Walk a mile in their shoes: Empathy in the face of rebuke

  (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

The Torah passages and Israel's holidays are full of important messages that are relevant and empower our day-today lives. Rabbi Shai Tahan, head of the Sha'arei Ezra community and head of the Arzi HaLebanon teaching house, opens the gates for us to understand these messages, from their source, in a clear way. This week: Walk a Mile in Their Shoes - Empathy in the Face of Rebuke

Human interactions are often shaped by the glimpses of each other's lives that we catch. We form impressions based on the fleeting encounters during our daily routines or the casual conversations about family and children. We see smiling faces in photos and engage in superficial exchanges over text. However, it is crucial to recognize that these glimpses do not provide a comprehensive understanding of someone's life. They are merely fragments, snippets carefully selected and shared with others.

When we ask someone how they are doing, they might respond with a polite "I'm fine" even when they are struggling beneath the surface. They may not feel comfortable or ready to reveal the depths of their challenges. As a result, we must remember that what we see and what we are told is not the entirety of a person's existence. It is merely what they choose to reveal or feel ready to share.

We should resist the temptation to judge or make assumptions based solely on these fragments. Each person is a complex individual with their own unique set of experiences, emotions, and struggles. It is important to approach others with empathy and an open mind, understanding that the challenges they face may be hidden, unseen, or different from our own.

Sefer Devarim opens with the verse: "These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan in the wilderness, in the Arabah opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Dizahab."

Rashi raises a question regarding this verse, noting that Moshe was actually in Arvot Moab at the time and not in the desert or any of the places mentioned in the verse. So why does the verse include those locations? Rashi provides an answer, suggesting that the verse does not imply that the nation were physically present in those places. Instead, it indicates that Moshe was rebuking the nation for their sins associated with those locations. 

According to Rashi's interpretation, each place mentioned hints at a particular sin or incident that occurred there. These locations become symbolic representations of the Israelites' rebellious behavior and serve as a reminder of their past mistakes and shortcomings. The verse, therefore, uses these place names to evoke the memory of the sins committed in those regions and emphasize the need for repentance and improvement as Moshe delivers his rebuke to the nation.

Rashi's interpretation poses a challenge to fitting the verse's simple reading. The verse does not explicitly state that the mentioned places are hinting to specific sins, but rather seems to indicate the physical locations of Moshe and the nation at that time. However, we also cannot interpret the verse literally, as it would imply that Moses and the nation were present in those places, which was not the case.

To answer this, we can refer to a Mishna in Pirkei Avot that states(2,4): "Do not judge a person until you get to his place." This teaching emphasizes that we should not judge someone in our hearts because we do not know the challenges they face. When one rebukes others, it is often because they believe the other person has done something wrong, thus implying a form of judgment. Often, a person's wrongdoing can be attributed to the hardships they face in life, which may include family issues, health challenges, financial setbacks, or various other factors.

The Torah's inclusion of various locations signifies that Moses placed himself mentally and emotionally in those specific situations to effectively rebuke the nation. He empathetically immersed himself in the challenges and hardships experienced by each individual at that time. Though not physically present, Moses wholeheartedly embraced the emotions and perspectives of the people, enabling him to truly understand and address their struggles. The Torah acknowledges and recognizes this profound connection, portraying Moshes' genuine empathy and heartfelt engagement as if he were physically present in those moments.

Moshes' approach to rebuking provides us with a valuable lesson in how to approach the task of admonishing others. It teaches us the importance of placing ourselves in their shoes, empathizing with their experiences and perspectives. It becomes clear that instead of passing judgment or delivering harsh criticism, our focus should shift towards understanding and assisting them. By cultivating empathy and seeking to offer support, we can foster a more compassionate and constructive approach to addressing the shortcomings of others.

This article was written in cooperation with Shuva Israel