There is a saying in the Hindu tradition – namaste – which I’m told poetically means “the light in me recognizes the light in you.” I am often asked whether there is a Hebrew equivalent, and to my knowledge there is not. This is a very interesting thing because inherent in this beautiful concept of namaste is the notion of empathy. To me, the core of empathy is the recognition that we are all in this together, for better or worse. While there may not be a Hebrew phrase which correlates precisely to namaste, the Jewish tradition is filled with insights which compel us towards an empathetic worldview.
As early as the biblical tradition, we are taught in the myth of the first humans that we all trace our origins to the same source – and in fact geneticists have been able to show that every human being on the planet shares a common ancestor who walked the earth around 60,000 years ago. We learn in the story of Avraham arguing with God over the people of Sodom and Gomorrah that it is imperative we stand up for even those whom we have never met. We are commanded repeatedly after the Exodus from Egypt that we are to protect the stranger since we know their experience. Empathy is, in essence, the core of relationship in the Jewish tradition. This motif is continued and expanded upon in the rabbinic tradition. Our Sages taught that the soul of each person who would ever be a member of the Jewish people, by birth or choice, stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. The mystics taught that each of those souls is embodied in the letters of the Torah, whether in a black letter or a white space (there are said to have been 600,000 souls at Sinai, and there are just over 300,000 letters in the Torah). Our Rabbis taught that kol yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh, that all Israel are guarantors for one another – just as a guarantor to a contract is legally responsible if obligations are not met, so too is each member of the Jewish people responsible for one another.
People have asked me what it takes to be a “good Jew.” Personally, I do not believe one has to keep kosher or Shabbat or believe in God or support Israel or any other number of things to be a “good Jew.” I go back to one of my favorite teachings from the Talmud to answer this question: in Masekhet Avodah Zarah we learn, “Rabbi Pinhas ben Yair said: Torah brings one to diligence, diligence brings one to enthusiasm, enthusiasm brings one to spiritual cleanliness, spiritual cleanliness brings one to spiritual abstinence, spiritual abstinence brings one to spiritual purity, spiritual purity brings one to holiness, holiness brings one to humility, humility brings one to fear of sin, fear of sin brings one to lovingkindness, lovingkindness brings one to divine inspiration, divine inspiration brings one to a renewal of life, and lovingkindness is the greatest of all of them.” At the end of the day, our religious ideals and our values are based on the concept of justice. Justice cannot exist without lovingkindess. Lovingkindness cannot exist without empathy. At the end of the day, to be a “good Jew” is to be an empathetic person.email print