"Israel in Egypt" by Edward Poynter, 1867
"Israel in Egypt" by Edward Poynter, 1867

The necessity of developing a sympathetic imagination


Exodus 21:1-24:18

For generations, the Jews were enslaved in Egypt. They were mistreated, taken advantage of, forced to work long hours and given impossible quotas. After hundreds of years, God delivered them from their misery.

Someone considering their situation might expect the experience to have changed them; under normal circumstances, slavery gives rise to resentment and anger. Similarly, we know that the parents most likely to abuse their children are those who were themselves abused when young.

Yet the Torah seeks to draw positive lessons from our persecution in Egypt: empathy and kindness to others. It commands, in this week’s Torah portion, “You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Torah wants us to use our experience to become more compassionate.

In his book ”The Gift of Therapy,” psychiatrist Irvin Yalom tells the story of a patient who had, throughout adolescence, been locked in a long, bitter struggle with her pessimistic and negative father. Yearning for some form of reconciliation and a new, fresh beginning to their relationship, she looked forward to her father driving her to college, when she would be alone with him for several hours.

But the long-anticipated trip proved to be a disaster: Her father behaved true to form, grumbling nonstop about the ugly, garbage-littered creek by the side of the road. She, meanwhile, saw no litter whatsoever in the beautiful, rustic, unspoiled stream. She could find no way to respond and eventually lapsed into silence. They spent the remainder of the trip looking away from each other.

Later, she made the same trip alone and was astounded to note that there were two streams — one on each side of the road. “This time I was the driver,” she said sadly to Yalom, “and the stream I saw through my window on the driver’s side was just as ugly and polluted as my father had described it.” But by the time she had learned to look out her father’s window, it was too late: He was dead and buried.

The story reminds us to look out the other person’s window. Try, with empathy, to see the world as they see it. That is what the Torah asks of us: to develop a sympathetic imagination that enables us to put ourselves in the place of another human being.

Our contemporary society would be transformed for the better if more of us cultivated our sympathetic imagination. There would be more harmony at home if children tried to understand the fears and dilemmas of parents and if parents tried to reimagine the anxieties of growing up.

Hospital patients would get more thoughtful treatment if their physicians were obliged to spend a few days as patients in a hospital bed. And patients would be more understanding of their doctors if they could accompany them on their demanding rounds. More of us would visit parents and grandparents if we could look out the windows of their lonely homes and understand how much a visit would relieve that loneliness.

Thus we tell the story of our people being redeemed not only on the night of Passover but every day in our prayers.

Why is it a mitzvah to recall the Exodus daily? We remind ourselves of our past misfortune so that we might strive to live each day with empathy and sensitivity toward those who are less fortunate. To do so — to be merciful, sensitive and kind-hearted — is the essence of Jewish living.

Sometimes a person is driving us mad, and we think, “It’s time that I put him in his place.”

But Judaism calls on us to do something far more courageous than putting another person in his place, and that is putting ourselves in his place. When we allow ourselves to imagine the world from another’s perspective, we are much less apt to be harsh and more prone to practicing compassion.

Rabbi Dov Greenberg
Rabbi Dov Greenberg

Rabbi Dov Greenberg leads Stanford Chabad and lectures across the world.