Consider the following contrasting scenarios:
Scenario A: A child runs into a post during a ball game and bangs her head. She’s escorted into the office for an ice pack by four devoted classmates with worried looks on their faces.
Scenario B: A child slips and falls while playing tag, landing with a thud. Two classmates observing her awkward tumble, start to laugh. The fallen child picks herself up and hobbles to the office alone, for an ice pack.
The ability to be empathetic, to feel another’s pain comes more readily to some than to others. Some children seem to pick up the trait of empathy at an early age, while others need work to develop it. All parents teach their children not to physically hurt other children, or to consciously cause pain. How important is it really to teach children to be empathetic? Isn’t it sufficient that they are not the cause of the distress of others?
There’s an eye-opening Medrash Tanchuma, partially quoted by Rashi in this week’s Parsha. When Moshe Rabbeinu informs Paroh of the impending final Makah, the killing of the first-born, the Pasuk (11:5) includes the first-born of the maid-servants as among the class of first-born who will die. The Medrash Tanchuma (7) asks why do the maid-servants’ first born deserve to die? They were not in a position to enslave the Jews. They were slaves themselves!
The Tanchuma answers: Because they rejoiced over the (evil) decrees visited upon the Jews.
Unlike the other Egyptians they didn’t participate in the persecution of the Jews, they committed no prosecutable crimes, and yet, they received the same Heavenly death sentence – on account of their attitude! Rabbi Isaac Sher zt’l, Rosh Yeshiva of Slabodka, is quoted as saying in reference to a store owner who was jealous of a competitor: If the store owner rejoices when the other’s store burns down, it’s considered as if he burned it down with his own hands. (Aleinu L’Shabeiach Shemos p.186.)
This demonstrates that empathy is no small thing. It’s not enough to not harm another physically or verbally – a person is required to have empathy for another’s plight. It’s not just an `extra’ nicety, it’s not even a lofty Torah ideal – it’s a basic part of one’s humanity. Lacking it, as we see from the handmaidens’ first born, one’s right to life may be forfeited. A (poor) attitude may cost him his life!
Parents and teachers alike must be ever vigilant to develop and nurture this quality of empathy. Our verbal and especially non-verbal reactions to others’ suffering make a big impact on our children – who are always watching our every move. We need to react to tragic events in the news with real sadness and concern, albeit with calm and bitachon and prayer. Our children are learning from us. The current tragedies occurring in Eretz Yisrael are a result of the excision from an entire population’s value system the ability to empathize with the suffering of others. They could not act the way they do, if the default reaction to Jewish suffering was not one of joy and celebration!
We need to listen with empathy, react with empathy and ultimately to act with empathy. Along with all the other knowledge, skills and abilities we work so hard to develop within our children, nurturing an empathetic heart is a key to a life of love, compassion and happiness.
Have a wonderful Shabbos!