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Shmot 5781: Fighting Illiteracy and Apathy; Don’t Know and Don’t Care

Shmot (Exodus 1:1-6:1 )

by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

GOOD MORNING! As I sit here writing this week’s column, the stillness of the rural Pennsylvania countryside is momentarily shattered by an eruption of fireworks and distant revelry ushering in 2021. In all likelihood, a big part of the celebration is spurred by the sentiment of finally turning the page and moving on from a very difficult 2020.

Still, moving on to a new year does not resolve the serious losses that so many continue to suffer from; the loss of loved ones, livelihoods, or in some cases both. It’s difficult times such as these when we must turn our attention to helping those who have suffered.

Another lingering effect of 2020 is the discord sown between fellow Americans. Whether caused by strongly differing political ideologies or by racial tensions and class conflict, these fractures of brotherhood left a deep rift in the collective psyche of the American people.

But there is hope! As a matter of fact, this week’s Torah portion teaches us an approach to both helping those who have suffered as well as those who have been driven apart. This week’s Torah reading also contains an important lesson on two distinct concepts that are often mistakenly conflated with one another: sympathy and empathy.

I am reminded of the following story. Two friends were walking down the street one evening when they noticed mutual friends of theirs, a married couple, in front of them. Suddenly they hear the wife berating her husband, “Larry, I am sick and tired of you being being drunk all the time!” She then stormed off.

Feeling empathy for the wife, one friend turns to the other and remarks, “I have no sympathy for a married man who is intoxicated all the time!” His companion responds, “It is precisely because Larry is intoxicated all the time that he doesn’t need your sympathy!”

Last week we read the final portion in the book of Genesis, which contains the events surrounding the death of our forefather Jacob. The portion ends with the death of Joseph, thus bringing to an end his reign as the viceroy of Egypt and the special protection it afforded his brethren and their children.

This week’s portion opens with a new king on the throne of Egypt, a Pharaoh who was confronted with a burgeoning Jewish nation that was growing large and formidable. Pharaoh and his advisors perceived them to be developing into a threat and formed a plan to control the Jewish nation by enslaving them.

Shortly thereafter, Pharaoh’s soothsayers predicted the birth of a male savior of the Jewish nation, one who would free them form their bondage. Pharaoh therefore decreed that all male children born to the Jewish nation be drowned in the Nile.

During this time Moses was born and, because of the existential threat to his life, his mother attempted to hide him in a basket among the reeds of the Nile river. Subsequently, Moses’ basket was found by Pharaoh’s daughter who had come down to the river to bathe.

(According to the Talmud, once Moses was placed into the basket in the river Pharaoh’s decree was annulled because his soothsayers told him that the savior had been placed in the Nile and there was no longer a danger.)

Pharaoh’s daughter saw that he was circumcised and knew that he was born a Jew. She searched out a Jewish nursemaid for him (who was actually his mother) and she took him back to the palace where he was raised. For a few years, he was left in his mother’s care. Thus, he was raised with a dual identity, that of Egyptian and that of being a Jew.

It happened in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brethren and saw their burdens... (Exodus 2:11)

Rashi, the great medieval Biblical commentator, notes that this verse refers not only to Moses growing into adulthood, but also to Moses growing in stature and responsibility. As Rashi explains, “Pharaoh appointed him over his household.” Later in the book of Exodus (20:2), Rashi explains that the Jewish slaves were actually owned directly by Pharaoh and were part his “household.” Thus, Pharaoh took the innovative step of appointing Moses over his fellow Jews.

This was no accident. Many tyrants and despots appoint members of the victim class over the other victims. In fact, in Egypt the taskmasters were Jewish officers appointed over the other slaves to violently enforce quotas (which they resolutely refused to do and ended up suffering greatly for their disobedience). In a similar vein, cruel Jewish “Kapos” were the method used by the Nazis to control prisoners in the concentration camps.

Theoretically, this is brilliant. It naturally pits members of the oppressed class against one another and breeds mistrust and deception, thereby destroying the unity of the group – exactly what it is supposed to achieve. Pharaoh also added an insidious twist: By appointing Moses over them, Pharaoh was showcasing what a Jew who grew up as an Egyptian could aspire to become if he abandoned his culture.

But Pharaoh underestimated Moses. He fully expected Moses to sympathize with them and, at most, perhaps even advocate for better treatment. Yet Rashi makes a remarkable comment on the words “and he saw their burdens” (2:11); “He focused his eyes and heart to be distressed over them.”

Moses didn't merely sympathize and feel pity for them, Moses empathized with them. Sympathy is merely seeing someone’s pain and feeling bad for them, perhaps even expressing it to them. Empathy, however, is a vicarious experience of feeling what another is going through. I remember my father once explaining to me the day he understood the difference between sympathy and empathy.

In 1963 my father was returning to his rabbinical school in Baltimore following a date with my mother who was studying at Stern College in Manhattan. As my father entered the train station he saw six or seven police officers mercilessly beating a black man. He clearly remembers the terror on the man’s face. He felt an outpouring of sympathy and pity for this man. He imagined how he would have felt in that very same situation.

On the train ride back to Baltimore my father turned over in his mind what he had just seen and he realized that he had not properly internalized the experience. The tragedy of the situation was that in 1963 blacks were still considered second class citizens with separate public restrooms, water fountains, hotels in which they weren’t welcome and restaurants that wouldn’t serve them. To fully understand the plight of the black man, he had to see the world from that man’s perspective; how he grew up, how he had been marginalized his entire life, etc.

Had my father been attacked by those police officers he could be relatively certain that he would be supported by his father who was a respected businessman in Philadelphia and who would move heaven and earth to see that justice would be served. He had a community to lean on who would support him.

A black person in 1963 had no such support. Society itself held them as second class citizens, wholly unworthy of better treatment. It was only then that my father began to fathom the terror and despair that the man must have felt in that situation. This understanding comes from a deep sense of empathy – seeing the world from another’s perspective to understand what he is going through.

This is what Rashi is telling us. Moses focused his eyes and heart to see what the Jewish slaves saw and what the slaves felt; he perceived their situation through the lens of their background and their perspective. Even though he grew up in Pharaoh’s home he internalized the true plight of his brethren and his heart went out to them. Ultimately, this ability to empathize and identify with his brethren is what qualified him to be chosen as their savior.

This is the perspective that we must maintain when trying to help someone who has suffered a loss. It is not enough to express sympathy. Sympathy’s expression basically amounts to “poor you.” It creates a sense of pity over the plight of the person. This is generally not very helpful. By contrast, empathy is expressed as, “I can understand how it feels. It must be really hard.” This helps a person to feel heard, understood, and validated.

Once we focus on empathizing we can begin to understand what another person is going through and begin to address the issues he or she faces. We instantly begin to recognize that upcoming family milestones (weddings, birth of grandchildren, etc.) and holidays are going to particularly hard on those who are bereaved because that is the time when they feel their loss the most intensely. Reaching out to them or inviting them over during those times goes a long way towards really helping them.

Likewise, this is true with rifts between individuals or segments of society. In most cases, both sides look at the other as if they are idiots who cannot see the obvious merits of their own position. Without understanding the dynamics of their life’s journey, which brought them to their position, it is difficult to ever find a middle ground.

But once we make a real effort to place ourselves into someone else’s world and their life experiences, we can begin to understand where they are coming from. We still may not agree, but we will no longer consider them crazy. Empathy helps us overcome egocentricity because we begin to identify with one another. Not only will the animosity diminish greatly, but we may even begin to find a common space for us to rebuild the trust of a relationship, which will create a bridge to span the gap of our divide. Understanding this concept will certainly go a long way to rectifying the difficult year that so many experienced.

Torah Portion of the Week

Shemot, Exodus 1:1 - 6:1

The week's portion tells a story often repeated throughout history: The Jews become prominent and numerous. There arises a new king in Egypt “who did not know Joseph” (meaning he chose not to know Joseph or recognize any debt of gratitude). He proclaims slavery for the Jewish people “lest they may increase so much, that if there is war, they will join our enemies and fight against us, driving (us) from the land.” (Anti-Semitism can thrive on any excuse; it need not be logical or real - check out our online seminar “Why the Jews?” here. It's spectacular!)

Moses is born and immediately hidden because of the decree to kill all male Jewish babies. Moses is saved by Pharaoh's daughter, grows up in the royal household, and goes out to see the plight of his fellow Jews. He kills an Egyptian who was beating a Jew, escapes to Midian when the deed becomes known, becomes a shepherd, and then is commanded by God at the Burning Bush to “bring My people out of Egypt.” Moses returns to Egypt and confronts Pharaoh who refuses to give permission for the Israelites to leave. God says, “Now you will begin to see what I will do to Pharaoh!”

Candle Lighting Times

(or go to

Jerusalem 4:16
Miami 5:28 - Cape Town 7:43 - Guatemala 5:30
Hong Kong 5:38 - Honolulu 5:48 - Johannesburg 6:46
Los Angeles 4:42 - London 3:55 - Melbourne 8:27
Mexico 5:56 - Moscow 3:59 - New York 4:28
Singapore 6:54 - Toronto 4:40

Quote of the Week

Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.
— Albert Einstein

Sponsored in appreciation of the book Infinity of Torah by Rabbi Yochanan Zweig

— Stuart and Debbie Goldman




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