One of my daughters told me about a book club she recently organized. She didn’t mean to organize it, it just ended up that way. It wasn’t even her idea, it was the result of a friend telling her that isolation was getting to her and she couldn’t take any more virtual relationships —she needed “real.” And so the idea of an actual book club, where people sit together (socially distanced) in one place (outside) and share thoughts on a book (since they are socially distanced, they will be sharing these thoughts with 4 neighbours who are also in their yards) was born.
The idea was great, but within a few days, her friend told her she was having difficulty finding friends to bring. All of her friends were busy reorganizing their lives, working from home, streaming media on their devices, too overwhelmed to commit to an actual meeting together once a month, or to pledge to finish reading the book. My daughter (continuing to feel compassion for her friend who wants the “real” experience) found a friend who agreed to find more people. (She told me the second person she found is the sister of the first person since it was indeed a challenge to get someone to agree to an actual “real” obligation these days). Soon, friends were finding friends and a book club was formed. Everything went fine and just as they were getting ready to meet for the first time, one month away, the friend tells my daughter she’s not sure she can be there because she had to go to the United States for an important event and when she gets home she will have to self-isolate for 2 weeks. My daughter reminded her that the book club has been organized for her. The friend assured my daughter she could be there…virtually. “Just plug in your laptop in the backyard and zoom me in,” said the friend.
As my daughter was telling me this story I started laughing, at which point she told me that she’s not sure how she got into this position but she is now leading a book club (she didn’t want) with a friend, a ‘sister’ and multiples of people (she’d never met) hosting them in her backyard with a computer plugged in for all the neighbours to share in this “real” experience she suggested while trying to help a friend. I couldn’t stop laughing, the only thought in my head was that this book club should come with only one rule: we never talk about book club (for anyone who’s seen the movie Fight Club, that rule will make sense —for anyone else —it’s a good movie if you’re looking for something to watch because you’re not currently in a book club. If you’re in a book club, it’s also a good book).
Compassion and empathy for others can get all of us into a labyrinth of strategic planning and twists and turns that often lead us to places we never planned. In fact, we often use words like ‘sympathy’ and ‘empathy’ as if they are synonyms — they are not. While Judaism acknowledges the nuances of difference with all of these terms, it doesn’t name them all, but it does show, by example, what the differences are.
There is a wonderful story in the Talmud of a rabbi who helps a colleague rise from his sickbed. After a discussion on the advantages of suffering (which the sick person concludes isn’t worth the price), the rabbi extends his hand and leads his friend to health. Soon after, another rabbi falls ill and the now recovered rabbi visits his sick friend. They also explore the depths of suffering but now the sick rabbi is beginning to pull his friend into the realm of despair along with him. His friend remembers how he was helped to health and so he asks the bedridden rabbi if there is value to this moment of suffering. The sick rabbi responds that he doesn’t want this suffering and the friend extends his hand and leads his colleague to health.
Sympathy is when I feel bad for you, empathy is when I realize I have been in your place and I can help you. The first is an emotion that churns within me, the second is my insight that leads me to act. When we sympathize with each other, we can be pulled into the dark moments of those we are trying to help; when we empathize with each other, we can find ways out of the darkness together because one of us remembers the road out.
In this week’s parshah, Va’etchanan, Moses is pleading with God to be allowed to enter the land of Israel. It is heartbreaking to hear his anguish and even more difficult to read that God has told Moses to stop asking for it —essentially telling Moses that this particular prayer will not be answered and it’s hurtful so the request must stop. Sympathy for Moses will lead us further into our personal theological questions of our relationship with God. It should lead us there. But Moses goes on to teach empathy.
Moses immediately instructs Israel that they must always be kind to strangers because we must always remember we were strangers in Egypt (sympathy) and that God led us out of that predicament to freedom (empathy). If I only feel compassion towards someone who is suffering, I have misunderstood the point of the full statement Moses made. I have been the stranger, I have been the slave, I have been the victim who stands alone, so I can now recognize this predicament when I see it in someone else. Because I have a model of how to be redeemed from that horror, I can extend my hand and lead the stranger out. I am commanded to be empathetic toward someone and not to only feel sympathy for them. Every time we are told we were strangers in Egypt, we are immediately told that God brought us out. It is a full model of moving from sympathy to empathy. It is the way things will change.
My daughter now leads a book club of strangers in her backyard. I imagine them sitting together and sharing new perspectives, without the audio lag of an online portal. It started with a friend reaching out to another friend and a way to share some new perspectives sitting with real people amidst a global pandemic. The answer seemed simple: let’s read some books together.
We’ve all had our moments lately where we are ‘done’ with Covid and not sure what to do. We all sympathize with each other and think of the now popular government slogan to remember “we are all in this together”, which only reinforces that we are all sharing the predicament. I think we’re ready to empathize with each other and find the insights to move from sharing the predicament to enjoying the next step. I can’t help but think of a rabbi, two thousand years ago, who extended his hand to a colleague and said ‘I’ve been where you are, I can show you the way out.’