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Balak Shasha

07/18/2019 03:46:26 PM


Many of us have been taught the proverb to “not judge others until you have walked in their shoes.” The message associated with it is that you should reserve judgement of others because you might not have fully considered their unique life circumstances. If you did understand where they were coming from, then perhaps you would judge them with more compassion. However, it turns out that humans work in the opposite way. In 2015, Psychologists Ruttan, McDonnell and Nordgren observed that people who have walked in other’s shoes were less likely to have compassion for those who are emotionally distressed. Instead, those who have “been there” were more judgmental of those who are “there” now.

In Parshat Balak, the Moabite king, Balak, sends the non-Israelite prophet, Balaam, to curse the Israelites. However, God intervenes and ensures that Balaam only blesses the Israelites instead. It is during his blessings that Balaam observes that the Israelites are “a nation that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9). There is something unique about the Israelites which separates them from the other nations. Perhaps it is their language, their values, or maybe even their understanding of the Divine decrees. In the context of this blessing, this separateness is seen as a positive feature of the Israelites. Yet how will this nation that has known slavery and persecution and that lives apart treat others who have known similar life experiences? Having “been there,” one might expect that we’d be less compassionate for those who might not have been as successful as we’ve been.

Yet, our tradition is clear that our life experiences cannot lead us to be callous. Rather, we must support the strangers in our land because we were once strangers in another land. We must understand those who live apart, because we are a nation that too has known what it is like to live apart. And perhaps this understanding is part of the prophet Balaam’s blessing. That we can not only celebrate our own national transition from distress to freedom, but that our experiences can help us show sympathy and understanding for those who are still in distress; strangers in our land who are fleeing persecution and seeking better opportunities. It might be true that much of our successes stem from our own hard work and sweat, but our Torah teaches us to send the elevator back down and to assist those who are still stuck in their “Egypts.” Walking in other’s shoes might lead some to be less compassionate, but that just means that the commandment from our Torah to love the stranger is even more required and critical.

Tue, December 5 2023 22 Kislev 5784