Wednesday, January 28, 2009


A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

Join me for a year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a Biblical verb and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. comments welcome, let’s talk the walk.

January 28, 2009

"God Bless You"– this common post-sneeze sacred invocation that has gone completely secular is uttered endlessly and mindlessly around the world. Just like 'God Bless America,' this is often simply a polite figure of speech, a civic, civil nicety. In Hebrew you say "La'brioot" – "to health."

The cultural differences are interesting but either way, these are expressions of empathy, and I've been intrigued by this word/concept--empathy--for about a week now. How come there is no word for "empathy" in Hebrew? No exact translation, that is – Israelis say "empatia," one of many foreign words that migrated into Modern Hebrew and stuck. It's a telling fact, though, that words like 'empathy' or 'pluralism' or 'text' do not have an Israeli life of their own. These days, I wonder not only about the missing word in Hebrew but also about the collective ability to exercise the word's imperative: to feel empathy towards others, esp. others in distress, and esp. others in distress who are very much 'the other.'

Ten days since the ceasefire in Gaza, and many efforts at rehabilitation take place– physical, emotional, political and diplomatic. But for many here in Israel, the anger remains. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised. Merely suggesting the expression of empathy towards the people of Gaza, alongside support for the IDF soldiers and the people of Sdeort, gets many Israelis – including family members and close friends – furious. Calls for empathy and care for the estimated 20,000 Gaza residents who are now homeless is met with pursed lips: "let Hamas help them, its their own fault." Empathy, generally recognized as "the ability to sense and understand someone else's feelings as if they were one's own," seems to take a backseat to her fierce and frugal sister -- survival. "I just can't afford to be thinking about them right now" M. tells me. I get this approach but it drives me nuts. ‘You’ve been in NY for too long’ B. tells me ‘this is how we roll here, remember?’ This isn’t helping either.

There are, thankfully, other voices, and other initiatives that think and do otherwise. L., for instance, a 27 year old student from Jerusalem who teamed up with another student and organized within 5 days a 7 truck convey of emergency supplies to Gaza, thousands of Israeli donations of clothes, food, blankets and personal letters from Israeli citizens to the families beyond the border. I met L. at the weekly Zohar class we attend at the Hartman Institute – who knew she was such an organizer? She didn't sleep for a week and offered many of us a way to be really helpful. I helped by carrying boxes. The story hit the media two days ago -- even Al Jazeera wanted to interview her…

And meanwhile, I've been asking people for Hebrew translation for 'empathy' – heads are scratched, options offered, all admit that there is no one single perfect Hebrew word for it. Yet. How long has it been missing? How come there isn't one?

"In essence," L. tells me, mid-carrying-boxes, "'love your neighbor as you love yourself' is the root of empathy – and Judaism's core concept – but I guess it got lost in translation. isn’t this in the Bible somewhere?"

So I turn to search for empathy in Exodus and check out this week's Torah tale – BO. It’s got the Prime Time coverage of the actual moment of the Exodus – the last midnight in Egypt. The firstborn of Egypt are slain – and there isn't a home in the land that has not been struck by death. Amid the screams, the king relents – demands that they leave the land – and offers the most audacious invitation for empathy:

"Take both your flocks and your herds and be gone; and bless me also" (Ex.12:32).

He's asking them for a blessing?

How can he expect Moses and his people to have anything but hatred in their hearts towards him? And yet he asks. And we are invited to consider, seriously, his request. Can we bless the enemy – then, now?

And let's say we do decide to grant him a blessing – let's pretend that empathy swims in our veins – what blessing would he receive? What blessing would you offer the ruler who has ruled over your misery?

This past Sunday evening, right after the Zohar class (in which L. updates us that the convoy of trucks, courtesy of the UN, made it into Gaza and that the supplies have already been delivered) I walk over to my parents’ house to have dinner. it’s a 10 minute walk, the evening is cold and crisp, and on the way I ponder this question – who is my Pharaoh? Would, could, should I bless him? I recall the psychological/mystical reading that the Zohar offers the Exodus saga – this is all a description of our inner drama. The oppressed slaves are within me – yearning for more freedom, for more autonomy, for more self expression, Moses is my inner drive for growth, my connection to the Higher Self, and sometimes this inner Moses will resort to strange tricks or fierce strikes to get its point across. And Pharaoh – Freud would call him ‘ego’, and I see him as that part of me that refuses to change, yet knows he – I – have to change in order to grow. Can I have empathy towards my inner resistance? Can I have empathy towards my fellow Israelis who have no empathy?

After dinner with my father (my mother is out at some lecture) I sit with him and open a Torah and read the verses with him and ask – what blessing would you have given the king?

My father, who is no Pollyanna, may or may not be thinking of his Nazi jailers, or the Hamas fighters or any other mythic or historical 'Pharaoh' as he quietly, and with great empathy, offers this version of a blessing to the King of Egypt: "May your river continue to flow."

God Bless him.

(And, If you were to bless the Pharaoh – what would your blessing be?)


  1. I immediately think of "Fiddler on the Roof", when the Rebbe is asked about a bleesing for the paraphrase.."May The Lord blessand keep the Tsar.....FAR from us!"

    Ira Warshaw

  2. Pharoah asking the Hebrews for a blessing meade me think of Bush going around for the past few months seeking our love and forgiveness. And of Obama thanking Bush 'for your service.' Not as gorgeous as your father's blessing, but it did the job.
    Blessings ~A

  3. Hi continue to bless me with your weekly torah discussions. What about the parent who blesses his children every Shabbat night even though there are some nights you are so upset/angry/disappointed in them? The blessing remains the same!

  4. I absolutely love the question you leave us with Amichai. I will ponder it, and bring it to many meals over the next couple of reminds me of my favorite Talmudic tale of how to build empathy - do your enemy a favor (Pesachim 113b)

  5. Sara BenjaminJanuary 28, 2009

    The word "khemla" in Hebrew, often translated as "compassion" is the closest in meaning to "empathy." It is different from "rakhamim", which denotes a more hierarchical or paternalistic form of "pity". Both words are attributed to the Almighty. Is it time for our own "imitatio Dei?" And which of the 2 words would we choose for the citizens of Gaza?

  6. Thank you,
    I enjoyed reading it