Climbing into Their Skin: To Cultivate Abundant Kindness

delivered by Rabbi Jill Maderer Yom Kippur afternoon    

A man backs his car out of the driveway, and stops short to avoid running into a young boy, riding his skateboard on the sidewalk.  Annoyed, the man drives to the local cafe to pick up his morning coffee, and a woman parks her car in the spot he was eyeing.  Irritated, he walks into the store, only to see he needs to stand on a long line.  When he finally makes it to the front of the line, the person who was standing in front of him, returns to add a cookie to his order.  Exasperated, as if the world around him is irresponsible, incompetent and inconsiderate of his needs, the man sits down to wait for his coffee, and to reflect on how the world is everyone else’s oyster.

At that moment a stranger approaches him, and silently hands him a pair of eyeglasses.  When the man slides the glasses onto his face, his perspective changes.  Through this magical eyewear, the man can view a caption that follows each person in sight. Backtracking through his morning, he starts to see differently.

The guy who came back to order the cookie? He now sits with a child and his caption says: “just lost his job.”

The woman who took his parking spot? She walks past and her caption says: “grieving her best friend.”

The boy on the skateboard?  He rides by and his caption says: “just needs someone to care.”*  As the man takes a new perspective, he reaches out to the boy, in his first moment of kindness of that morning.

This scene, depicted in a Youtube video, called “You Never Know,” (Fellowship Bible Church, Little Rock) reminds us of the profound impact our perspective can have, in the empathy we show in our day to day lives.

This morning, as we stood before the open ark, we recited a special prayer included in our holiday Torah services: Adonai, Adonai, El rachum.  As we list God’s attributes, we begin the list by saying, the Eternal One is rachum, compassionate; we continue by saying God shows rav-chesed, abundant loving-kindness. Are we reminding God to show kindness to us as we confess our wrongs?  Perhaps.  Or, maybe we are preaching the prayer, to ourselves.  We are charging ourselves with the mandate of empathy.  Indeed, when we discover paths towards compassion, we are emulating a virtue of God.

To whom must we show rav chesed. abundant kindness?  To the neighbor who doesn’t clean up after her pet? To the coach who aggressively yells at the little league players?  To the friend who never offers to pick up the check?  To the upstairs neighbor?  Picture the most negative person you know.  Does he deserve your abundant kindness?  Our 11th century commentator, Rashi, teaches that, our chesed is not earned by a calculation.  We do not show rav chesed, abundant kindness, because someone deserves it.  We show kindness because people need it.

On Yom Kippur, our tradition offers us a path towards rav chesed.  That path is one of perspective-taking.

A couple of weeks ago at our Slichot study session, that takes place on the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah, we studied texts from our new High Holy Day prayerbook. Cantor Frankel called our attention to musician Leonard Cohen’s interpretation, of the Unetane Tokef prayer.  His characteristically enigmatic song, Who by Fire, is printed in our machzor on p. 207; feel free to take a glance, now.  Who by fire, who by water, who in the sunshine, who in the nighttime.   The line in the 2nd verse compels me: Who in her lonely slip? Who by barbiturate.   It strikes me — who?  Perhaps Leonard Cohen is not only asking about his own fate, which would be a typical interpretation of Unetane Tokef.  But he’s wondering: what is his neighbor going through?

There are those in this very sanctuary, who, like the song’s woman in her lonely slip, feel isolated in this world.  There are those in this very sanctuary, who, like the lyric, by barbiturate, feel unable to cope. Who feels lonely; who seeks to self-medicate?  There’s a good chance we don’t know the answer.  Because we never really know what’s going on with someone else.

The realization that we don’t know, might help us to give others the benefit of the doubt.  And so, Torah teaches us this afternoon from parashat Kedoshim,  b’tzedek tishpot amitecha — judge your neighbor fairly.  Indeed, an essential part of empathy, is to realize we cannot judge others.  We do not know their story.

Consider this scene: You’re at a restaurant and you look over to the next table.  There, a family of four waits for their dinner.  Each one of them, stares down at the phone in their hand.  How easy it is to think: Where are their values?  They are all just staring at their screens during a family dinner!?  And yet: judge your neighbor fairly. We don’t know their story.  As I recently heard a technology educator (Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, Sirius radio) suggest: Maybe they are all googling a question they were wondering about, in a shared conversation.  Maybe they are checking in to find out about a sick relative.  Maybe they spent the whole day together, and are just now checking in online, for the first time.  Or maybe this family wouldn’t be talking anyway, even without the screens, and individual phone engagement helps them tolerate each other.  All we can do is judge fairly.  We do not know their story.

In the words of Atticus Finch, in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”  We can’t do that.  So is it hopeless?  Or can we, to some extent, come to understand each other, enough to reach out in acts of rav chesed, abundant kindness?

The Torah does not stop at the teaching, judge your neighbor fairly.  Our capacity for empathy extends beyond giving someone the benefit of the doubt.  Again and again the text mandates: “the strangers who sojourn with you, shall be to you like citizens, and you shall love them as yourself, ki gerim heyitem b’eretz mitzrayim, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  An essential part of empathy is to remember, we too were strangers.  We have been there.

So in our pursuit of rav chesed, abundant kindness, we take both perspectives: Judge fairly.  And, we, too were strangers.

As little as we know, we’ve been there.

The year is 1942 and the Nazis are rounding up the Jews of France.  The pastors of a town in southern France, gather together their parishioners, and ask them to shelter Jews, even though they would be putting their own lives at risk.  They hide Jews in homes, on farms, and in public buildings.  Whenever Nazi patrols show up, the Jews are sent into the countryside.  One of the villagers recalls: “As soon as the soldiers left, we would go into the forest and sing a song.  When they heard the song, the Jews knew it was safe to come home.”  The villagers provided Jews with forged papers, and helped them to get over the border to Switzerland.

Thousands of Jews were saved this way.  What explains such a risky display of compassion?  These French villagers were Protestants descended from persecuted Huguenots.  Their history of suffering as a religious minority, connected them to the persecuted Jews (paraphrased from telling by Alan Morinis in Everyday Holiness: The Spiritual Path of Mussar ).  They, too were strangers.

Of course, the Huguenots’ history was not exactly the history of the Jews of Europe.  The French did not know precisely what the Jews were experiencing in the 1940’s.  But those villagers, did not allow the divide to stop them.  They identified with the pain of the persecuted, enough that they took a perspective of empathy.

“Judge your neighbor fairly” and “the strangers that sojourn with you shall be to you like citizens, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt .”  You and I have the capacity to hold both the perspective that we do not know the story, and the perspective that we have been there.

How do we develop empathy?  Well, we never really understand a person until we consider things from their point of view — until we climb into their skin and walk around in it.  It’s impossible.  Yet, by trying to climb into their skin, while knowing we can’t, we just may cultivate more compassion.

As we work to grow in our abundant kindness,

May we remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt – identifying with the pain of another enough to say, we have been there;

And may we remember to judge our neighbor fairly, understanding “who by her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,” when it comes to what our neighbor is going through, we never really know.