The Beginning of Empathy

“In the beginning.”  This week we start the journey through the Books of Genesis, Exodus and Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy over again.  Again we confront the many challenges to faith and practice embedded in the ancient stories of family struggle and the birth of a national destiny.  But here, in the beginning, the very birth of humanity and our consciousness of meaning and purpose in the universe, our story is simpler, more directive, more universal.  God creates humankind for a specific purpose, summed up in a single word – kivshuha – to conquer it.

In later texts we find the same word used to describe the way in which we are to avoid the temptation of what the rabbis call the Yetzer Harah, our inclination to evil – v’eizeh hu gibor, hakovesh et yitzro – who is strong, one who conquers their inclination.  Are we to understand that our sole purpose on earth, the reason for our creation, is to overpower the natural world, to bend it to our will, to use its resources, bleed the land dry, to become Master and Keeper?  There are clearly some who think so, and the text would seem to argue as much.

But there is an alternative, equally compelling case to be made for the exact opposite reading.  The word Kivush or Kovesh is also used to describe the way in which we were created, out of the earth, to protect and care for the earth – as in Micah 7:19 – God will take us back in love, yichbosh avonoteinu – and God will defend against our iniquities, or cover them up,”  God will take care of us.

Wrapped up in this one tiny word lies the heart of an ongoing timeless debate about the nature of humankind’s relationship with our surroundings.  Are we here to advance and manipulate, to use and perhaps to use up?  Or are we defenders of the Garden of Eden, finding our way to perfection through an appreciation of the world and all its resources?

Abraham Joshua Heschel provides us this powerful context for understanding what motivates each of us to join together in sacred community.  “Religion is an answer to man’s ultimate questions,” he writes, “the moment we become oblivious to ultimate questions, religion becomes irrelevant…”

Genesis, chapter one provides us with one of the most fundamental questions – are we here to use what we see around us to reach for the stars, to conquer the natural world like an enemy at wartime?  Or are we here to protect, shelter, and to care, to ensure that while we explore advances, we always do it with the least, the lost and the last in mind?

This debate not only applies to those who would drill in the Arctic Circle, or fight for protection of specific species of animals, it also speaks to those whose primary connection to their religion is their own spirituality.  We either turn upward, building structures that help us get closer to God, or we turn outward, building programs that help our fellow human beings.

The midrash contains an interesting response to the dilemma.  Responding to a grammatical quirk in this same sentence, Rabbi Hanina responds (Gen Rabbah 8:12) – If humanity merits it, God says, you shall conquer.  If humanity does not merit it, God says, they shall descend [and need My protection.]

Living a spiritual life – that is – concentrating on the “right” way to live, means learning to live in the space between.  It means developing an awareness of a greater unifying power that brings meaning and depth to our experience of life, reaching upwards, becoming the conqueror.  And it also means developing a better listening ear to others around us – learning how to break past the barriers that keep us from seeing and hearing one another – reaching outwards, recognizing our shared humanity and receiving God’s protection.

Our anxiety tells us, “We do not have real connections with these people around us!  We do not feel understood, heard, known?”  We live walled in by our five senses and our private experience of the world, and even those closest to us sometimes feel very far away.  Strengthening our own sense of empathy, of understanding what it means to walk in another person’s shoes, means we become much more aware of others making the same efforts with us.  We learn to listen, and we learn to be listened to – to enter into real honest relationships with others, and to form the strong bond of community and of family.  Empathy is the true goal of religious life.

This is why we welcome each other on Friday nights, why we wish each other a Shabbat Shalom.  This is why we cannot imagine celebrating holidays such as Yom Kippur, Passover, or Shabbat, by ourselves, and why it feels so lonely to do so if we must.  Judaism is celebrated in a context – a chavura or congregation; a family gathering or with many generations around a single table.  We notice each other, and we begin to learn when to be there for each other – when our presence is required.  You are needed to make this congregation work, we are nothing if not for you.  When one of us is in the hospital, or one of us has a new baby or grandchild, when one of us gets married, we gather together, we support each other, we celebrate with one another.

This lesson of empathy keeps growing.  We learn to listen not only to those who share these pews with us, but to those outside, we listen to those whose opinions do not match our own, to strengthen our ability to recognize those things which unite us even in discord.  We learn to take note of those who have the least voice, those who we forget about most easily, those whose faces are also a reflection of the presence of God in the world, but who do not or cannot tend to their most basic needs.

They are our brothers and sisters.  On the High Holy Days I spoke of race and identity, and the ways in which we all share the task of expanding our vision to include those who find themselves born without the many advantages most of us take for granted.  One congregant told me recently, expressing gratitude for his situation, “Rabbi, you know, I’ve won every lottery there is…” and he wasn’t talking about material wealth, he was talking about his family, his parents, his career, his spouse.  Another congregant just yesterday, told me, “my husband and I have had some health challenges, but we are just so grateful for everything we have.”  That gratitude becomes a call to action when viewed through our religious lens.  And being a religious person means responding to that call.  This has always been our impetus for pursuing a social justice agenda.  All our volunteering and fundraising and support of other non-profits serve as our response to the call.

Tonight let me leave you with a few sobering facts.  Indiana ranks thirty out of fifty compared to all other states in addressing the basic needs of those below the poverty line.  In 2013 our state knew of over thirty thousand homeless children, a number that increases substantially every year.  And as of that year, our state had no plan in place which included families with children.  We have more children with no health insurance, more households paying more than half of their income on rent, and more children living in poverty than almost forty of the fifty states.

But we are also a strong part of our state’s best response thus far to the specific issue of family homelessness.  Family Promise of Greater Indianapolis is celebrating twenty years of service this year.  Our Interfaith Hospitality Network is just one example of the many ways our congregation partners with other faith-based organizations and churches to help fight for those who need for us to see them, to hear them, to share with them our vision of Tzedek, justice.  In 2014 IHC served 53 families and 186 individuals, 105 of whom were children.  These homeless families spent four weeks at IHC, sharing meals, playtime and our roof over their heads, with amazing volunteers, over 75 volunteers who we recruit for a single week of hosting.  I can tell you from my own experience, we do many powerful volunteer activities, but there is nothing more powerful than IHN.  67% of families who left the program last year, left for permanent housing, having received training and skill building through Family Promise.  “On average” they report, “guests arrived vulnerable and left the program safe.”  We are especially grateful to our IHC chairs as part of our Social Justice committee, Alex Slabosky, a past president of IHC who serves on their board, as well as Mitch Katz, who served as the President of Family Promise and continues to serve on our own board – the efforts of our entire group are extraordinary.

“In the beginning:”  a new year, a new Torah reading, a new start for programming, schools and for our more personal spiritual journeys.  If you haven’t volunteered for one of our Social Justice initiatives, now is the time.  There are large and small ways to help with the next hosting of the Interfaith Hospitality Network, information is available at tables in our gathering space after services.  Through our efforts, may we learn to strengthen our resolve to listen, to hear and to see the Divine in others, and learn to protect and defend, rather than conquer our world and all its inhabitants.