Tuesday, January 27, 2009

DRAGONROD, or Empathy in Goshen?

Storahtelling Solo-Maven Show in Jerusalem
January 24, 2009

by Amichai Lau-Lavie

Empathy has been on my mind a lot these past few weeks – inspired, ignited by the political situation and the hardening of hearts all around me. I walk no moral high ground and am hardly a peace activist, but the fact that ‘empathy’ is so often perceived here in Israel as a left-leaning political statement and not as a basic human, humanitarian (and Jewish) value is really frustrating to me. It feels like there is no room for real conversation about it – so last weekend an opportunity came up to have an open conversation (disguised as Storahtelling performance) about empathy.

Saturday Morning, inside a large public dining room/social hall, 200 Israeli and American college students take their seats, semi circle, facing a long table, with a Torah scroll on it, covered in a bright green prayer shawl. Holding the 10 foot tall ‘rod of Moses’ (a plank of wood I picked up that morning in the parking lot outside) I lead a Storahtelling performance in Kiryat Moriah - an educational conference center in Jerusalem. The organizers of this encounter program wanted the group to have a positive interaction with the Biblical narrative and an open conversation about the role of Bible, ritual and Jewish values in the lives of these students. No problem. I chose 20 verses from the weekly Torah portion, and focused on the moment when Moses actually launches the Exodus Campaign. His first act is to wow Egypt with feats of wonder – his famous rod (handed over since Adam and Eve, according to one legend) and transforms the object into a living alligator (snake is a mistake in translation, the King James Bible suggests Dragon!!). But nobody is impressed and he needs to up the power. This is where the conversation comes in:

I placed the group in role: 'Imagine you are the people Israel, in the land of Goshen, minimum wage migrant workers, slaves to the system, oppressed and abused – when this guy comes up with a plan to get you out. This is the town meeting in which you need to decide, oh Israelites, if you are going along with the Exodus Campaign, support your leader Moses and agree to a violent series of strikes against Egypt, your host/oppressor. Can I see a show of hands – how many are in favor of violence as a way to achieve our freedom? Can I see a show of hands for those opposing violence? Who’s on the fence?’

The room was not split evenly. Most voted for violence and when asked to explain used the rhetoric familiar to us all and demonstrated in the Exodus text– only power will save the day. And also – God said so. Those who spoke for non-violence spoke of Gandhi and of not harming innocent others and won’t it just come back to haunt us later? There was tension in the room- the conversation happened in ‘split screen’ – the story and our reality.

'Well, what about all those dead Egyptians?' I ask. 'Should we even consider the pain of the enemy?? Can one want to be free and still feel for the one preventing the freedom? Can I have empathy to my upstairs neighbors who (having just broken up with his girlfriend) blasts loud music late at night, can he have empathy to the girlfriend who ditched him, can any one of us have empathy towards any random beggar on the street, or the wounded child in Gaza, the firstborn of Egypt?'

There was a long silence, and then everybody wanted to say something.

One young woman was adamant in her reply: NO. I have only this much energy to care for others and at times like these (was she talking Goshen or Gaza?) I only have room for care for my own people. There isn’t always the privilege of having empathy for others. Many agree. One Israeli, politely, stood up and said – you can’t ask this question and expect us to believe that it is a neutral question. The moment you are suggesting we express empathy you are positioning yourself on one side of the political equation. It’s not fair to those of us who think differently. Another guy challenges him – what about ‘don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you?’ and so on.

I wrap is up with a comma, not a period. More will be discussed later- this was just a trigger for further questions.

The Rod of Moses closes the show. It is the same stick with which he will one day strike the rock for water instead of speaking to it – and the price he will pay is high – access to the Holy Land – denied.

Sometimes we need to speak, not strike. And sometimes – often, though maybe not always – empathy is key.

The Storahtelling performance is followed by a short discussion about this form of ‘translating’ ancient scripture to modern reality and how we get to use these inherited tales to address human values and dilemmas in our personal and collective lives. Heated conversations erupted after the show – small clusters of people stood and debated. Many came up to me to keep on talking, animated, charged. I eventually left them to continue probing the limits of empathy and went to my parents house for a Shabbat lunch. I leave the 10 ft. long pole back in the parking lot.


  1. It sounds really powerful! This is the same power of Storahtelling's Maven that I am realizing as I am working on a similar parsha (Beshallach), with Shira Kline for a gig in Miami in two weeks. These stories present so much to wrestle, and I think the goal is to not shy away while presenting in a safe, structured way. I wish I could have been there. (Jake)

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