Apr 23 2020 Dvar Torah

Rabbi Helen Cohn

Empathy in a time of Pandemic

Mussar is the Jewish practice of character refinement, based on working with specific traits call middot (sing. middah). Our congregation has two mussar groups who work with a middah for two weeks at a time. Last December we created the list of middot for 2020, months before COVID-19. However, each trait during the past several months has been surprisingly fitting for our unique situation, including the current middah, Empathy.

The English words Empathy and Compassion are often defined slightly differently. Empathy means sympathetically feeling oneself in another’s position; Compassion means doing something specific because of a feeling of empathy.

As we huddle in place, our ability to act in an empathic way is greatly limited. Yes, we are touched and inspired by acts of generosity and kindness that we hear about, and the actions that some of us do here in our own community. But we also personally feel our many constraints.

Our Jewish texts offer guidance for caring for someone who is ill. This is one of my favorite examples:

One of the students of Rabbi Akiva became ill. The Sages did not visit him, so Rabbi Akiva visited him. He swept and cleaned the floor, and the student recovered. The student said, “My teacher, you revived me.” Rabbi Akiva then taught: anyone who does not visit the ill, it is as if that person is spilling blood. (B. Talmud, Nedarim 40b) Interpretation: it could be the sick person has no one caring for him, and if he has no visitors, no one will know his situation and therefore no one will come to his aid.

But our situation is exactly the opposite: we cannot (under most circumstances) visit the ill. We cannot even visit a person who needs consolation because of fear, anxiety, or being in a period of mourning. What, then, can we do? How can Empathy guide our behavior? We might ask: What do we want from others, as we isolate in our own homes? Perhaps looking with empathy at our own situation we will be guided to see what we can do for others.