THE ART OF EMPATHY
וּמֹשֶׁ֗ה הָיָ֥ה רֹעֶ֛ה אֶת־צֹ֛אן יִתְר֥וֹ חֹתְנ֖וֹ כֹּהֵ֣ן מִדְיָ֑ן וַיִּנְהַ֤ג אֶת־הַצֹּאן֙ אַחַ֣ר הַמִּדְבָּ֔ר וַיָּבֹ֛א אֶל־הַ֥ר הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים חֹרֵֽבָה: And Moshe was shepherding his father in law Yitro’s flock, and he led the flock after the desert, and he came to the mountain of G-d in Horeb. (Shemot 3;1)
The part of the Torah, which describes the episode of Moshe being appointed by G-d to be the Jewish leader, begins with the words that Moshe was shepherding the flock. The Midrash tells us that Moshe’s shepherding was why G-d chose Moshe to be the Jewish Leader. Here is the Midrash, word for word.
Our Rabbis said: When Moshe Rabbenu was shepherding Yitro’s flock, a young goat fled. Moshe ran after it, and he reached the goat when the goat stopped running. The goat had reached a pool of water and had stopped to drink. When Moshe came close, he said, “I did not know that you were running because you were thirsty! You must not only be thirsty. You are probably now tired as well.” Moshe carried the goat on his shoulder as he began his walk back to the flock. HKBH said: You have mercy to shepherd the flock of flesh and blood (Yitro). You will shepherd my sheep, the Jewish people. (Shemot Rabbah 2;2)
It seems that Moshe’s upgrade was because of his empathy for a goat! Why is empathy the essential trait of a leader? There are so many qualities that are important character strengths of a leader. Communication, Integrity, Accountability, Humility, Resilience, Vision, Influence, Positivity, Delegation, Confidence, to name just a few. I am sure that Moshe had some amazing characteristics that could have made him worthy of the job. But the deciding trait to give Moshe the baton of leadership was his empathy. Why empathy? What is empathy anyway, and why is it so important?
Empathy means putting others ahead of yourself. It is the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and condition from his or her point of view, rather than from one’s own. Empathy shows that you care, value, and understand. It means listening attentively, putting your complete focus on the person in front of you without becoming distracted. It means you are present to allow others to have their moment showing them that they are heard and that they matter. Empathy is seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, entering into their feelings. It means you are patient to listen, understand, assist, and support, not to advise or fix or reply. Sometimes to empathize is to merely “be.”
When G-d reveals Himself to Moshe in a burning bush, He chose specifically a thorn bush. Rashi explains that G-d chose a thorn bush, to demonstrate, עמו אנכי בצרה. I am with him (the Jewish nation) in pain. The Midrash teaches that the reason why G-d chose a thorn bush is to show that there is no place that He is absent. He is found even in thorns, even in the pain and suffering and challenges.
When G-d told Moshe to tell the Jews that He sent him, He told Moshe to relay to the Jewish leaders the message Pakod Pakadti. After Moshe revealed these words to the leaders and did some magic tricks, the Jewish leaders approached Serah Bat Asher, the oldest Jew in Egypt, to consult with her if she felt that this was the true redeemer. The tricks did not impress Serah. But when she heard that Moshe used the words Pakod Pakadti, Serah jumped up and said, “He is the redeemer!” Those are the words that Yosef told the brothers Pakod Yifkod! That is the secret password!
What does the word Pakad mean, anyway? I was taught that the meaning of those words is that G-d remembered. But the word to remember is not Poked, it is Zocher!
R’ Shimshon R Hirsh explains Poked to mean something much more profound. The word Pakod means when circumstances are set up in a way for a person to reach their life purpose, their Tafkid. (See R”Sh’R’H’ here and Bereshit 33;3) The word at its root is closer to meaning inspection then remember. The word פקד sounds like the word בגד, clothes. This is because G-d is tailoring for you your Tafkid via your struggles and challenges. When you feel that you do not want your difficulties in life, that you absolutely would never choose your struggles… G-d is tailoring your purpose on the planet. He is so close, literally like a tailor, custom tailoring your difficulties to measure up with your life purpose, custom fit to your very own soul! This is because G-d understands you better than anyone else, even better than yourself.
The Midrash tells us another reason why G-d revealed Himself in a thorn bush. The Jews in Exile are compared to the thorns. The Klei Yakar explains this to mean that the reason why the Jews are in exile is their thorn-like behavior, when they do not feel for each other.
The reason why Yosef and his brothers ended up in Egypt was because the lack of empathy for each other. The brothers did not see Yosef’s side of the story. And Yosef was not seeing the side of the brothers. Moshe was the leader of empathy. He could be the one to take the Jews out of Egypt. Mitzrayim, comes from the word Meitzar, a narrow-minded look at the people in your life. Gossip and slander, not accepting and understanding people, is the cause for the Jews to be in Exile. אכן נודע הדבר (see Rashi Shemot 2;14)
People confuse empathy with sympathy. There is a huge difference between the two. Sympathy is when you share the feelings of another; empathy is when you understand the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them. The art of empathy is the art of understanding. People in pain want to feel understood, more than they want people to share in their grief. “Just knowing that someone else knows what I am going through is the greatest relief.” Most times, you cannot share in the pain of the person, for you are not going through what that person is going through. But you can try your best to understand.
G-d is the Master of empathy. בְּֽכָל־צָרָתָ֣ם׀ ל֣וֹ צָ֗ר In all of their suffering (of the Jews), the suffering is to Him. (Yeshayahu 63;9) G-d knows of what we suffer, for He is custom tailoring something amazing.
So how do we bring about the Geulah, the final redemption? Here are the selfie steps to master the art of empathy and bring the Geulah:
- Understand that empathy is not easy. It is understanding and seeing the world from someone else’s eyes.
- Be patient in trying to understand. Don’t try to fix the problem.
- Focus on the other. Forget about yourself for the moment. Pause your judgement.
- Practice empathy even in the smallest of issues. Moshe merited being a leader for having empathy over a tired, young goat.