FRIDAY, June 15th

This week, I heard UC Davis Chancellor Gary May interviewed by Capital Public Radio’s Beth Ruyak, about the statement he released following the shooting of Stephon Clark, which opened “I was walking in the backyard last night, wondering what it would feel like to not feel safe there.”

Often, in the wake of an event as painful as that of Stephon Clark’s shootings, the questions we ask divide the world into good guys and bad guys. Depending on our political orientation we will ask questions like “do you support the men and women of law enforcement who put their lives at risk every day?”   “Are you against the racism and injustice experienced by people of color in this country?”  In the wake of a school shooting, the questions become “Do you care about children’s lives?”  “Do you care about our constitutional freedoms?”  All of these questions boil down to “are you with us or against us?”  Thus, tragic events which ought to bring our community together across various political ideologies and other identities, in the end only further divide us.

What I love about Chancellor May’s question is that it cuts through questions of political ideology and policy, and even the questions of whether the officers should have done anything differently, to ask a basic, human question about what the world feels like for others. It is a question of the heart, not of the head.

Earlier this week, I was in my own back yard, weeding my garden, when I heard a police helicopter circling overhead. My first thought was, “if they’re looking for someone, I hope they won’t mistake me for him.” Then I thought, “I probably look to them like I belong here.” But if circumstances were different, if the color of my skin were different, especially in the wake of the Stephon Clark shooting, would I have felt that confident that the police would think I belonged there? What would it feel like to not feel safe in my own back yard?

Chancellor May’s question is fundamentally about cultivating empathy, about trying to imagine what the world looks like through someone else’s eyes. Too often, we dismiss other people, because from where we sit, their views or actions don’t make any sense. But as Hillel reminds us (Avot 2:4), we cannot not judge another until we have arrived in their place. Perhaps if I’d had their experiences and lived in their circumstances, I would think or feel as they do. By trying to imagine someone else’s experiences, I can perhaps begin to understand why they might think or act in ways that otherwise seem incomprehensible or wrong to me.

Later in Avot (5:17), the same Hillel who made this plea for empathy, is cited, together with his rival, Shammai, as the model of machlokes lesheym shamayim (conflict for the sake of heaven).   Empathy is the necessary ingredient that makes it possible for even our conflicts and disagreements to serve God.  Without empathy, we cannot serve God even together with those with whom we seem to agree.  The mishnah also brings an example of “conflict that is not for the sake of heaven: Korach and all of his congregation.”  Noting that the Mishnah says “Korach and all of his congregation,” instead of saying, as we might have expected, “Korach and Moshe,” the Chasam Sofer explains that even Korach’s allies were not united among themselves, each member of the conspiracy pursuing their own selfish agenda.  I would suggest that just as empathy is what allowed Hillel and Shammai to dispute for the sake of heaven, it was lack of empathy that prevented Korach and his followers from being truly united with one another.  After all, without empathy, I see the world only from my own point of view, and any points of agreement I may have with someone else, are arbitrary accidents of the fact that our two completely independent and isolated worldviews happen to overlap.  Should either of our circumstances or feelings change, causing us to alter our views, we will immediately cease to be allies and  become enemies.  However, when I practice empathy, trying to see the world though someone else’s eyes, I can be united, and partner with even those with whom I disagree.

Thank God, we live in a community with a diversity of religious and political points of view.  When we feel challenged by that diversity, I encourage us to try to imagine what the world might look like from where the other person sits.  The more we can ask ourselves questions that begin with “what would it feel like…” the more we can cultivate empathy, and the more even our conflicts can come to serve divine ends.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein