Cultivating empathy: Importance of being sensitive to feelings of others

Rabbi Paul Cohen

By Rabbi Paul Cohen, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19)

The Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, contains three separate yet connected passages that point to the cultivation of the middah (character trait) of empathy. In each passage we learn about a unique facet of this middah and the work we are commanded to engage with as we seek to do the will of G-d.

The first passage begins in Deuteronomy, Chapter 21 Verse 18. This is the tale of the stubborn and rebellious child. The case concerns what happens when parents are at a loss as to how to discipline their child. Ask any parent and they will easily relate a time when they truly lost control and were unable to be the parent they wanted to be to their child. Every parent has come to a point of being ready to give up entirely.

Ki Teitzei tells the story in the extreme. A mother and a father have a child they describe as stubborn and rebellious. The child will not listen. The parents bring their child to the elders at the gate and declare that their child is a glutton and a drunkard. The elders pronounce a death sentence and stone the child to death in the presence of the whole community. In this way, the Torah says, the evil will be burned from the community and the people will fear. The sages of our tradition declare, “Lo haya v’lo nivrah,” this never was and would never happen. They could not imagine that such a situation could ever arise and that a child would ever be put to death simply for being stubborn and rebellious. After all, this is the definition of a teenager.

The case presented in Ki Teitzei is one with a radical lack of empathy. Neither parent is able to understand what is happening with their child. The elders, too, fail to empathize with the parents or the child. Rather than help, they choose to put the child to death, mistakenly believing that this is what the parents want. This radical lack of empathy results in tragedy. Though the parents were completely frustrated and at a loss as to how to handle their child, one can only imagine the horrific pain they would experience with their child’s execution. It is equally startling that no one from the community would be moved to step in and provide real help for this family in crisis.

Almost immediately following this case of the stubborn and rebellious child we have the rules for returning lost objects. The Torah commands that when we come across any lost animal or object of any kind we have the obligation to find the owner and return it. More than this, in the time that the animal or object is in our possession, we are required to fully care for it as if it were our own. In the language of the Torah, we cannot hide ourselves from this duty. I prefer the translation “you cannot be indifferent.” It is the Torah telling us that we must be empathetic, we must feel what it is like to lose something precious. We cannot and must not hide from our feelings; we cannot become indifferent. We must cultivate empathy.

Lastly, we have a command directing our behavior when we happen upon a bird’s nest. Before we can take the eggs or the hatchlings, we must chase away the mother bird. Remarkably we are told that the reward for such action is a lengthening of our days; a long life. The great commentator Ramban says that this command is meant to emphasize compassion. The Torah is concerned that the mother bird should not have to experience the pain of seeing her children taken from their nest. We chase her away to protect her feelings. Ramban continues, if this is true for birds, how much the more so should we show compassion towards our fellow human beings. Cultivate empathy, Ki Teitzei commands. Know what the mother bird might be feeling, seek to feel what your fellow human being is experiencing. In this way will your days be lengthened.

A closing thought. It does not take much effort to chase the mother bird away. A loud shout, a clap of the hands, or a sudden motion is usually all it takes to chase a bird away. How easy a thing it is to empathize and how little effort one must exert. Yet, for many it is difficult and perhaps this adds to the imperative. Cultivate empathy and respond accordingly so that others may be able to follow your example experiencing for themselves how empathy, compassion, and kindness are truly blessings we can bestow upon one another.

Rabbi Paul F. Cohen is the senior rabbi at Temple Jeremiah.

1 Comment on "Cultivating empathy: Importance of being sensitive to feelings of others"

  1. Beautiful and meaningful article. Rabbi Cohen’s message regarding compassion, empathy and kindness speaks to all of us. Thank you for your words of wisdom.

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