Rabbi David Woznica on Empathy

In almost every conversation, at least that I have these days, somewhere along the way I hear the following said: “Look, we just don’t know.” I suspect that sounds familiar.

And with that uncertainty, I want to speak to you about an issue that is dividing our nation. It’s the question of opening up a term that used to be reserved primarily for the dental office:

“Do we open up? How quickly do we open up? How much do we open up?”

Well, the majority of Californians definitely support the shutdown. There are some who feel differently. And there have been public demonstrations expressing anger.

You know the thinking on both sides of the question: The longer we keep businesses closed, the more cautious we are, the fewer people will be exposed and contract COVID-19 and ultimately there will be fewer deaths.

In the other position, people assert that they’re being denied their liberty to walk on the beach or to open a business. It might be the person with a nail salon or who wants to go back to work in a restaurant. They see their savings dwindle, and they fear that things have gone far enough.

I’m not advising a position, but I do want to share two thoughts: 1) that it’s difficult to be fully empathetic; and 2) the importance of not demonizing those with whom we disagree.

So let’s look at empathy. It is said that we’re all in the same boat. Well, I want to suggest that’s not really true. What we are is in the same storm, the storm is the pandemic. It affects everybody.

But there are many different boats. If you have, God forbid, lost a loved one to this disease, or have a loved one who was sick – you’re in one boat.

If you’re a single mother or a single father or you are a parent at home with children, you’re in a different boat.

If you’ve lost your job, or you’re scared that you can’t pay for necessities or you’re in line, waiting for food, that is yet another boat.

We can be somewhat sympathetic to people in different boats. But it’s almost impossible to fully feel what they’re feeling.

I read an account from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin that I think well illustrates this. In the 19th century, there was in a town in Eastern Europe, a long period of freezing weather. And the local Hasidic Rabbi needed to raise money for the poor. So he goes to the home of the town’s richest man, he knocks on the door, the man invites him inside.

The rabbi says, “No. I’m only here for a moment and let’s talk on the doorstep.” He then asked the man about his wife and children. The man felt his own teeth chattering and he, he asked for the Rabbi to come inside. Instead, the Rabbi asked the man about his business. The man is now shivering.

“Rabbi, please come inside and tell me why you’d come into my home,” but the Rabbi stays outside and says, “I’ve come to ask you for 100 rubles to buy wood to give me to heat the houses of the poor.”

And the man says, “If I promise to give it to you, will you come inside?”

“Yes.”

“Then I will give you the money right now.” And then he says, “If you knew all along that you want what you were planning to ask me, why didn’t you come in right away and ask?”

And the Rabbi says “If I came in as soon as you opened the door, you would have brought me into a comfortable chair in your living room, you probably would have given me some hot tea, you would have had some, and the fireplace would be warming us. And when I would have asked you for money to heat the houses of the poor, you would have offered me five, maybe 10 rubles. But standing outside, you experienced just for a few minutes the bitterness of the cold the poor are experiencing all the time. I wanted you to be feeling that bitter cold when I asked you for 100 rubles.”

It’s very hard to be truly empathetic, unless you are experiencing that very same hardship.

But it’s important to try to be empathetic for another reason. Because the more empathetic we can be, the more we can put ourselves in another boat, the less likely we are to demonize those with whom we disagree. And that’s very important. People may hold a different perspective than we do. It doesn’t make them selfish. In fact, they’re likely to be just as decent as we are. They’re just in a different boat.

Eric note: Rabbi David Woznica is a member of the Clergy at Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles, and I am very lucky to call him a friend. This is excerpted, with permission, from his sermon on June 6, 2020.

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