Parshat Shemot

Torah Reading for Week of January 12-18, 2020
“Empathy: The Commencement of Redemption”
By Rabbi Tal Sessler, PhD, AJRCA Professor of Rabbinics
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
Why did G-d choose Moses, of all people, to be the human emancipator of our people from slavery and subjugation in Egypt?
The answer to this question is, in one word: “Empathy.” Empathy, the emotive capacity to internalize another person’s plight, and to correspondingly endeavor to proactively alleviate it, is a supreme and noble human trait. G-d chose Moses to spearhead the redemption from Egypt, because Moses personified and exemplified empathy.
A brief look at the formative events in young Moses’ life, pervasively demonstrates the empathic streak inherent in his soul. First, Moses demonstrated familial empathy, by choosing his biological family over the Pharaoh’s family, despite the material temptation of a life of incalculable material privilege in the despot’s palace. Secondly, Moses exemplified national empathy, by intervening when he saw a Hebrew slave being severely tortured and afflicted by an Egyptian officer. Thirdly, Moses emanated universal humanistic empathy, when he rescued in Midian four non-Jewish women, who were being harassed by a group of local Shepherds. And lastly, as the midrash states, Moses expressed empathy for a lost sheep in his flock which strayed away from the path in pursuit of water. Here Moses showed empathy towards a different creature, a non-human fellow living being. It is only at that point, after having demonstrated familial, national, universal and cosmic empathy, that Moses finally earns and merits divine revelation at the burning bush, and is chosen by G-d to be the most important leader, rabbi and prophet, in all of Jewish history.
Moreover, G-d conveys to Moses, that G-d too, is a supremely empathic being, who is attuned and sensitized to the suffering of the enslaved nation. G-d demonstrates empathy, by telling Moses: “I have heard their cry…and I understood their pain (Exodus 3:7).” If we want to be redeemed, to live with more vitality and joy, and to also play an instrumental part in the redemption of this tormented and sublime world of ours, then it is incumbent upon us to emulate the way of G-d and Moses, the way of empathic literacy and empathic masterfulness.

The late Israeli novelist Amos Oz argued that for him, the eleventh commandment entails: “Thou shall not inflict unnecessary pain upon others.” No doubt, this is an honorable and worthy goal and striving. But our tradition expects so much more than that from us. The Torah expects us not only to shy away from proliferating darkness and agony, but also – to become active agents of redemption – by spearheading the light of proactive and impactful empathy wherever we encounter injustice and pain, be it on the individual, or on the collective level.

In a place replete with empathic reservoirs and empathic literacy, the human spirit will eventually emerge triumphant and redeemed. And in a place where there is a pervasive paucity of empathy, the worst atrocities known to humankind can G-d-forbid re-occur. For as Elie Wiesel ingeniously observed: “The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is indifference.”
Shabbat Shalom