Grade 7 Dvar Torah by: Orli
When I was little, maybe two years old, I went to see the zoo lights and made a perfect snow angel. I was very proud. So when it was time to leave I threw the biggest fit ever, because I didn’t get to say goodbye to my snow angel. My mom had to make a choice whether to comfort me and give me empathy because I was sad, or put me in timeout because I misbehaved.
In my Torah portion, Mishpatim, God gives the Israelites detailed rules to follow after getting the ten commandments. There are so many rules in this parashah, I could go on for ages. Some examples of these rules are how to treat Hebrew slaves, animal property and when people get into fights and breaking into people's houses. Then God mentions the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. In Exodus chapter 20, the Torah says, “You shall not wrong a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In other words, God wants us to feel empathy for the stranger.
The Torah then goes on to say, “You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.” In other words, God threatens to kill us if we don’t take care of the widow and the orphan. Now when I looked at these two commandments in closer detail my question was: why does God want us to have empathy for the stranger, but does not set out consequences if we don’t, but then lays out the ultimate consequence for us if we don’t care for the widow or the orphan?
My question is, when are we motivated to do things based on empathy? In the wise words of Rabbi Google, empathy is defined as: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Empathy is when you see someone sad or upset, you relate to what they are going through, and that understanding helps you to help them. In the Torah, we are meant to help the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Empathy compels us to take action.
But I also wonder, when are we motivated to do things because of the fear of consequences? Let me give you an example of the consequences in my life. I was told to clean my room, I said no. I was told my phone would be taken away if I didn’t, so I cleaned my room.
In the Torah, God threatens a very serious consequence if we don’t take care of the widow and the orphan.
Why do we need both empathy and consequences as motivators? Do we really need both?
I decided to see what others have said about this topic. I started with Rabbi Shai Held. Rabbi Held makes a strong argument for the importance of empathy. In reflecting on the verse about oppressing the stranger, Rabbi Held says, “We should not oppress the stranger because we as a people remember what oppression can mean.” But I would argue that we should also individually personalize the Torah’s demand that we remember. Each of us is obligated, in the course of our lives, to remember times when we have been exploited or abused by those who had power over us. From these experiences in our own lives, the Torah tells us, we are to learn compassion and kindness.” In other words, Rabbi Held thinks that we need to go to another level of empathy, not just the historical level that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, but we also need to think of things that happen in our own lives so we give even more empathy.
I also looked at Rashi. In commenting on the verse about the orphan and widow, Rashi says, “That is also the law regarding any person, but the Torah is speaking of what usually happens and therefore mentions these in particular.” I think Rashi is saying that lots of people are vulnerable when they don’t have someone to protect them, and widows and orphans are the best examples of that. We need to protect them and be that someone who stands up for them. Perhaps, in a situation this important, we need more than empathy, we may need a consequence if we fail to do so. Just knowing that widows and orphans may not have someone to stand up for them, may not be enough, after all, most of us haven’t been widows or orphans, so we need a consequence to push us more.
In thinking about empathy versus consequences, I wanted to dig a little deeper. I found an article about timeouts for little kids in a journal from The American Psychological Association that said, “Our clinical case findings have shown that timeouts used consistently for select behaviors and situations significantly reduced problem behaviors over time.” In other words, giving consequences is ok when a child does not respond to empathy and needs greater incentive to stop bad behavior, but they should not be overused. I agree with this. I don’t think that consequences should be used all the time, but only when needed to push and motivate a child to do the right thing.
My mom, being the great and amazing therapist she is, added that punishing a child, or putting a child in timeout, only works if the parent has a strong relationship with the child to begin with, based on empathy or else the child will keep misbehaving. In other words, we need both. The truth is, our actions to help or care for others are motivated by empathy AND by consequences.
After having considered these other opinions, I came to my own conclusions. I think empathy is the ideal motivator, but if it’s not enough then we should turn to consequences. There are some experiences that are more universal, like starting a new activity or meeting a new group of people: we have ALL been strangers, so we can relate to them and help them. BUT we haven’t all been widows/orphans, some of us can’t relate. So if empathy is not enough motivation, then the next thing would be for there to be a consequence. That is why I think God sets a consequence for not protecting the widow and orphan, but caring for the stranger is simply motivated by empathy.
This relates to my life because I’m with little kids all the time and needed to make these kinds of decisions weekly. For my Mitzvah Project, I went to a preschool for underprivileged kids called Kinder Care and did a special program with two-year-olds called the sunshine circle. In this program, my mom and I, with some help from the teachers, did activities with the kids. We would sing songs, play games, read books, eat snacks and dance. But we did this all in a structured way, giving the kids extra calming touch and nurturing they need. I learned how to take care of a large group of kids at the same time, which is a new skill for me. Doing this helped me have a deeper understanding of empathy and consequence.
In my volunteering I could see that there are times when someone simply needs empathy to motivate good behavior, but there are other times when a consequence is needed. For example, when one child hit a peer back after first being hit by that kid, we told him “we’re sorry, you had an “ouchy” before, and we understand that you tried to give your ouchy to someone else” and we said, “say sorry to her, and she will say sorry to you” and then we took his hand and taught him to gently soothe the child he had hurt.
Approaching with empathy and teaching empathy was the intervention we chose. But at a different time, a child was lying in the middle of the circle and being disruptive. The teacher said, “please sit on your bottom” and when he didn’t, the teacher came over, picked him up, and placed him somewhere else where he could no longer disrupt the activity. A consequence was needed.
The truth is, I can use the skill of empathy in my everyday life. I have empathized with sad friends. When I related to their problem I have shared what I did in my own life to fix the problem. This has helped friends to learn from my experience. On the other hand, in school I am motivated to do revisions and improve my grades in order to avoid the consequences of seeing the look on parents’ faces, knowing I could have done better. Both empathy and consequence have a place in my life. Oh and by the way, that’s exactly what happened with the snow angel: first, my mom empathized by saying she understands how sad I am, but when I wouldn’t stop kicking and screaming she grabbed me, buckled me in my car seat and let me cry it out.