How might we cultivate a sense of empathy for others, without feeling overwhelmed? In a world full of challenges, it is easy to feel consumed by our own difficulties and our own needs. Empathy allows us to open our minds and hearts to others, and to feel a stronger sense of connection with those around us. It may even move us to action, as we speak out or protest on behalf of someone else. Sometimes, the call to empathy is explicit within the texts of our tradition, while other stories contain this value as an implicit model for behavior.

וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.

Most commandments in the Torah do not provide a reason as to why they should be performed. There is an implicit "because God said so!" in so many places throughout the Bible. But the commandment not to oppress a stranger, which is mentioned again and again throughout the Torah, is accompanied by an explanation: We, too, were strangers once upon a time. We know what it is like to be treated as outsiders, to be of lesser status, and to be taken advantage of. As a people, we are expected to hold that knowledge in our hearts and tap into that feeling whenever we have the opportunity to engage with others who are strangers in their own contexts.

Here's a story of empathy in action:

וִידֵ֤י מֹשֶׁה֙ כְּבֵדִ֔ים וַיִּקְחוּ־אֶ֛בֶן וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ תַחְתָּ֖יו וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב עָלֶ֑יהָ וְאַהֲרֹ֨ן וְח֜וּר תָּֽמְכ֣וּ בְיָדָ֗יו מִזֶּ֤ה אֶחָד֙ וּמִזֶּ֣ה אֶחָ֔ד וַיְהִ֥י יָדָ֛יו אֱמוּנָ֖ה עַד־בֹּ֥א הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ׃
But Moses’ hands grew heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur, one on each side, supported his hands; thus his hands remained steady until the sun set.
אבן וישימו תחתיו. וְלֹא יָשַׁב לוֹ עַל כַּר וָכֶסֶת. אָמַר: יִשְׂרָאֵל שְׁרוּיִין בְּצַעַר, אַף אֲנִי אֶהְיֶה עִמָּהֶם בְּצַעַר (תענית י"א):

אבן וישימו תחתיו A STONE AND THEY PUT IT UNDER HIM [AND HE SAT THEREON] — but he did not seat himself upon a cushion or a pillow, for he said, “Israel is in tribulation; I will be in tribulation together with them."

The verse above comes from a story in Exodus. The People of Israel are fighting a battle against Amalek, and Moses is channeling God's power by raising his arms. As long as he keeps his arms in the air, the People of Israel maintain the upper hand in battle. Exhausted from standing with his arms up, Moses sits down on a stone. Rashi, the great medieval Torah commentator, asks: Why a stone? Surely he could have found a more comfortable place to sit! But Moses didn't want to get too comfortable. Empathy is not just about noticing the pain of others; it is about tapping in to their feelings. Moses wanted to stay connected to their feelings, not just watch and sympathize from afar. In an age of digital media, we can't tap in to everyone's feelings all the time, but these sources speak to the value of choosing the path of empathy when we can.

More Resources from Sefaria:

Empathy as a Daily Practice: Lessons from Torah and Contemporary Educational Research, by Eliana Lipsky

Is Sympathy Enough? by David M. Rosenberg

Exploring Empathy, by Mollie Andron

Type "empathy" into Sefaria's search bar, and check out #empathy for more sources and sheets!