Don’t get angry, have Empathy (Shemot)
Sarah Silverman and Rashi have a lot to teach us.
That’s right, you read that correctly.
On Friday morning, I read an article about comedian Sarah Silverman and an interaction she had with a twitter troll. This particular person tweeted at her with a particularly heinous four-letter word. She had good reason to become angry, lambast this person, block them, and move on.
Instead, she tweeted the following,
I believe in you. I read ur timeline & I see what ur doing & your rage is thinly veiled pain. But u know that. I know this feeling. Ps My back F**king sux too. see what happens when u choose love. I see it in you. (Tweet)
Instead of the anger at being called something horrible. She responded with deep empathy and compassion. This is incredibly challenging, but it can be done. If you follow the thread, we discover the incredible pain that this person has suffered in their life. Things no one should have to encounter.
The suffering and pressure in this person’s life caused them to act badly and lash out. This pain led them to make bad choices. By the grace of Silverman’s compassion, things don’t end there.
This is the lens in which I want to look at this week’s parasha, weekly Torah portion, Shemot (Exodus).
Let me step back and get us some context on the story.
We’ve been following Joseph, the son of Jacob who is one of the patriarch’s of our people. Joseph has been in power as a prime minister type figure, managing Egypts resources and helping them through a famine. Joseph’s family moves to Egypt fleeing the hunger.
Then the Torah tells us that a new pharaoh rose to power and did not know Joseph. This pharaoh became afraid, saying,
“look, the Israelite people are too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they many not increase;…they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground. So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor.”
From his fear of outsiders, he decides to “afflict” them, which we know is enslavement. His fear, the pressure of enemies abroad, the famine, outsiders pouring into his borders, causes him to make a bad choice. We vilify this man, he’s awful, he enslaved the Israelites. No argument that his choice is a bad one. Whenever someone says, “lets deal shrewdly with them,” we know that it is not going to end well.
However, let’s just take a quick moment and empathize with him.
We don’t know about his childhood, his family life. We don’t know about the pressure of leading a nation, we don’t know all the pressures in his life.
The classic quote, “Everyone is fighting a battle we do not know about” feels appropriate here to me.
Let me also be clear here, slavery is bad, the choice he made was wrong. What I do want us to do is step into the shoes of people we normally call our enemy.
Rashi brings us a comment on the following verse. The Torah says,
“But the more that they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so that the [Egyptians] came to dread the Israelites.”
The Torah uses the word, they, and not the word pharaoh. So we’re talking about the Egyptians themselves. So when THEY oppressed or afflicted the Israelite people, the more the Israelites grew. Rashi says,
“And as they oppressed them — With everything that they set their hearts upon afflicting them, so was the heart of the Holy One, blessed be God, set upon multiplying them and spreading them apart.”
So everything that the Egyptians felt was transmuted into something else. And what did they feel? Well, if you’ve been told by your Pharaoh, your leader, to fear and hate these growing people within your ranks, you would not feel great. The Torah tells us explicitly, that they felt dread. They also likely felt, anger, fear, concern, and a ton of negativity.
All of this was converted into positivity by God. It wasn’t about the lashes or afflicting, it was, Rashi tells us, “everything that they set their hearts upon.” Their emotions turned into actions was what God was reflecting back. For all of that hate, the Israelite people expanded.
This, to me, is not about the Jewish people being hated. It is easy to go down that road, but not really my worldview.
Instead, I want to see this as a paradigm. The greater the pressure, the greater the potential for growth.
Let me be clear, not all suffering is the same. I’m not saying, awful things that happen to you, disease, abuse, etc. that there is always a positive outcome or that God planned it that way. That to me is ridiculous, and I’m not saying that.
I am saying that the pressure in our lives forces us to make choices.
Rabbi Bradley Artson, the dean of the Ziegler School, in his theological work around process theology, describes a god that encourages. God whispers to us each and every time we have a choice and encourages us to make the right one. Each opportunity is a turning point.
The pressure in our lives, perceived and real afflictions, provide us opportunities. We can choose to respond to them in hateful, angry, and negative ways, which may be reasonable responses in many cases. Instead, we can respond to them with love, compassion, and empathy.
We can use these moments and experiences to make ourselves more sensitive and more attuned to others around us.
Sarah Silverman responded to this pained, angry person and treated them with dignity and love. She encouraged him to find help, tweeted people in his city, and people responded. This person is getting help. This person is being supported now in a way they were not before. If Silverman had ignored it, responded differently, this person would have continued to stew in their hate, fear, and pain.
Sarah Silverman saved this person’s life.
We can be like her,
we can be like God,
we can turn negativity into positivity.
Anger into hope
hate into compassion
pain into love.
We can do it every day.
We can make the world a better place.
We can do it together.