I’ve spent the better part of this week mourning someone I did not know.
Through the power of the internet and social media I was recently introduced to “Superman” Sam Sommer, an 8-year-old boy who had suffered from leukemia and died last week. His parents are both rabbis in the Chicago area, and while I do not know them, the internet makes the world smaller, and we have friends and colleagues in common.
I was introduced to Sam late in his short life. When he was first diagnosed last year his parents began a blog Superman Sam to chronicle the cancer journey. Primarily a means to keep family, friends and congregants updated, the blog follows the journey from diagnosis to treatment, to remission, to recurrence, to death. I only first saw the blog when friends of mine on Facebook began posting links to it a few months ago, after Sam’s cancer had recurred and there were no more treatment options. It is devastating to read.
The outpouring of emotion has been tremendous. Friends and rabbis have written testimonials. (For some moving words check out Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr) Sam’s story has been all over the Internet and major new outlets. A thousand people attended his funeral in Chicago last week. A group of rabbis are organizing a “Shave for the Brave,” a head-shaving event to raise money for children’s cancer research. Many people who mourn know the Sommer family. And many more do not.
How do we mourn for someone we don’t know? From an objective standpoint the loss of a child is one of the most devastating things to happen to anyone. To lose someone we are charged with caring for is tragic, and it upsets the normal course of events. And reading Sam’s story is all that more devastating for me because he was my younger son’s age when he was diagnosed, and looking at Erez when I read about Sam-much as I did when the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary occurred one year ago this week-ignites feelings of recognition, connection, identification.
Empathy. This is how we mourn for someone we don’t know.
Not long after hearing about Sam’s death a short video was making its way around the Internet. It is about empathy, and the fact that we need to cultivate empathy, rather than sympathy. You can see the full video below, but in short, empathy embodies four main qualities: the ability to take another’s perspective, not judging, recognizing emotion in other people and communicating. Empathy is about going down to where a person is and telling them you understand what it is like, and that they are not alone.
Empathy is also the understanding that nothing you say is going to make things better, nor should we even try. The fact of one’s presence is enough. Real human connection through empathy is what sustains us in difficult times, not magic words.
In this week’s Torah portion, we get a lesson on empathy from God. We begin the book of Exodus this week, and the first portion, Shemot, speaks of the Israelites in Egypt. After a long and peaceful residence in Egypt, the Israelites are enslaved and oppressed by Pharaoh. They cry out to God and, the Torah teaches, God hears the cry, remembers the covenant, and “takes notice of them.”
Later, when talking to Moses, whom God sends to free the Israelites, God says, “I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings. I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and then bring them out of that land…” (Exodus 3:7-8)
God hears and understands, and takes the perspective of the people. God does not judge and communicates to the Israelites through Moses and Aaron. And God, through Moses, goes down to where the Israelites are in order to be with them in their suffering. And this is what will lead them out. God is with them–and now us–in suffering.
This is empathy. This is, as the video defines it, “feeling with.” In order to be fully human, we need to cultivate empathy so that we are able to give it and receive it. The plight of a people oppressed should inspire emotions with us. The loss of a child we do not know should inspire emotions within us. It is the first step to healing and transformation. It is the first step to deeply connecting with another.
Empathy requires examining ourselves, then making a connection with another, which is so necessary in order to face the difficulties that beset us, the tragedies that challenge us. It’s how we mourn together, how we cry together, how we live together.