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Time to Understand Others

02/11/2021 10:52:24 AM


A mother once told her son that he was beginning to lack empathy. The son didn’t understand how she could feel that way about him.

If there is a theme in Parshat Mishpatim, it would be empathy. The portion contains a series of laws that ensures that society is more equitable and just. The code of laws begins with laws on how to treat a slave, and continues with laws for accidental manslayers, physical assaults, negligent owners and theft. Included in this parsha are laws for money lending, fair treatment of strangers, widows, the poor, orphans and day-laborers, and laws for a fair system of justice for both the rich and the poor alike. At the core of all these laws is the consideration of the rights of the perpetrators and the victims; the powerful and the powerless. To imagine such a fair system, the Torah has to imagine how all of these people on both sides of these spectrums feel, and must imagine where they are coming from. Even explicitly, the Torah will model such thinking as it will command the Israelites not to oppress the strangers because the Israelites themselves know how it feels to be strangers in a strange land.

Yet, like any law code, and especially one written for the ancient near Eastern world, the law code falls short. Over the centuries, our sages will expand on these ideas and develop clearer understandings and applications for the law. Thus, even though the Torah discusses the treatment of slavery, Jewish tradition will evolve to limit and push the envelope to where it is today – where all forms of slavery are condemned. But the merit and holiness of this conversation is indisputable. The Bible’s approach to empathy and imagining how everyone feels during the social interactions of daily life is a feature of our religious conversation and observances still to this day.

We can look around our world today and similarly imagine the experiences of others. And while we might not have a full understanding of their experiences (as how can someone truly know what another feels), we can seek to better understand another person’s perspective. This February, in the empathetic spirit of Parshat Mishpatim, the Jewish community is dedicated to understanding the perspective of people with different abilities as we mark Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion month. This Tuesday, February 16 at 7:30 PM, B’nai Torah is hosting a panel on advocacy to share some of the experiences of people in our inclusion community, and to highlight ways one can add their voice to be an advocate on issues of inclusion. After all, the Torah takes the time to imagine others’ perspectives so it can create a more equitable and just society. So too I pray we can translate our understandings into action and continue to make our B’nai Torah family more inclusive. 

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784