Parshat Ekev: Empathy and Action
It was really intimidating. At age 18, I was a brand new madrich (counselor) at Camp Ramah in California. I had never been a chanich (camper) at Ramah. In fact, I had grown up in Wyoming and spoke very little Hebrew. I wasn’t very familiar with the weekday service. I barely knew anyone. Everything was in Hebrew—the announcements, the prayers, everything. I remember that I couldn’t read through the entire Amidah before the Aleinu was finished. A young counselor named Noam was sitting next to me. He saw my discomfort. He helped me. He translated the words I didn’t know in the announcements, he answered my questions about tefilot (prayers) and he never made me feel stupid. That initial help and kindness turned what could have been a very negative experience into a positive one and launched a series of experiences that changed my life and led to my current job as a Ramah director.
Empathy, according to Wikipedia, is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference. In other words, it is the ability to put on someone else’s shoes and walk around in them. I believe that empathy is the single most important skill, value or trait that we try to impart to others at camp.
This week’s Torah portion, Ekev, says that God “shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We are reminded to be empathetic to those at risk because our collective history as a people is that we were powerless and constantly at risk.
Judaism is a very practical religion. One doesn’t have to sacrifice oneself constantly. Rather, one must balance one’s own needs with others. As the great sage Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And, if not now, when?”
Being at camp forces chanichim (campers) and tzevet (staff) alike into social interactions where empathy is often needed to ensure that everyone can live together harmoniously. The ability to see someone else’s point of view often helps us realize that the action of the other person is not personal. Once we realize that something isn’t a personal attack against us, we can open ourselves to hearing the other person. Once we do that, then we can build the relationships that we need.
Empathy also demands that we take action. Thus Hillel’s final admonition, “If not now, when?” On that first day of staff week years ago in California, Noam could have ignored me. Instead he reached out. Our job as staff members is to constantly observe what is happening around us and notice when our empathy is needed. If we act as dugmaot (examples) in this, perhaps we will be successful in teaching our chanichim to do so as well. Shabbat Shalom.