Re’eh 5775: Mirror, Mirror
“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”
— Walt Whitman
We often think of humans as being naturally selfish and driven towards personal gain. After all, we are biologically driven for genetic survival and the fittest among us tend to survive. It is not necessarily a world that favours or accommodates vulnerability or faithful relationships. But there is more to humanity than just the genetic drives towards survival. As Jeremy Rifkin points out in his book ‘The Empathic Civilization’, we are also soft-wired for empathy. We have an innate capacity to see the experience of others and feel it ourselves. As conscious animals, we not only have the ability to feel what another is experiencing, we can also understand it and act upon it.
In the midst of a discussion on the treatment of slaves, Perashat Re’eh sets a limit to the servitude and demands that the master set the slave free after a maximum of seven years. The master is further commanded to liberally provide the freed servant with flock, wool, wine, and more — he is not to leave empty handed. All of this is capped with a verse that commands us to remember our own slavery.
And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and G-d your Lord redeemed you. Therefore, I command you this issue today. (15:15)
Beyond commanding us to provide for the slave, the Torah commands us to identify with the plight of the slave. The charge to access our memory, personal or national, and see ourselves in the slave, brings us out of sympathy and into empathy. In sympathy we acknowledge the feelings and circumstances of another person, in empathy we share in the feelings and exist in the circumstance of the other person. In sympathy we see them, in empathy we see ourselves in them.
The Torah’s commandment to “remember that you were a slave” inherently commands us to remember that we were once children, less knowledgable, poorer, or weaker, when we see someone in similar states. When we can remember the various iterations of our own lives, and identify them in others, we open ourselves to feel another’s pain, experience another’s joy, and be excited by another’s accomplishment. We can give genuine honour to the people with whom we share this world in order that we may build a society of care and solidarity. The respect and dignity that we afford one another come from our capacity for empathy and in our willingness to see in others the beauty and complexity of the human spirit.
Rabbi Joseph Dweck