~ by Amichai Lau-Lavie, Faith House Advisory Council member, and founder, executive, and artistic director of Storahtelling Inc.
“God Bless You”– this common post-sneeze sacred invocation that
has gone completely secular is uttered endlessly and mindlessly around
the world. Just like ‘God Bless America,’ this is often simply a polite
figure of speech, a civic, civil nicety. In Hebrew you say “La’brioot”
– “to health.”
but either way, these are expressions of empathy, and I’ve been
intrigued by this word/concept–empathy–for about a week now. How come
there is no word for “empathy” in Hebrew? No exact translation, that is
– Israelis say “empatia,” one of many foreign words that migrated into
Modern Hebrew and stuck. It’s a telling fact, though, that words like
‘empathy’ or ‘pluralism’ or ‘text’ do not have an Israeli life of their
own. These days, I wonder not only about the missing word in Hebrew but
also about the collective ability to exercise the word’s imperative: to
feel empathy towards others, esp. others in distress, and esp. others
in distress who are very much ‘the other.’
the ceasefire in Gaza, and many efforts at rehabilitation take place–
physical, emotional, political and diplomatic. But for many here in
Israel, the anger remains. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Merely
suggesting the expression of empathy towards the people of Gaza,
alongside support for the IDF soldiers and the people of Sdeort, gets
many Israelis – including family members and close friends – furious.
Calls for empathy and care for the estimated 20,000 Gaza residents who
are now homeless is met with pursed lips: “let Hamas help them, its
their own fault.” Empathy, generally recognized as “the ability to
sense and understand someone else’s feelings as if they were one’s
own,” seems to take a backseat to her fierce and frugal sister –
survival. “I just can’t afford to be thinking about them right now” M.
tells me. I get this approach but it drives me nuts. ‘You’ve been in NY
for too long’ B. tells me ‘this is how we roll here, remember?’ This
isn’t helping either.
voices, and other initiatives that think and do otherwise. L., for
instance, a 27 year old student from Jerusalem who teamed up with
another student and organized within 5 days a 7 truck convey of
emergency supplies to Gaza, thousands of Israeli donations of clothes,
food, blankets and personal letters from Israeli citizens to the
families beyond the border. I met L. at the weekly Zohar class we
attend at the Hartman Institute – who knew she was such an organizer?
She didn’t sleep for a week and offered many of us a way to be really
helpful. I helped by carrying boxes. The story hit the media two days
ago — even Al Jazeera wanted to interview her…
meanwhile, I’ve been asking people for Hebrew translation for ‘empathy’
– heads are scratched, options offered, all admit that there is no one
single perfect Hebrew word for it. Yet. How long has it been missing?
How come there isn’t one?
mid-carrying-boxes, “‘love your neighbor as you love yourself’ is the
root of empathy – and Judaism’s core concept – but I guess it got lost
in translation. isn’t this in the Bible somewhere?”
turn to search for empathy in Exodus and check the tale out this week’s Torah
reading. It’s got the Prime Time coverage of the actual moment of the
Exodus – the last midnight in Egypt. The firstborn of Egypt are slain –
and there isn’t a home in the land that has not been struck by death.
Amid the screams, the king relents – demands that they leave the land –
and offers the most audacious invitation for empathy:
can he expect Moses and his people to have anything but hatred in their
hearts towards him? And yet he asks. And we are invited to consider,
seriously, his request. Can we bless the enemy – then, now?
let’s say we do decide to grant him a blessing – let’s pretend that
empathy swims in our veins – what blessing would he receive? What
blessing would you offer the ruler who has ruled over your misery?
past Sunday evening, right after the Zohar class (in which L. updates
us that the convoy of trucks, courtesy of the UN, made it into Gaza and
that the supplies have already been delivered) I walk over to my
parents’ house to have dinner. it’s a 10 minute walk, the evening is
cold and crisp, and on the way I ponder this question – who is my
Pharaoh? Would, could, should I bless him? I recall the
psychological/mystical reading that the Zohar offers the Exodus saga –
this is all a description of our inner drama. The oppressed slaves are
within me – yearning for more freedom, for more autonomy, for more self
expression, Moses is my inner drive for growth, my connection to the
Higher Self, and sometimes this inner Moses will resort to strange
tricks or fierce strikes to get its point across. And Pharaoh – Freud
would call him ‘ego’, and I see him as that part of me that refuses to
change, yet knows he – I – have to change in order to grow. Can I have
empathy towards my inner resistance? Can I have empathy towards my
fellow Israelis who have no empathy?
my father (my mother is out at some lecture) I sit with him and open a
Torah and read the verses with him and ask – what blessing would you
have given the king?
or may not be thinking of his Nazi jailers, or the Hamas fighters or
any other mythic or historical ‘Pharaoh’ as he quietly, and with great
empathy, offers this version of a blessing to the King of Egypt: “May
your river continue to flow.”
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