The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.
At the center of the Thanksgiving table is turkey, stuffing and sweet potato pie. That’s a fine way to celebrate. But at the center of the Pesach seder table, this week’s Torah portion says, are bitter herbs, and the bread of affliction.
Why do we insist on commemorating the darkest moments of our past? Why is our centerpiece reminiscent of tragedy? Why do we relive and taste the bitter herbs of our ancestors’ slavery in Egypt? What sort of people put their most unpleasant memories at the heart of their very identity?
Billionaire businessman Ben Horowitz is a cofounder at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. In his book, the New York Times bestseller “The Hard Thing About Hard Things,” Ben wrote:
“Many years ago, I encountered a particularly tricky management situation. Two excellent teams in the company, Customer Support and Sales Engineering, went to war with each other.
“The sales engineers escalated a series of blistering complaints, arguing that the Customer Support team did not respond with urgency, refused to fix issues in the product, and generally inhibited sales and customer satisfaction.
“Meanwhile, the Customer Support group claimed that the sales engineers submitted bugs without qualification, did not listen to valid suggested fixes, and were alarmists who assigned every issue the top priority.
“Beyond the actual complaints, the teams genuinely did not like each other. To make matters worse, these groups had to work together constantly in order for the company to function. Both teams boasted superb personnel and outstanding managers, so there was nobody to fire or demote. I could not figure out what to do.
“Around this time, I miraculously happened to watch the motion picture classic Freaky Friday. In the film, mother and daughter grow completely frustrated with each other’s lack of understanding and wish they could switch places, and, through the magic of film, they do.
“Through the course of the movie, by being inside each other’s bodies, both characters develop an understanding of the challenges that the other faces. As a result, the two become great friends when they switch back. After watching the film, I knew that I had found the answer: I would employ a Freaky Friday management technique.
“The very next day, I informed the Head of Sales Engineering and Head of Customer Support that they would be switching jobs. I explained that, like the mother and daughter, they would keep their minds, but get new bodies. Permanently. Their initial reactions were not unlike the movie where mother and daughter both scream in horror.
“However, after just one week walking in the other’s moccasins, both executives quickly diagnosed the core issues causing the conflict. They then swiftly acted to implement a simple set of processes that cleared up the conflict and got the teams working harmoniously. From that day to the day we sold the company, the Sales Engineering and Customer Support organizations worked better together than any other major groups in the company — all thanks to ‘Freaky Friday,’ perhaps the most insightful management training film ever made.”
This illustrates why Jewish tradition tells us to taste the bitter herbs of slavery. The Torah wants us to trade places with our ancestors, to develop a sympathetic heart that enables us to put ourselves in the place of another human being.
Empathy is a strategy for success.
Our homes would be transformed for the better if husbands and wives tried to imagine what their spouse was experiencing and feeling.
There would be more love in our homes if teens tried to understand the fears and dilemmas of parents, and if parents tried to reimagine the anxiety of growing up.
More of us would visit our parents and grandparents if we could imaginatively trade places with them, experiencing their loneliness and understanding how much a visit could brighten their lives and keep them feeling healthier.
When we allow ourselves to imagine the world from another’s perspective, we open our hearts to empathy, and act with understanding and love. Especially in these difficult days of isolation, the effort to be there for others starts with imagining what it is like to be the other.