Rabbi Krichiver’s Rosh Hashanah Sermon: Empathy

There is a moment each year in which I personally prepare for the High Holy Days.  It usually occurs only a few days before services.  All our cues are prepared, books are set out, the wall between the Social Hall and the Sanctuary is opened, and pristine lines of chairs fill the space.  Light streams in every window, our bimah looks beautiful, and I stand at the pulpit and take it all in.  In my mind I know that soon every one of these seats will be taken by you, and that as I scan the room I will see one friend after another.

In the quiet peace before the storm of Rosh Hashanah parking, Rosh Hashanah energy, Rosh Hashanah setup and take down and challah for the bimah and retreat planning for camp and full steam ahead – I take a deep breath and allow myself to open the door and walk through.

We have gathered together for this special day.  Our prayers find each other in the space between our homes, rolling through cul-de-sacs and busy boulevards, and maybe, just maybe, they meet in our sanctuary, under the hot lights and cameras rolling.  Meanwhile we are not able to see one another, even on computer screens, we are not able to shake hands or hug, to share words of welcome or to feel surrounded by familiar faces.  Instead, this year we are distanced, we are isolated, we are uncertain about what the next weeks or months might bring.

The Days of Awe ask us to consider important questions about the direction of our lives.  The Machzor asks us to sit with the very real and ever-present shadow of mortality.  This year we need not such prompting.  We have already taken an enormous step away form normal life.  This year, we have been forced out of a routine existence, to grapple with the global COVD pandemic.

We are acutely aware of the thin line between life and death.  We see before us each day that our smallest actions can have significant consequences, not only for ourselves, but more importantly for others – those for whom we feel responsible.  The Torah’s text is especially resonant today, “I set before you this day life and blessing, or death and curses.  Choose life, that you and your children might live.” (Deut. 30:19)

Life is precarious at the best of times.  But for the past six months, life has seemed more fragile, and more precious; more fleeting, and more valuable.  In a way, every day has been a Yom Tov, a Holy Day, a day to take stock of our lives and relationships.

The hope of course is that our self-reflection during the Days of Awe will bring us closer to each other, that we will begin this new Jewish year with new confidence in ourselves.  That same hope exists that dealing with a crisis on the scale of this Corona Virus might bring us together; might bring out the best in us.  But somehow this unfolding tragedy has been incredibly divisive.  Tragedies usually bring communities together.  Hurricanes, floods, fires and even shootings of the past have triggered our empathy in response, and have called us to connect with our shared humanity.  We have witnessed countless examples of selfless acts – individuals reaching out beyond the boundaries of race and religion, socioeconomics and status to simply help each other, care for each other – looking past their own needs, even their own safety to ensure that others are cared for.

Where is that empathy now?  Rather than using this crisis as an opportunity to see commonalities, too many have used this moment for personal or political gain, and we have all suffered for it.  Could we have ever imagined that empathy could be such a contentious word?  A pejorative for some, overtly political for others?  Shame on us.

Especially in this country we have been unable or unwilling to lead with empathy, to care for those more vulnerable than ourselves by taking even the simplest of precautions.  We have set aside concern for our community’s elders, we have complained loudly about the inconvenience of quarantine and the absence of sports, or dinners out, or vacations.  We have forgotten to thank or even notice those risking their lives on the front lines.  The numbers have made us increasingly numb; we have too easily looked past 190,000 Americans dead, a number which will likely reach close to half a million souls by January.

Why?  We won’t be inconvenienced to wear masks properly.  We don’t distance ourselves from groups.  We seem utterly disconnected from the idea of making personal sacrifices for the greater good.  And while not all are guilty, let us admit these failings together and take responsibility, on this day of all days.

Once many passengers on a boat were shocked to see one man beginning to drill under his seat.  “What are you doing?” they cry, “you’ll drown us all!”  The man replies, “What business is it of your?  What I do here, under my own seat does not concern you.” (Lev Rabba 4:6)

A simple story with a simple lesson, a reminder that we are all, literally and figuratively, in the same boat.  Our decisions affect those around us, and it is our human and religious obligation to care for those at risk.  During this pandemic we know that minority groups are disproportionately affects, poorer families are more at risk because of food instability, lack of resources, even homelessness.

We must care that it is profoundly more difficult for children in poverty when school goes online – because they lack the technology at home, or their parents cannot stay home with them.  Some will go without lunch, because their families depend on the school for that.  All of these concerns grow directly from simple, human empathy.  “Remember the stranger, for you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex 22:21)  We are called upon to see the suffering of others, and to feel it as our responsibility.

The Talmud teaches: “If you can save your household, you are obligated to save your household.  If you can save your neighbors too, it is your sin if you do nothing.  And if you have the power to save the entire world, then you are obligated to save the entire world.” (BT Shabbat 54b).  We are one family despite our divisions.  Our primary responsibility is to care about, and for one another.

Why is it so hard for us to feel compassion for others?  Why is our first response to blame the homeless for their own misfortune, or to leave those with mental health issues to fend for themselves especially now?  How has the threat of a quickly spreading and deadly virus not moved us to respond with unity and purpose, compassion and kindness?

This month the World Health Organization Director- General spoke about the alarming lack of concern for those dying of COVID-19, especially for those 65 and older.  He calls it our “moral bankruptcy” which allows us to feel safe ourselves, even when shortcutting our own precautions, while we disregard the devastating effect this disease is having on others.   It is moral bankruptcy to forget the ties that bind our community together, the responsibilities we have to each other.

Perhaps our country is simply too large to effectively organize a response.  Perhaps we can blame those at the top for not providing us with clearer guidelines and inspiration.  Perhaps we have been too distracted by cell phones and online apps to notice.  ALl of those answers feel somewhat true.  But we have also seen a steady decline in our collective empathy over the past many years.  Research shows us, again and again, that we are losing our ability to empathize with others, especially those who are different from ourselves.

Judaism has preached the importance of empathy since the very beginning.  Our central commandment, the one repeated more times than any other in Torah, is to care for the “other” – the stranger, the orphan, the widow, as we would care for ourselves.  We are commanded to place ourselves in unfamiliar shoes; to consider what dreams, what frustrations, what emotions motivate other people, and to avoid the danger of isolating ourselves within our own experiences.  We can only fulfill this mitzvah of loving the stranger, when we can understand the stranger’s point of view – different from our own.

Did you know, that until the 1940’s doctors provided practically no pain medication for women delivering babies?  In his TED talk[1], Latif Nasser from the science-based podcast RadioLab tells the story of a man named John J. Bonica, better known as the wrestler and circus strong man Johnny “Bull” Walker.  He paid his way through medical school by wrestling and performing with the circus.

When Bonica watched his wife go through the labor and delivery of his children, the pain she felt triggered something powerful for him.  Something the entire medical profession seemed to have overlooked for hundreds of years before.  Her pain caused him to relive his own.  His body had been abused, tattered and torn from many years in the ring.  And he keenly felt every moment of his beloved wife’s pain during delivery as if it were his own.  In his medical career which was to follow, Bonica devoted himself to the study of anesthesiology, and even developed the epidural for delivering mothers.  I find it most powerful to think that no one before him has considered this to be a subject worth exploring, or even writing about seriously. Without empathy, a deeply personal association with the feelings of another person with whom you may share nothing else in common, women were left to suffer.

A large 2018 study[2] found that when we observe the suffering of someone else, parts of our brains can be activated as if we are experiencing the same thing we are witnessing, whether it’s happening to a close friend, or a child refugee an ocean away.  The word used by the study is interconnectedness.  When we open ourselves to the experience of others, we strengthen our capacity to share their feelings with them, to develop our sense of interconnectedness.  This is how we develop empathy.

In a sense, this is the true meaning of the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, which we read on Rosh Hashanah.  Abraham rises early in the morning to fulfill the word of God – to offer his own son as sacrifice.  It is a terrifying story, we are only comforted by knowing that in the end the boy is saved.  Perhaps we should not judge Abraham by his actions at the beginning of the story, but by his awareness at the end.  Abraham realizes that his own fate is entirely wrapped up in the fate of Isaac.  If Abraham is to become the father of multitudes, it will only be through Isaac. They are eternally connected.  Perhaps Abraham only passes God’s test when he heeds the call of the angel, commanding him not to harm the boy, but to see him, to see the pain Abraham has caused, and to find the opening for repair.

Jewish history is the story of offense and forgiveness, of exile and return.  We repeat this pattern over and over again.  We are constantly searching for a feeling of home, we long to be close to one another, as Abraham wishes to reunite with his son.  This is why not a century ago we built a Jewish homeland out of the swamps and deserts of Israel, and not for the first time.  It is our longing for identity, for community, for the feeling of being “known” that defines most of Jewish history, Jewish liturgy, it is our strongest yearning.  We wish to be known, to belong; to be seen and loved.

In every generation we feel separated, exiled, and we long to feel togetherness.  We are scattered across the globe, we struggle, as our people have always struggled, for a home.  The current pandemic, which has forced us apart, and has pushed many into isolation, is only the latest episode of a very familiar story for the Jewish people.

Even when we feel the most isolated, alone and afraid, there are ties that bind us together.  In the Midrash the Jewish people is compared to a single body.  When one limb is injured, the entire body feels the pain.  Disparate parts must work in unison if the body is to survive and thrive; to grow and to improve.

There is something very special about our community.  It is why we work so hard to keep our community strong.  It’s not for the building, but rather for these people with whom we share the building (when we can.)  We share one Jewish soul, and that soul is the reason we long to feel each other’s presence.  Even when we cannot be in the same room, we are filled with the soul of the Jewish people, and on Rosh Hashanah it feels particularly strong.

Commentary on the Torah notices something interesting in the story of Jacob, in the moment his name changes to Israel.  This is truly the very beginning of our story –the story of our peoplehood.  The commentary notices Esav, Jacob’s brother, who in their minds rejects Judaism by selling Jacob his own birthright.  Esav succeeds in life, and has many children.  When he counts his large family and the wealth he has accumulated, it is written that there were many ‘souls’ who attached themselves to his. The word used is Nefashot, in the plural – (Gen 36:6) Esav takes all the ‘souls’ of his house with him.

When Jacob counts his own large family in much the same way, its written a bit differently, (Ex 1:5) “Vayihi kol nefesh yotzei yerech Yaacov shivim nefesh, v’Yoseph haya b’Mitzrayim – the total number from Jacob was seventy when Joseph was still in Egypt.” The word is ‘nefesh,’ the soul of his family, in the singular.  Because his children are all connected by the same Jewish soul.

The world is experiencing many difficult challenges right now. The Jewish community is fractured along the same lines as any other. Our communal soul is sick, as hundreds of thousands of us are literally ill. The very fabric of our society at times seems ready to tear apart.  We feel alone, compartmentalized into haves and have-nots, black and brown and white, liberal and conservative. We are divided by gender and by creed, unable to even comprehend the values and experiences of one another.  Frustrations build, not only because we disagree, but because we so desperately want to feel united. And all of this has been exacerbated by the effects of a global pandemic.

Rosh Hashanah is a moment to change course.  To intentionally and carefully turn our lives towards each other; to remember we all have the capacity to connect with one another on an emotional level, in fact it is our most potent connective tissue – the soul.  It is our caring for each other, our shared soul that has sustained us through countless expulsions and pogroms, through painful disagreements and politics and even pandemics.  This is who we are; this is who you are.  You carry within you a part of the Jewish Nefesh, the soul of our people.  It runs through your veins as well as mine.

We are designed to feel each other’s joy, and to share in each other’s pain.  We are connected by history and ethics, story and song, ritual and liturgy.  We share a common language, a common past and a unifying destiny.  We can connect with that feeling on no other day more than Rosh Hashanah, the New Year for the Jewish people, and the New Year for all of God’s Creation.  When our goodwill extends to every other Jewish soul, it becomes possible to feel the bonds of destiny reaching out further, embracing all of humanity in brotherhood and sisterhood.  Once a year we are given this opportunity to gather, even if only virtually, to reconnect with each other, to reconnect with the soul of our people, and to reconnect with all who dwell on earth, all God’s creations, all whose fates are woven together.

When we gather on Yom Kippur in ten days’ time, we will begin that day by acknowledging all those who pray around us.  It is my favorite moment of the High Holy Days.  We read, “In the sight of God and of this congregation, no matter how far some of us may have transgressed by departing from our people and our heritage, we pray as one on this Day of Repentance.  No matter our differences, on these days we stand together, facing the King of Kings, the One who judges.  We know we are no better, and no worse than anyone around us.

It takes an act of will to approach these days with that spirit, especially this year, as we watch through a video screen.  But we are not alone.  Today we are connected with the soul of Jewish people all around the globe, counting their numbers with our own, feeling the strength of all our prayers uniting.

In this new year of fresh possibilities, may our Nefesh, the spirit that binds us together, that forces us to stop and pause and really “see” one another, enable us to look with optimism into the coming year.  May we truly believe that change within us, and through us to others, can heal the wounds that afflict the world.



[2] https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/i-feel-your-pain-the-neuroscience-of-empathy