When Jews are in mourning, Jewish law requires those who visit the ones who are grieving to remain silent. The emphasis is on listening to the mourners’s pain and allowing the grief to take shape and go through its necessary process. The mourners lead, the visitor follows. The visitor’s words are not important. What is important is the silence and the listening and the fact that the visitor is present. This is empathy.
The nineteenth century America poet Emily Dickinson’s wrote after her father passed away, “One who only said ‘I am sorry’ helped me the most when father ceased – it was too soon for language.” When it comes to grief, sometimes it is ‘too soon for language’.
Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg in his article, ‘Empathy Doesn’t Come with Conditions’, expresses this beautifully, using the shiva call as a model for the ideal Jewish response to the Black Lives Matter Movement.
The psalmist writes, I am with him at a time of distress (91:15). Without words, the Divine presence was with the Hebrews who were suffering under the conditions of slavery in Egypt. Without words, the Jewish people stood around the silent Aaron after he learned of his sons’s deaths. Without words, Batya rescued baby Moshe. In these moments, empathy meant that those suffering did not receive lectures about past behaviour, reprimands about idol worship, explanations, or calls for reciprocity. Empathy first requires a wordless connection to the one who is suffering.
Rabbi Rosenberg writes, “Our African-American brothers and sisters are now, in rabbinic terms, in a state of ‘a mourner whose deceased relative lies before him.'”
Mourning is taking place over the murder of Blacks by police, over hundreds of years of slavery, over beatings and lynchings, over almost a hundred years of ‘separate but equal’ laws, over many years of racist housing and other racist policies.
Rabbi Rosenberg is specific about those who respond to Black Lives Matter’ with ‘All Lives Matter’. He writes that this response ‘should evoke the memory of Holocaust Memorial Day statements where Jews were listed as just another group persecuted by the Nazis or omitted entirely, and shows utter indifference.’
Emily Dickinson’s poem that begins ‘I measure every Grief I meet’ comes to mind here. The speaker of the poem is silent and not in dialogue with the mourner. She is wondering and feeling the weight of another’s grief, reminded of her own suffering but then returning to wondering about the anguish of the other person again. Here is the beginning of the poem:
I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes —
I wonder if It weighs like Mine —
Or has an Easier size.
I wonder if They bore it long —
Or did it just begin —
I could not tell the Date of Mine —
It feels so old a pain —
I wonder if it hurts to live —
And if They have to try —
And whether — could They choose between —
It would not be — to die —
I note that Some — gone patient long —
At length, renew their smile —
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil —
I wonder if when Years have piled —
Some Thousands — on the Harm —
That hurt them early — such a lapse
Could give them any Balm —
Dickinson’s focus on the ‘size’ of the grief and its length takes the power of grief into account: its overwhelming force, its might. She even seems to suggest that a ‘lapse’ (the period after the initial trauma) might not provide ‘Balm’. When we suffer a trauma, sensitivity around that trauma needs to last forever. The French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote that when we encounter another person we immediately become aware of their vulnerability. This is where ethics is born.