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The Priceless Value of Empathy

Empathy, “the capacity to place oneself in another’s position,” is one of the hardest things for anyone to achieve. It is almost impossible to change someone’s mind unless you first understand how they think, what makes them tick.

One of the hardest things in the world to do is to set our own perspective aside, and see things from someone else’s point of view. A true friend is someone who listens. A great salesman is someone who knows what you want – even need – to hear. A writer can be great if they can truly get inside the mind of the reader, and pre-emptively understand how their words will be read.

A failure to communicate stems from the failure to have empathy. Engineers usually do not fall short because they are bad at engineering; they fail when they cannot put themselves in the minds of their audience to understand how their words and powerpoint presentations will be received. An engineer who cannot communicate effectively is worse than useless.

Rabbi David Fohrman offers a brilliant analysis of our foremothers Rachel and Leah. He explains that Rachel’s greatness is found when her sister rebuffs childless Rachel’s request to share in a precious moment when a child comes home with flowers for his mommy. Leah fires back: “You first took my husband, and now you take my son’s flowers?”

Rachel replies: “Therefore he shall lie with you tonight, in return for your son’s flowers.”

What’s going on here? Fohrman explains that Rachel, who was obsessed with the fact that she had no children, and that her sister seemed to be getting all the good things in life, was immediately struck by an epiphany: from her sister’s perspective, it is Leah, not Rachel, who is the victim in the relationship. In contrast to Leah, Rachel was shapely and beautiful. It was Leah who had to pretend to be someone else on her own wedding night. It was Leah who had to be married to a man who hated her, a man who openly preferred her sister.

But in that moment, Rachel managed to flip her perspective, and see it from her sister‘s point of view instead of her own viewpoint, barren and bitter that it was. Fohrman puts words in her mouth: “How could I ask you to share the joy of your child, without me sharing in return with you?” She declared a truce, and gave her husband to her sister in return for the flowers. Rachel gave Leah and Jacob a do-over for the wedding night. The child that was conceived that night is named for “reward” – the reward both sisters get for that moment of empathy, for that truce between them.

It is the first act of empathy in the Torah. And it tells us a lot about much more than this. The entire episode is a validation that BOTH sisters have valid points of view. There is no single “truth” of the matter, and anyone who has empathy has to be able to validate someone else’s point of view, complete with different notions of what is important in life, and even of the facts themselves. To even ask which version is “true” would be to miss the entire point.

In every human interaction there is a clash of perspectives, of different versions of what is true or accurate. The Torah does more than accept this: it endorses it. It is through understanding other people that we learn to grow. Having empathy does not invalidate your own version of reality, your own truth. But it tempers it with the knowledge that there are other valid ways of looking at a situation.

Every proper marriage is an ongoing test in this regard: marriage forces us to wrestle with trying to come to grips with a different point of view. No good marriage can be built on a perfunctory dismissal of your spouse’s way of seeing things. And it is why the High Priest had to be married – if we are not confronted with the challenge of understanding the perspective of a wife, we have no chance at being able to understand the perspective of G-d Almighty. This is not because G-d necessarily sees things as a woman does, but because G-d sees things differently than we do, forcing us to question our perspectives in order to wrestle with the divine.

The Torah is full of examples of different facts emerging. Jacob names a place – but the Torah takes pains to tell us what other people name that same place (e.g. Gen. 28:19 – “Bet-El” versus “Luz”; Gen 31:47 “Jegar-sahadutha” versus “Galeed.” Both names exist and are used. A similar thing happens when Rachel names her son “Ben-Oni”, and Jacob renames him “Benjamin.” Neither name is “true” – each perspective is validated. The names are the way in which we choose to label our world, the prism through which we see it. And if we use different names, then we have accepted that each person has their own version, their own truth. The Torah seems to be telling us that this is perfectly fine.

The text goes much farther than merely different names for places and people, though. The entire last book of the Five Books of Moses, the text I refer to as “The Torah,” is a radical departure from the earlier texts. Deuteronomy is, except for a few verses at the end, a set of speeches given by Moses. These speeches are radical for a very simple reason: the version of events described in them can be very different from how the same event is described earlier in the Torah. Deuteronomy contains Moses’ perspective, and he can present an entirely different set of facts.

Numbers 13:

And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying, “Send thou men, that they may spy out the land of Canaan, which I give to the children of Israel: of every tribe of their fathers shall you send a man, every one a ruler among them.”

But in Deuteronomy (1:22), Moshe tells the people:

Then all of you came to me and said, “Let us send men ahead to reconnoiter the land for us and bring back word on the route we shall follow and the cities we shall come to.” I approved of the plan, and so I selected twelve of your men, one from each tribe.

See the enormous disconnect? In the first telling, the idea is G-d’s. In the second, the idea of sending the spies comes from the people!

I am well aware that one can try to square the circle and try to make both versions somehow true, though such an attempt flies in the face of the actual words. Nevertheless, that is not nearly as interesting as understanding why the text gives us an entirely incompatible set of explanations for who decided to spy out the land!

We can understand why Moses might have changed the story: he was not inclined to blame G-d, and he wanted the people to own their own history and be able to consciously grow past it. He wanted the Jewish people to take responsibility and grow even from their failures. Even if it did not really happen that way!

Yet however we parse it, we have the text with BOTH versions. Which means that the Torah is teaching us, the readers, a very explicit lesson: It is OK to have different – even incompatible – versions of the same story. The purpose of the story is, after all, to grow connections and relationships, to help people make sense of their past, and find the pathways into the future. One could even argue that the Torah’s purpose in telling us the story for a reason easily explains why different explanations of the origin of the world are offered by geologists , physicists, chemists, and, of course, founding religious texts for different religions. There can, thanks to the prism selected, indeed by a vast range of accounts of the creation of the world – with none of them necessarily being wrong.

And so the purist ideal of “one version,” or perhaps even “one true version,” becomes collateral damage, sacrificed when the purpose justifies it. We can – and should – customize the story for the listener, always seeking to find ways to constructively move forward. It is why it is good and right and proper to find ways to compliment others instead of insisting on “telling it as I see it.” The latter is an act of supreme selfishness and indifference, while the former shows sensitivity and consideration.

I fear this lesson is often missed by those who insist that there are somehow no inconsistencies in the Torah, that everything dovetails and aligns perfectly. I take the text seriously, so when there are differences within it, then we are to learn from those differences as well.

The lesson seems evident: there is a deep and inherent value in each person’s perspective. And the notion of a single “true” version of an event is antithetical to the purposes of the Torah. Empathy is a higher goal, because it allows us to build a common vision, an understanding between each other, and between man and G-d.

It is no accident that the Torah gives us different and contradictory versions of events. It is on purpose, to teach us that, as long as we act in good faith, validating different perspectives, names, and even events, it is an act of love, constructively building relationships. That is what the Torah is all about.

Comments are welcome!