In Parashat Mishpatim, just after receiving the 10 Commandments from Moshe on Mount Sinai, the Jewish people are given a multitude of rules by which they are commanded to live. The 10 Commandments, also known as Aseret HaDibrot, are the first 10 of the 613 commandments God gives to the Jewish people. They form the foundation of Jewish ethics, as well as civil and religious law. These rules cover everything from animals grazing in fields, to what happens if you start a fire, to what to do when a thief is caught with stolen goods, and how parents should be honored.
There are 53 rules introduced in this Parasha, many of which offer guidelines for living an ethical life; some seem pedantic, others outdated. But there is one rule that speaks to me, offering inspiration in a time of deep loss, personally and professionally: the demand for empathy.
This call to empathy, the deep understanding of this responsibility we each have, was a gift that our School Rabbi, Rabbi Fred Elias z”l, brought every day to our school Kehillah and to our students. It was his unflinching empathy that earned him the moniker, “Tween Whisperer,” among many of our Middle School parents. In fact, his “demand for empathy” was both a value and a lens he used to both appreciate and approach life. He did his utmost to help each of us respond to one another with empathy; to demand from each of us a baseline of understanding that we never truly know what our peers, classmates, colleagues may be experiencing on a given day.
Brene Brown, a social worker and researcher at the University of Houston, has done extensive research on empathy, encouraging people to look at others assuming that they are showing up and just doing the best they can. How does that impact what we expect of each other? Of what we offer to others? Of how we support one another?
It is in Parashat Mishpatim that the Jewish people are told, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” Rabbi Shai Held, President, Dean, and Chair in Jewish Thought at the traditional egalitarian yeshiva, Hadar, so beautifully captures the value of empathy explicitly commanded to all of us as a people and expected of each of us as individuals. “One of the Torah’s central projects is to turn memory into empathy and moral responsibility,” Rabbi Held explains. “This is not rooted in a rational argument, but rather in an urgent demand for empathy.”
An urgent demand for empathy, however, is not always the first thing on our minds as we set about our day. Life happens as we go about taking care of the mundane. For our children, they are concerned about the everyday challenges of who they will sit with at lunch in school or what they will have to do for homework.
Rabbi Elias, z”l, worked to infuse empathy in the most routine of interactions. Whether he was dressed in outrageous costume, working on a math problem, teaching Gemara, sharing a Krispy Kreme doughnut, Rabbi Elias raised the bar of empathy and believed in his students, his friends, and his colleagues. His empathy fueled his connections with many of us, and those connections reached far beyond the walls of SSDS.