Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. (Genesis 33:1)A happy family reunion of brothers after two decades’ separation? Hard to tell. Jacob certainly isn’t taking any chances:
…He divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maids, putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. He himself went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother. (Genesis 33:1-3)Jacob is an endlessly fascinating character. As a youth, he lacks empathy, and because he lacks empathy (he cannot understanding the feelings of others) he also lacks compassion (the capacity to act on that knowledge). He has no difficulty tricking and cheating his brother, and deceiving his father. He is focused on his gain; he does not feel their pain.
Where does empathy come from? The Dalai Lama, in conversation with Daniel Goleman said, “One way you can develop empathy is to start with small sentient beings like ants and insects. Really attend to them and recognize that they wish to find happiness, experience pleasure, and be free of pain… Other human beings and yourself will all follow.” The Dalai Lama goes on to explain that those who dismiss the pain of an animal go on to dismiss the pain of human beings. “With the attitude, ‘I don’t feel it,’ you dismiss that pain. You would never feel the empathy until it actually hits your own skin.”
Those who don't have the benefit of childhood experiences that nurture empathy have to learn it the hard way. If they arrive at adulthood, as Jacob did, not comprehending or caring what other people feel, the only way understand the pain they have caused is when they themselves experience it. Jacob is this sort of person. When Laban deceives Jacob, substituting Leah for Rachel on his wedding night, Jacob finally comprehends. And it is only when he understands the pain he has caused -- because he’s feeling it himself -- that he can return to Eretz Yisrael for a healing reunion with Esau.
Jacob has truly changed. His wrestling match with the angel is evidence of his new and emerging conscience. From name change to name change: First, Jacob name is change to Israel, signifying his transformation from a selfish, scheming, unfeeling person into one capable of empathy and responsibility -- a transformation that takes two decades to accomplish. Jacob uses his pain and newfound empathy to brave a meeting with Esau. later, when his sons Shimon and Levi take revenge on the men of Shechem for violating their sister, Dinah, Jacob's first reaction is pragmatic: You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land... I and my house will be destroyed (Genesis 24:30). But immediately after, God instructs him to return to Bethel and Jacob recognizes the moral dimension of what has transpired. In Bethel he builds an altar; God is now a part of his life and conscience. Soon after, his beloved wife Rachel dies in childbirth on the road to Bethlehem. With her last dying breath, Rachel names her son Ben-oni (son of my suffering) but Jacob changes his name to Benjamin (son of the right hand). It appears that Jacob, now capable of empathy, even amidst what must have been devastating pain at losing Rachel, is considering Benjamin's feelings. Jacob does not want Benjamin to carry through life a name that makes him emblematic of his mother's death.
Life dishes out a lot of pain: unfulfilled dreams, humiliation, loss of loved ones and friends, excruciatingly painful and life-threatening medical concerns, lost relationships, abuse, and much more. No one gets through unscathed and unscarred. There’s no hermetically sealed emotional bubble we can hang out in to avoid it.
Among the Rabbis’ appellations for God is HaRachaman -- the Compassionate One -- because God experiences everything we experience. Our pain is God’s pain. God’s empathy is complete and total but that doesn’t mean we should strive to be 100% empathetic. No person could, or should; the consequences would be devastating. In Sue Monk Kidd’s marvelous book, The Secret Life of Bees, May Boatwright is totally empathetic; she absorbs everyone’s pain as her own. When she cannot hold it all, she commits suicide. Moving from fiction to the real world, were a surgeon, rabbi, psychologist, teacher, or social worker to experience everyone’s pain, they would not be able to do their jobs. We are not God, nor should we follow the example of May Boatwright. We need to find the right balance.
I want to add that Jewish tradition is filled with practices that guide us in this direction of cultivating appropriate empathy and compassion. If we see our rituals and traditions as God’s gift to us to learn and grow, rather than merely a means to exhibit piety and “serve God,” they will be conduits of holiness. The story is told of a learned rabbi who came to visit a small community. His host, a man of modest means, was thrilled and honored that the great rabbi would stay in his home. He instructed his wife to clean the house, prepare an elaborate Shabbat dinner, and set the table with the finest tablecloth and dishes they had. [Okay, so this is an old story.] When the rabbi and the man returned home after Kabbalat Shabbat, the house was spotless, the scent of food cooking was intoxicating, and the table gleamed. They man noticed, however, that his wife had neglected to cover the challah. Embarrassed, he berated his wife. The rabbi stopped him and said, “My friend, do you know why we cover the challah when making Kiddush over the wine? The challah receives only a short blessing, but the wine gets much more. We use the wine to sanctify Shabbat itself and recite a much longer blessing. We cover the challah so it won’t hear the greater blessing we recite over the wine, lest its feelings be hurt, and only uncover it after we complete Kiddush. If we are so careful about the feelings of inanimate objects -- two loaves of bread -- how much the more so should we be scrupulously careful about the feelings of a human being?” Our rituals can become our guides and teachers to greater empathy and compassion. When we succeed, we will truly serve God and become, ourselves, conduits of holiness.
That brings me back to considering the pain we all carry around inside. Would that we could drop it off somewhere -- in a dumpster would be good -- and never retrieve it! For the most part, after processing pain, it’s good to set it aside. Don't stew in it, and don't be a prisoner to it. But on occasion we can redeem our pain by calling it up and putting it to good use -- to help others. Try putting your pain to good use - it may well be healing for you.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman