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Feel Empathy With, Not Sympathy For the Families of our 3 Boys

on Friday, June 20 2014. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

It is hard to believe that a week has already passed since we first heard the shocking news that three teenage Israeli boys had been kidnapped by terrorists.   There is a collective pain and agony we all feel, Jews around the world united by our worry, fear and concern. It is truly tragic that it takes a crisis to breed the unity that countless calls and efforts failed to achieve. If only we could capture the sense of togetherness, shared destiny and peoplehood pervasive across the Jewish globe right now so that we could strengthen it and expand upon it, long after our boys are please God home, safe and secure.

The excruciating pain we feel not only for the boys, but also for the Frankel, Shaar and Yifrach families, is compounded by the sense of helplessness and powerlessness to impact the situation. The brave and courageous members of the IDF are conducting a house-to-house manhunt. Undoubtedly diplomacy is being pursued behind the scenes. What is left for us to do? How can we possibly impact the situation positively? What can we do to help these three families whose pain we cannot even imagine?

I once asked Dr. David Pelcovitz, a noted Psychologist, a difficult question and he responded by sharing with me a study he had just read. The study showed that when a person stands at the base of a mountain that they are about to climb, if they are alone, the slope seems much steeper than if they are going to climb it with others. He described that he didn’t have a solution to the question I posed, but that I should know that he is happy to climb the mountain together so at least it won’t seem as steep.

We don’t know how or when these boys will come home. Their families, their friends and their communities have a steep hill to climb. The absolute least we can do is make it clear to them that we are here to climb with them and hopefully, in some way, make the climb a little less steep. In the last chapter of Pirkei Avos, our Rabbis included feeling empathy in the forty-eight ways that the Torah is acquired. A prerequisite to living a life of Torah is having the capacity to be nosei b’ol im chaveiro, carry our friend’s burden, feel their pain and climb the mountain with them.

There is a fundamental difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is felt by a spectator, an observer to someone else’s predicament. Sympathy is genuinely feeling bad for another, but only as an outsider. Empathy is felt by someone who identifies with the one suffering to the extent that he himself is suffering as well. If someone is in a dark and deep hole, sympathy means stopping to look down the hole and feel bad for the plight of another. Empathy means climbing down to be in the hole and suffer together with them.

The least we can do for the three families whose sons are being held hostage is to be nosei b’ol, carry their burden, share their pain, and climb the hill with them. Feeling empathy means waking up in the middle of the night to check our phones to see if there is any news or any updates. Empathy means to have these boys on our minds and in our thoughts throughout the day.   Empathy means feeling the ache, the acute pain, and the hole in our hearts as we contemplate what these boys are going through.

Nosei b’ol means to daven from the depths of our hearts and from the deepest parts of our souls and to plead with the Almighty to intervene. The gemara (Berachos 12b) quotes Rav who teaches that anybody who has the ability to pray for someone who is suffering and chooses not to, is called a chotei, a sinner.

Empathy also means one more thing.

I have been stunned and deeply disturbed by a series of articles that have emerged while yet in the heart of this crisis, all by authors who say they feel the pain of these families. One article provocatively proclaimed “Prayer Won’t #BringBackOurBoys.” Another article partially places responsibility for the kidnapping on the boy’s school and brazenly tells its leaders “Faith can’t substitute safe transport for their children.” Lastly, while yet prayer rallies were taking place everywhere, one blogger couldn’t help himself from divisively pointing a finger at a segment of the Jewish community he falsely accused of not caring enough about this tragic situation.

Genuine empathy means we follow the lead of the parents as they live through this ordeal. These parents have displayed extraordinary faith, courage and resolve. They have not called for revenge, they have not criticized segments of the Jewish community they think should be doing more, and they have not held their son’s yeshiva responsible for their policy on hitchhiking.

All that they have done consistently is proclaim tremendous gratitude to members of the IDF, profess great thanks to the Israeli government and most emphatically encourage us all to keep praying.

When this is all over, there will be plenty of time for analysis, accountability, criticism and evaluation. When the boys come home, everyone can share their insights with the world. If we truly feel empathy, if we are really sick to our stomachs over what happened, now is the time to show restraint and only write articles and post messages that will promote unity, faith and prayer, the values these incredible parents keep spreading in the most remarkable ways.

We should follow their lead and example and that’s all. Support the IDF in their efforts to find the boys. Express gratitude and encouragement to the Israeli government to take whatever measures necessary. And, keep praying. Pray when you are all alone, pray in communal prayer and pray at special prayer rallies.

We cannot directly assist in bringing our boys home, but we can be nosei b’ol im chaveirenu, we can seek to share in the pain of these families and displaying empathy with them, make their unimaginable climb, a little less steep.

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