help you cultivate compassion. Finally, recall pleasant experiences you’ve had in the past with the offender, times when you’ve felt connected with him. Instead of zeroing in on the painful episode, it’s important to view the other person in his totality, as a multifaceted person with flaws as well as redeeming qualities, just as you are.
Repentance and forgiveness, the key processes for achieving atonement between human beings, both entail empathy, which is the ability to detach from our own position and adopt the position of the other as if it were our own. So let’s take a moment to think about what that implies. After all, we can’t really know with certainty what’s going on inside another person. It requires an act of imagination. We have to take as an unverifiable axiom that human reactions are the same in all of us. Anyone with normal eyesight agrees that strawberries, cardinals and the planet Mars all have a similar color. But couldn’t it be that what you call red is what I call blue? If no uniform standard exists regarding vision, how much more so regarding emotions. Let’s say you tell me, as your friend, that you are anxious and felling helpless because, God forbid, your daughter is very ill. Now, I don’t have a daughter, and even if I did, it wouldn’t be your daughter. So what does it mean to relate to you in that situation? I’ll never forget the time when, as hospital chaplain, I was trying to comfort a suicidal patient, and she suddenly turned on me, shouting: “you don’t know what I’m going through! You’ll never understand! No one can understand.” Now, I recognized in her outburst the symptoms of severe depression, the feeling of being engulfed in a black hole, beyond the reach of all human contact. All the same, I realized that on some level, she was right. I didn’t know exactly what she was going through. Each of us perceives the world uniquely, nor can we ever directly partake of another’s perception. Consider this very moment: I’m up here on the Bimah speaking the words of this sermon, and all of you are listening (well, many of you, anyway!)—and yet, if there are 200 of us in this room, then there are 200 different versions of what is happening right now.

There is a fundamental loneliness to the human condition resulting from our existence as separate beings. How to bridge the chasm between Self and Other? Ideas, images or sensations can’t do it, because they are constructs and projections in one’s own mind. Connection is possible, however, through love. To be in another’s living presence, to encounter “the face of the Other,” using the terminology of Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, is a transcendent phenomenon. In fact, maybe the very definition of love includes the notion of transcendence: going beyond the confines of the ego to meet the other person in the fullness of their individuality, irreducible to personal wants and desires, to feel what she feels, and experience what she experiences. Love takes place not entirely within the Self, not entirely within the Other, but by extending, reaching into the space between Self and other. The existence of Love and the existence of God are equally preposterous. Both are objectively unverifiable powers. Both entail a leap of faith. For Levinas, the only way we have to experience God is through our loving encounters with other human beings.

The moment you rise above your own concerns and imagine what it’s like to view the world, including your own behavior, from the vantage point of another person is the moment you have fulfilled the commandment: “love your neighbor as yourself.” Or, inasmuch as existentially, we are alien to each other since we can know objectively each other’s reality, maybe it’s more apt to say that at that moment, you have fulfilled the commandment: “love the stranger as yourself.” It is as if you have taken flight and can look down from above at your interior landscape, the other person’s inner landscape, and the ground between you. To perceive all of reality from outside your own mental preoccupations is a transcendent experience and a spiritual gift. At such times, a wellspring of compassion surges up from your heart: for you, for the other, and for the human condition.

Which brings us to the last application of “you shall love the stranger”—applying the commandment to ourselves. The depth of the psyche is unfathomable. Thoughts incessantly come and go in our own heads with no discernable pattern; emotions can shift within seconds without provocation; we are a morass of internal contradictions. One could spend a lifetime in therapy and still only scratch the surface of self-understanding. In this context, “loving the stranger” means accepting with humility that we don’t always have a handle on what drives us, let alone what generates behavior in others. The admission of our own limitations is a cause for wonder and celebration, because it makes the art of living a grand adventure. Realizing that it’s perfectly normal to make mistakes and act foolishly, that hurting other people is an inevitable facet of taking part in family and community life, that we’re all flawed creatures, just trying to make our way through life the best we know how, means we can spend less mental and physical energy protecting our egos and more of it owning up to our responsibility. We begin to treat ourselves and others with compassion, and maybe a little bit of humor thrown in.