web analytics
December 22, 2014 / 30 Kislev, 5775
 
At a Glance
InDepth
Sponsored Post
8000 meals Celebrate Eight Days of Chanukah – With 8,000 Free Meals Daily to Israel’s Poor

Join Meir Panim’s campaign to “light up” Chanukah for families in need.



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 (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and strategic studies.


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “Empathy, Suffering, And Human Survival: A Jewish Perspective”

Comments are closed.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Current Top Story
Haredi men cast their votes for the 19th Knesset in Bnei Brak, January 22 2013.
New Poll: Shows Netanyahu Will Lead Next Gov’t with Haredim
Latest Indepth Stories
512px-Jerusalem_Hannukah_021210

Let us become modern day Maccabees and seize the day. Embrace the challenge. Fight for Hashem.

Motta Gur overlooks the Old City with his troops during the Six Day War

Har HaBayit is still Biyadein; Through our actions, its fate is in our hands


What does the way we count the days of Chanukah come to teach us about living in the present?

Knesset and Menorah

Israel projects global material illumination not always the light of “morality” meant by the Navi

“Mr. Prime Minister, declare a unilateral ceasefire! Remember, Blessed is the peacemaker!”

“D-e-t-e-r-m-i-n-a-t-i-o-n!”

Hamas is continuing to prepare its next war against Israel instead of improving conditions in Gaza

If the UN Grants national recognition to Palestine, why stop there? Tibet, Chechnya, Basque…

The decision to not publicly light the Menorah in Sydney, epitomizes the eternal dilemma of Judaism and Jews in the Diaspora.

Am Yisrael is one family, filled with excruciating pain&sorrow for losing the 4 kedoshim of Har Nof

What is its message of the dreidel?” The complexity and hidden nature of history and miracles.

Police play down Arab terrorism as mere “violence” until the truth can no longer be hidden.

The 7 branches of the menorah represent the 7 pillars of secular wisdom, knowledge, and science.

Obama obtained NO verifiable commitments from Cuba it would desist from acts prejudicial to the US

No one would deny that the program subjected detainees to less than pleasant treatment, but the salient point is, for what purpose?

For the past six years President Obama has consistently deplored all Palestinian efforts to end-run negotiations in search of a UN-imposed agreement on Israel.

More Articles from Louis Rene Beres

A “Palestine” could become another Lebanon, with many different factions battling for control.

Louis Rene Beres

President Obama’s core argument on a Middle East peace process is still founded on incorrect assumptions.

Once upon a time in America, every adult could recite at least some Spenglerian theory of decline.

President Obama’s core argument is still founded on incorrect assumptions.

Specific strategic lessons from the Bar Kokhba rebellion.

Still facing an effectively unhindered nuclear threat from Iran, Israel will soon need to choose between two strategic options.

For states, as for individuals, fear and reality go together naturally.

So much of the struggle between Israel and the Arabs continues to concern space.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/columns/louis-bene-beres/empathy-suffering-and-human-survival-a-jewish-perspective/2012/01/11/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: