Empathy and human dignity
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TorahParshat Ekev

Empathy and human dignity

Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25

(File photo)
(File photo)

In this week’s parashah, Ekev, we are given the instruction, “circumcise your hearts,” Deuteronomy 10:16. This strange phrase borrows the language of brit milah to teach us something valuable. Placing the verse in context, we are told that God is supreme who shows no favor, takes no bribe, upholds the needs of the orphan, the widow and the stranger, and that God will provide food and clothing.

This litany of values is clearly not just a description of God but also of the task before us: “You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19).

This section of text, when we pare down the specifics, makes clear two central values: Have empathy and act in ways that create human dignity.

Let’s start with empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. God is centralizing our capacity to open our hearts. We do this by listening and hearing what others say, by taking seriously their concerns, by imagining ourselves living their lives. How rarely do we actually do this? How rarely do we really imagine the challenges facing other people? How rarely do we truly try to see beyond our own needs?

As we’ve seen in the last few months following George Floyd’s murder, our society is beginning to reflect on our system. For our Black siblings and neighbors, including Black Jews, we must be doing the work to listen and learn. That is part of the empathy work that God is requiring of us. The Black communities around the country are speaking loudly and clearly. Are we listening?

As the world is struggling through the coronavirus pandemic, we can hear how families are truly struggling. The lack of adequate child care systems, the extreme difficulty of working while juggling family requirements and the pressure on children to survive without enough social interactions. Are we really hearing what those families are saying? Are we assuming their needs?

The second value is creating human dignity, which is the response to our empathy work. God is telling us: When someone is hungry, we must feed them; when they are naked, we clothe them; and when they ask for help, we can come to meet that need. In no uncertain terms, human dignity is baked into our entire tradition, from the laws of tzedakah, resolving conflict, and modesty.

God “shows no favor” should make us reflect on our human systems. We know that our society has prioritized white and wealthy lives over the needs of people of color and the poor. By working toward a system that creates equity, we honor human dignity.

God “takes no bribes” should heighten our attention toward corruption. We know that Rep. John Lewis, z”l, fought for voter rights in our country. We can honor his legacy by fighting against voter suppression in all of its forms. By strengthening our system against corruption, we honor human dignity.

God “upholds orphans and widows” along with the most vulnerable among us. As our society faces mass evictions and homelessness and the disparity of food access, we are reminded to be like God. Those with resources can help those who are without survive without suffering. By making sure that every single person can live in a home and eat nutritious food, we honor human dignity.

God “befriends the stranger” invokes our own story of escaping Egypt. Like our own history of immigration, we can empathize with those who are fleeing violence or climate change. We know that immigrants and asylum seekers are suffering at our borders exacerbated by the pandemic. By welcoming and assisting immigrants, we honor human dignity.

This Torah portion speaks very clearly of our need to empathize and centralize human dignity in our hearts. It is easy to become callous and protective at the cost of others. Now more than ever, God reminds us that an open, circumcised heart is the way forward. PJC

Rabbi Jeremy Markiz is the director of Derekh and Youth Tefillah at Congregation Beth Shalom. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.

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