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Radical Empathy

by Rabbi Lynnda Targan, June 29, 2015

Love Your Neighbor as Yourself (Leviticus 19:18)


The question posed by Dr. David Bryman, the Chief Innovation Officer at The Jewish Education Project for the recent Jewish Futures Conference was, “What would happen if we embraced empathy as the core value of our time?”

It’s a stellar question that has its roots firmly implanted in solid Jewish Tradition. One of the most recognized commandments our Torah teaches is, “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) As teachers, educators and clergy members we are fundamentally committed to loving our students and congregants from the outset. We chose to be Jewish educators because deep in our nishamot we’ve committed to embracing the concept of empathy for others. As we teach, preach, commiserate and celebrate with our communities in times of sorrow and celebration and lift our students out of the miasma of disconnection and into the heart of the Jewish community, we are guided into sacred service through the concept of empathy. But how are we able to sustain this ideal of loving “the other,” of being perennially and perpetually empathetic if we don’t love ourselves first—if we don’t have empathy for our own nishamot?

Rabbi Hillel teaches, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when?” (Avot 1:14) So, what does it mean to be for “yourself” first, for each of us to love ourselves, to be empathetic to our personal internal forces that sustain and motivate us into holy action on behalf of others?

We are blessed to have many Jewish insights at our disposal to help us with the moral imperative to love ourselves. First, know that we are created betzelem elohim (Genesis 1:27), in the image of God, and God is gracious and good. How then can we be otherwise? Our mere existence signifies the fulfillment of God’s design for fruitfulness in the world. Rabbi Abraham Twersky writes that because we exist, there is light in the constellation of the cosmos. God wants us to be lit up by the joy of our unique existence and desires that we bring our exceptional light into the world.

For each of us, loving ourselves enough to ignite sparks in the universe becomes a personal journey and a moral imperative that precedes an empathetic response to the other. Whatever the vehicle, be it therapy, silence, meditation, prayer, performance of mitzvot, the development of a midot refinement practice or the cultivation of an inner climate of gratitude, the path to self-love must be nurtured before empathy ensues. “And if not now, when?”



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