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Empathy, Suffering, And Human Survival: A Jewish Perspective


Beres-Louis-Rene

According to ancient Jewish tradition, one that certain Talmudists trace back to the time of Isaiah, the world rests upon thirty-six just men, the Lamed-Vav tzaddikim. For those who remain unknown to themselves, the spectacle of the world is insufferable beyond description. Inconsolable at the extent of human pain and woe, for them, so goes the chassidic tale, there is never a moment of tranquility. From time to time, therefore, God himself, in an effort to open their souls to Paradise, sets forward the clock of the Last Judgment by one minute.

There are several meanings to this extraordinary tradition. One offers special hope in our incontestably growing nearness to vast global catastrophe. We shall soon require a whole world of just men and women. We shall, it seems, soon have to create the conditions whereby each and every inhabitant of our imperiled planet can feel the full anguish and portent of the Lamed-Vavniks. Only then will we be able to take the necessary steps back from defilement to sanctification. Faced with a choice between life and death, between “the blessing and the curse,” we shall “therefore choose life.”

The problem, of course, is not only that such creation would be a monumental task, one requiring a uniquely high level of creative intellectual understanding, but also that the remedy itself would be insufferable. How, indeed, could we endure, as individuals and as nations, if we were to feel with the same palpable pain and sorrow the distress of all others? Imagine, if we can, that the all-consuming empathy we now generally display toward our closest relatives and friends in distress would be extended, generally, to the broadest possible radius of human affinities. Truly, without the Lamed-Vav as intermediaries, we could not begin to survive such a torment.

There is, then, a dilemma. To survive as a species we must also survive as individuals, but the evident requirement of species survival – deeper and wider expressions of human empathy – would also render life unendurable for each and every person. To remediate a distinctly threatened planetary civilization, so it would appear, we now need a blessing that would simultaneously be a curse.

Shall we experience the dizziness of the existentially irremediable? How shall we respond? What shall we do?

To redeem the world, it seems, we must call forth certain indispensable metamorphoses, but the “success” of these transformations would simply place us within a new and equally destructive trajectory of harms. In any event, it is unlikely that we must ever even face up to this dilemma. Evidence abounds that the human capacity for empathy seems limited, and that for all practical purposes we will need to construct our best global survival ideologies with no more ambitious assumptions in mind.

There are important elements in our Jewish tradition that appear to warn against taking on too much of the suffering of others. Although we are certainly obligated to feel such suffering (we can learn from and be elevated by such suffering – Toras Avraham), we must also guard against too much empathy; that is, too-strong feelings that could cause our own personal destruction. At times, said the Brisker Rav, Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, we must heed the following warning: “He who wants to live should act as if he were dead.”

Truth may sometimes emerge through paradox. It is hard for us to understand that an imagined death can sustain life, yet all things move in the midst of death and all individual life is part of a far greater whole. We learn from the legend of the Lamed-Vav not only that empathy is essential but that too much empathy is beyond human endurance. Indeed, implicit in the construction of the thirty-six just men is God’s direct affirmation of the Brisker Rav’s warning.

Truth emerges through paradox. It may also emerge from an awareness that, sometimes, reason alone is incapable of revealing what is most important. Such an awareness was deeply embedded in the thought of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who, in the matter presently before us, would surely urge us to seek not “concepts of truth” but truth itself.

The mystery of eternity hovers above and beyond the temporal world, and the deepest reality of human love and empathy, as manifestations of God’s primary love, cannot be elucidated meaningfully only through rigorous analysis or systematic thought. Rather, it may be discovered in every element of our day-to-day reality, including even that which is manifestly impure: “It is,” says Rabbi Kook, “just from those thoughts which are mixed with evil and impurity that great light emerges, which renews the vigor of life.”

In itself, existence is good, and from all existence we can learn many things, including the vital mysteries of empathy and human survival. Apocalypse, let us remember, was pretty much a Jewish invention, and , according to Rabbi Kook, a Divine redemption must finally be undertaken by and through the Jewish People. A part of such redemption must certainly be a greater awareness of human unity, a dialectical oneness; this will ultimately give rise to the light of loving kindness and forgiveness. In turn, a “lofty” soul is needed to first generate the greater awareness of human unity: “The loftier the soul, the more it feels the unity that there is in all.”

About the Author: Louis René Beres, strategic and military affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, is professor of Political Science at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), he lectures and publishes widely on international relations and international law and is the author of ten major books in the field. In Israel, Professor Beres was chair of Project Daniel.


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