The Book of Empathy


"I've been told all about what you have done…”

Boaz to Ruth


empathy: noun 1.the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. 2. the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself: By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a mirror of the self. Origin: 1900-05;  < Greek empátheia  affection, equivalent to em- em-2  + path-  (base of páschein  to suffer) + -eia -ia; present meaning translates German Einfühlung [].


To be empathic in this definition can be either an intellectual identification with someone else or an emotional mirroring. It is the capacity to go beyond the self to hear and relate to the needs or pain of another. And it’s hard, particularly when it involves getting beyond your own hurt, getting over yourself and your bruises to see how you have bruised. Empathy represents a mature level of adult emotional development that few really achieve.


On the intellectual level of empathy, we turn to a passage in the Talmud. There was a legal argument of some consequence between two great sages. One was obligated to follow the other, and the submissive sage was concerned that he was breaking a very important law. Rabbi Akiva saw this scholar's distress and offered him an alternative way to look at the situation, to which the sage replied: “Akiva, you have consoled me; you have consoled me” [BT Rosh Hashana 25a]. Commentaries parse this, saying that he was consoled for two separate problems. But repeating an expression of solace is like emotional highlighting, a way that we acknowledge the depth of how someone has touched us. You have truly and deeply consoled me when I thought that I was inconsolable.


Then there is the emotional aspect of empathy. This takes us to the heart of the book of Ruth, chapter two: “So Boaz said to Ruth, ‘My daughter, listen to me. Don't go and glean in another field and don't go away from here. Stay here with my servant girls. Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow along after the girls. I have told the men not to touch you. And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled.’ At this, she bowed down with her face to the ground. She exclaimed, ‘Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me--a foreigner?’ Boaz replied, ‘I've been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband--how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.’  ‘May I continue to find favor in your eyes, my lord,’ she said. ‘You have given me comfort and have spoken kindly to your servant--though I do not have the standing of one of your servant girls."’”


Ruth is so unused to an empathic ear that she seems almost embarrassed by Boaz' compliment. He is able to articulate her sacrifices when she never does, giving her a profound level of self-worth that was foreign to her.


Christian theologian Henri Nouwen in Out of Solitude writes, “The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”


Maybe Shavuot is not only a time for Torah study but for a time for reflecting on friendship and celebrating it. It’s a time when we can reach beyond ourselves to acknowledge the suffering and the kindness of others, and sometimes giving voice to joy and pain beyond what a friend has communicated.


Celebrate friendship this Shavuot.