What is Empathy?
There is a story about a young man who was suicidal. When he started being vocal about his feelings, telling anyone who would listen that his death was imminent, his fellow students convinced him to inform the Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, of his plans.
At a private meeting with the Rebbe, he did just that. The Rebbe listened, and tears began to run down the Rabbi’s cheeks. After a few minutes of just standing there and watching the Rebbe cry – the Rebbe didn’t even manage to say a word – the young man ran out of the room, shaken to the core. “Rebbe, what exactly did you do?” Asked the people waiting outside. He told his friends that he no longer planned to end his life. He wants to live. When asked what had happened in the Rebbe’s room, he described the Rabbi’s reaction to his words. And then he concluded: “If I would have only known that there exists a person who cares about me so deeply, I would never have contemplated taking my life…”
“Rebbe, what exactly did you do?” “I try to be a good friend,” the Rebbe replied. “A friend is someone in whose presence you can think aloud without worrying about being taken advantage of. A friend is someone who suffers with you when you are in pain and rejoices in your joy. A friend is someone who looks out for you, and always has your best interests in mind. In fact, a true friend is like an extension of yourself.” The Rebbe proved to be the ultimate empathizer.
Empathy is not to be confused with sympathy. Sympathy is feeling bad for someone else; empathy is feeling bad with, someone else. To be exact: “Empathy is the ability to imagine oneself in another’s position and to experience all the sensations connected with it.”
In the Torah we learn about Moses’ empath when he ventured outside the cushioned palace environment into the real world. The Torah states: “It happened in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brethren and saw their burdens…” (Exodus 2:11) On the words, “He went out to his brethren and saw their burdens” our sages comment: “He focused his eyes and heart to be distressed with them.”
We live in difficult times. Ours, is a suffering world, constantly bombarded by headlines screaming of natural and unnatural disasters. Our hearts are broken, and then broken again. It is so hard not to give in to feelings of apathy, lethargy, and indifference, just in order to survive. After all, how much empathy can a heart endure? Ours is a world desperately in need of friends, true friends. People are lonely. They may conceal it, or distract themselves, but they are hurting inside. They want to love and be loved. As our President Merv Levin, keeps mentioning each Shabbos, just call up 2 people to see how they are doing.
The time has come for each of us to reach out and make one new friend. May G-d protect us all, in our acts of kindness to stay safe and well and let us say, amen!
* Edited by Rabbi David Schonblum from the teachings of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson zt”l /Rebbe.org