Empathy and Dust: Vayera 5784

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If this week’s Torah portion were a newspaper, these would be some of the headlines:


God Says: Gonna Smite Two Cities

Abraham Bargains: “Save Innocents Among The Guilty!”

Angry Mob Wants To Rape Houseguests: Lot Offers Daughters 

Fire And Brimstone Turn Cities To Rubble

Was Sarah Assaulted in Abimelech’s Harem? 

Hagar and Ishmael Exiled to Die

God Instructs Abraham, ”Kill Your Son”

Oof, that’s a lot. Abraham argues with God to save two cities, but it turns out there aren’t even ten decent souls there; demoralized, he doesn’t argue with God to save his son. In last week’s parsha a foreign king despoils those cities and kidnaps Lot; this week Lot offers his daughters to an angry mob. Abraham allows Sarah to be taken into somebody’s harem for the second time; Sarah kicks out Hagar and Ishmael. There’s a maxim I’ve heard from colleagues who work in therapy: “Hurt people, hurt people.” Everyone in this story is hurting. 


Everyone in this story – our story, the one we’re living now – is hurting. I’ve spoken with so many of you about the grief and pain we’re carrying. The trauma of Jews slaughtered and kidnapped by Hamas continues to reverberate. For many of us that trauma feels compounded by destruction in Gaza, and by Jews being blamed for all of it. Many of us feel abandoned or betrayed by people we thought we knew. Antisemitism is rising everywhere. In this country, so is Islamophobia.  Many of us are experiencing anxiety attacks. Everyone in this story is hurting. 

When we’re hurting, we have a choice. We can close down around our pain – or we can open our hearts and just let the pain be, and trust that in time it will ebb. When we open our hearts, we also open to the pain of others. That’s the quality we call empathy: we recognize someone’s suffering, feel compassion, want to help. I recognize that those of us who are neurodivergent might experience or express that in other ways, so this is a broad generalization. Still, whether innate or learned, I think empathy is one of humanity’s best qualities. 

KeretIsraeli author Etgar Keret said something about empathy recently that moved me. "When I see people watching the horrible tragedy that is happening here as if it were a Super Bowl of victimhood, in which you support one team and really don’t care about the other, empathy becomes very, very selective. You see only some pain. You don’t want to see other pain..."  

Right now, I admit, empathy hurts like hell. When I think about Israel, when I think about Gaza, my heart breaks and breaks and breaks. What I hear Etgar Keret saying is that empathy doesn’t need to be a zero-sum game, where if I care about this suffering I can’t also care about that suffering. In fact the opposite is true. I believe the human heart is infinitely expandable in this respect. I think the fact of someone hurting should arouse our empathy. If you only take away one word from this d’var Torah, I would like for that word to be empathy

We can’t control what happens geopolitically. And I don’t have answers, and I don’t think it’s our job to know or to control what comes next. That’s one of the worst things about social media right now: the constant pressure to condemn actions taken by someone else somewhere else. The petitions and statements, as though a digital signature or a Facebook graphic here would impact what happens there. The assumption that silence is assent so if we’re not speaking up constantly, we must be in favor of… whatever. It’s exhausting, and it doesn’t help anyone.

What we can control is whether we close down or open up – and what arises from that. Rabbi Simcha Daniel Burstyn, who serves the Arava region of southern Israel, wrote recently that he keeps hope alive by holding fast to the Jewish value that every life is sacred. He also noted that the average age in Gaza is 15, and the average age in Israel is 25, and it’s only between 25 and 35 that the brain becomes fully developed and able to restrain the drive toward anger. 

“And so those of us who are older, we're actually a real resource for our communities, to speak about kindness, and to speak about calm and thinking reactions, restraining anger and restraining the desire for revenge.”

Hurt people hurt people, and everybody in this story is hurting. 

I keep coming back to the part of this week’s Torah portion that we read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. They’ve run out of water, and Hagar cries out to God. And Torah tells us that a messenger of God calls to Hagar and says, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not fear; God has heard the cry of the boy ba-asher hu sham, in the place where he is.” And suddenly she sees a miraculous spring of water.

The sages of the Talmud cite this passage when they’re talking about pre-emptive punishment. Tradition teaches that Ishmael grows up to become the ancestor of the Arab peoples, with whom the children of Israel have not always gotten along. Why didn’t God just let this child die, and thereby prevent all the future harm that would come?

R. Yitzhak says,  ‘We do not judge a person except on the basis of their deeds at that time’” – citing this verse and the phrase “ba-asher hu sham.” (Rosh Hashanah 16b)  We don’t punish someone for what they haven’t done yet. The commentary Torah Temima by Baruch ha-Levi Epstein (ca. 1900) adds: “Even though in the future [Ishmael] will do evil to Israel and even kill…” At this moment, he is a suffering child. Faced with suffering, we choose empathy.

I would add: we don’t know who people are going to become or what the future will hold. We don’t know what the history of our people will be over the next thousand years, or even the next hundred. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War it was impossible to imagine peace between Israel and Egypt – until the Camp David Accords in 1978. It was impossible to imagine, until it wasn’t. Like the miraculous spring in the desert that appeared to Hagar.  

EmpathyWe can’t control what’s happening. We can’t even control what people say on social media. But we can choose how we respond. We can cultivate empathy and curiosity: what must this person be feeling that would cause them to say that? Can we feel empathy even when we disagree?

And just as importantly: can our empathy fuel us in doing something toward a better future? There’s a Buddhist teaching that all suffering is connected, and when we do something to alieviate any suffering we impact the whole. So maybe our hearts are breaking for Israel and Gaza, and we respond by helping someone locally. Or maybe our hearts are breaking for Israel and Gaza and we respond with tzedakah – here is a list of many worthwhile organizations where tzedakah might go after Shabbat. 

When Abraham is arguing for the innocents of Sodom and Gomorrah, he begins his plea for mercy by saying, “I am but dust and ashes!” (Gen. 18:27)  Our hearts may have felt like dust and ashes lately. But the rabbi known as the Ishbitzer finds something beautiful in Abraham’s phrasing. He notes that ashes are the remainder and reminder of what used to be – think of the ash left over after a fire. But dust, or we might say dirt, can give rise to life. 

The first human being, ha-adam, was made from adamah – an earth-being made from earth, from dirt. Our tradition teaches that all humanity comes from one ancestor: fundamentally we are all connected. For me there’s hope in starting our Torah story over again with the first human being. It teaches us each year: begin with earth and care and spirit, and anything can grow.

Even when we feel like dust and ashes: we can honor and grieve what was, and with empathy we can water the seeds of what we hope will be.

Shared with gratitude to R. Robert Tabak, who cited that teaching from Rosh Hashanah 16b in an email this week. And also to my hevruta with whom I studied the Mei HaShiloach this week.

This is the d'var Torah I offered at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)