01/20/09

15 BO BLESS (and WALTZ)

‘God Bless You’ – this common post-sneeze sacred invocation that has gone completely secular is uttered endlessly and mindlessly around the world. Just like ‘God Bless America’, this is often simply a polite figure of speech, a civic, civil nicety.
In Hebrew you say ‘La’brioot’ – ‘to health’.
The cultural differences are interesting but either way, these are expressions of empathy, and I’ve been intrigued by this word/ concept – empathy – for about a week now: How come There is no word for “empathy” in Hebrew?

No exact translation, that is – Israelis say ‘empatia’, one of many foreign words that migrated into Modern Hebrew and stuck. It’s a telling fact, though, that words like ‘empathy’ or ‘pluralism’ or ‘text’ do not have an Israeli life of their own. These days, I wonder  not only about the missing word in Hebrew but also about the collective ability to exercise the word’s imperative – to feel empathy towards others, esp. others in distress, and esp. others in distress who are very much ‘the other’.
Ten days since the ceasefire in Gaza, and many efforts at rehabilitation take place– physical, emotional, political and diplomatic. But for many here in Israel, the anger remains. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised – merely suggesting the expression of empathy towards the people of Gaza – alongside support for the IDF soldiers and the people of Sdeort – gets many Israelis – including family members and close friends – furious.  Calls for empathy and care for the estimated 20,000 Gaza residents who are now homeless is met with pursed lips – ‘let Hamas help them, its their own fault’. Empathy, generally recognized as “the ability to sense and understand someone else’s feelings as if they were one’s own” seems to take a backseat to her fierce and frugal sister – survival. “I just can’t afford to be thinking about them right now’ M. tells me.

There are other voices, and other initiatives that think and do otherwise. L., for instance, a 27 year old student from Jerusalem who teamed up with another student and organized within 5 days a 7 truck convey of emergency supplies to Gaza,  thousands of Israeli donations of cloths, food, blankets and personal letters from Israeli citizens to the families beyond the border. I met L. at the weekly Zohar class we attend at the Hartman Institute – who knew she was such an organizer? She didn’t’ sleep for a week and offered many of us a way to be really helpful. I helped with carrying boxes. The story hit the media two days ago – even Al Jazeera wanted to interview her…
And meanwhile, I’ve been asking people for Hebrew translation for ‘empathy’ – heads are scratched, options offered, all admit that there is no one single perfect Hebrew word for it. Yet.
How long has it been missing? How come there isn’t one?

‘In essence’, L. tells me, mid-carrying-boxes – ‘love your neighbor as you love yourself’ is the root of empathy – and Judaism’s core concept – but it got lost in translation.. no?’

I turn to search for empathy in Exodus and check out this week’s weekly tale – BO. Chapter 12 got the Prime Time coverage –  the actual moment of the Exodus – the last midnight in Egypt. The firstborn of Egypt are slain – and there isn’t a home in the land that has not been struck by death. Amid the screams, the king relents – demands that they leave the land – and offers the most audacious invitation for empathy:

“Take both your flocks and your herds and be gone; and bless me also.’ (Ex.12:32)

He’s asking them for a blessing?
How can he expect Moses and his people to have anything but hatred in their hearts towards him? And yet he asks. And we are invited to consider, seriously, his request. Can we bless the enemy – then, now?

And let’s say we do decide to grant him a blessing – let’s pretend that empathy swims in our veins – what blessing would he receive? What blessing would one offer the ruler who has ruled over your misery?

On Sunday night I have dinner at my parents’ home and after dinner I sit with my father and open the books and read the verses with him and ask him – what blessing would you have given the king?

My father, who is no Pollyanna, may or may not be thinking of his Nazi jailers, or the Hamas fighters or any other mythic or historical ‘Pharaoh’ as he quietly, and with great empathy, offers this version of a blessing to the King of Egypt: ‘May your river continue to flow.’

God Bless him.

PS: HOW TO WALTZ

I’m no Pollyanna, and hardly a peace activist, but the fact that ‘empathy’ is so often perceived here as a left leading political statement and not as a basic human, humanitarian (and Jewish) value is really frustrating. It feels like there is no room for real conversation about it – so last weekend I decided to have a conversation about empathy.

Saturday Morning, inside a large public dining room/social hall, 200 Israeli and American college students take their seats, semi circle, facing a long table, with a torah scroll on it, covered in a bright green prayer shawl. Holding the 10 ft tall ‘rod of Moses’ (a plank of wood I picked up that morning in the parking lot outside) I lead a Storahtelling performance in Kiryat Moriah – an educational conference center in Jerusalem. The organizers of this encounter program wanted the group to have a positive interaction with the Biblical narrative and an open conversation about the role of Bible, ritual and Jewish values in the lives of these students.  No problem. I chose 20 verses from the weekly Torah portion, and focused on the moment when Moses actually launches the Exodus Campaign.

I placed the group in role:’ imagine you are the people Israel, in the land of Goshen, minimum wage migrant workers, slaves to the system, oppressed and abused – when this guy comes up with a plan to get you out. This is the town meeting in which you need to decide, oh Israelites, if you are going along with the Exodus Campaign, support your leader Moses and agree to a violent series of strikes against Egypt, your host/oppressor. Can I see a show of hands – how many are in favor of violence as a way to achieve our freedom? Can I see a show of hands for those opposing violence? Who’s on the fence?’

The room was not split evenly. Most voted for violence and when asked to explain used the rhetoric familiar to us all and demonstrated in the Exodus text– only power will save the day. And also – God said so. Those who spoke for non-violence spoke of Gandhi and of not harming innocent others and won’t it just come back to haunt us later? There was tension in the room-  the conversation happened in ‘split screen’ – the story and our reality.

“Well, what about all those dead Egyptians”? I ask. “Should we even consider the pain of the enemy?? Can one want to be free and still feel for the one preventing the freedom? Can I have empathy to my upstairs neighbors who (having just broken up with his girlfriend) blasts loud music late at night, can he have empathy to the girlfriend who ditched him, can any one of us have empathy towards any random beggar on the street, or the wounded child in Gaza, the firstborn of Egypt? “
There was a long silence, and then everybody wanted to say something.
One young woman was adamant in her reply: NO. I have only this much energy to care for others and at times like these (was she talking Goshen or Gaza?) I only have room for care for my own people. There isn’t always the privilege of having empathy for others. Many agree.  One Israeli, politely, stood up and said – you can’t ask this question and expect us to believe that it is a neutral question. The moment you are suggesting we express empathy you are positioning yourself on one side of the political equation. It’s not fair to those of us who think differently. Another guy challenges him – what about ‘don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you?’ and so on. The conversation drifted into the rest of the Biblical narrative, where Moses’ rod becomes an alligator, but the King is not impressed.
The Storahtelling performance wrapped up with a short discussion about this form of ‘translating’ ancient scripture to modern reality and how we get to use these inherited tales to address human values and dilemmas in our personal and collective lives. heated conversations erupted after the show – small clusters of people stood and debated. Many came up to me to keep on talking, animated, charged.  I eventually left them to continue probing the limits of empathy and went to my parents house for a Shabbat lunch.

That night I went with friends to see “Waltz with Bashir” – the Israeli film which recently won the Golden Globe award for best foreign film and is now nominated for an Oscar.
The film is harsh, and by Israeli standards – brutally honest. One of the strongest scenes, and the one that gave the film its title is when one of the soldiers during the Lebanon War of 1982, in the midst of battle, launches into a frenzied ‘dance’ with his machine gun – ‘waltzing’ and shooting bullets in all directions. Man and machine, a waltz of despair and protest. The film focuses on memory and repression, and ultimately, portrays an Israeli man who is trying to reconcile his memory with the terrible reality that he encountered as a young IDF solider in Beirut. He comes out as a noble seeker – a character inspiring much empathy from the outside world. This is why Israelis are very proud of the film, and why the Israeli ministry of Foreign Affairs is sponsoring the directors’ travels worldwide – showing the humane face of Israel.