What makes for a great city?
Is it the height of the skyscrapers or the extent of its art collection? Is it in the beauty of the beach or the proximity to the mountains? Is it the size of its industry or prowess of its sports teams? What truly makes a city, or any collection of people living life together, truly great?
If you read a city – its landscape, its billboards and architecture – as you read a book, what does your hometown say? I live in Los Angeles, a city on the sea and nuzzled against the mountains. It’s a city full of artists and culture makers. It’s also a city that is filled with poverty and sadness. If I would read my city as a book it would read like a pulpy story with glossy lips and manicured gardens and fences and hedges designed to block out the street. It has the Rose Bowl and the Hollywood Bowl, and a city that struggles to fill the food bowl for so many.
It’s a city where you are told to be successful, you need talent. To live the life you want, you need skills and intelligence. You need savvy networking. The story of LA, like so many other cities, says that to be successful means being able to get ahead of others, to carve out your space, to get your name on the marquee and to grab the spotlight. But if you are to be truly successful in life, there is one part of you that is more important than the rest.
Our culture today has an allergy to empathy. Long before the pandemic, a sourness and skepticism crept into our hearts. There’s an anger and an insistence that we have held onto within ourselves that gets its power from our malcontent. We are all waiting for someone else to mess up, to go astray. We are insisting ever more that what we feel and what we think are the only ways to live life. Our minds close off to alternative opinions or even to facts. Something has happened to our souls that has kept us from discovering each other, where “safer at home” means shutting the blinds and locking the doors to anyone who is different, and worse yet, to those who need us most.
Empathy is not only an allergy, but a weapon. According to one study, of the most highly desired careers amongst children, being a social influencer or a “YouTuber” ranked in the top five. Meaning that more young people today want to be famous than to be a teacher or service worker or a scientist. When asked why, many respondents said they wanted to be understood and they felt deeply that their story is one that everyone should know.
Social influencers, whether it’s style, or beauty, body or sports, want you to envy them as to remind you that you are not as good as they are. They want us to see their experiences, and have empathy – to feel the white sand in our toes and the joy of a sunset from the top of the tower so they can sell us a product. Coveting is empathy weaponized.
In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we find God’s rules for building a great city. In it, we find laws that tell us there must be justice (Exodus 21:18). There must be truth telling (Exodus 23:1). There are rules for renting and borrowing (Exodus 22:13) and for personal integrity (Exodus 23:8). But at the center of the law code, what God understands for what makes a truly great society, is empathy – for each other, and for God.
The laws of the covenant flow upon the Divine river of empathy, the headwaters of which are a loving relationship between ourselves and God. In the first of a legal couplet the Torah says, “Whoever makes a sacrifice to other gods, and not the LORD alone, will be banished” (Exodus 22:19). At first glance, this could look like a simple proscription against idolatry and that God is again insisting on an exclusive relationship. But there is so much more going on here. In a remarkable turn of verse, the Torah is showing us quite poetically, that if we choose to put our trust in idols made of wood and stone, gold and silver, then we will find ourselves banished from the world of other people. Idolatry is not just a foolish belief that fortune brings us success, but that our own story of a vital life requires us to worship wealth as divine. The sin of idolatry is in the breaking off of the life-flowing relationship with God, who cannot be seen or touched, but whose presence we can feel deeply in our bones. The Talmud remarks that committing idolatry is like being “uprooted from the world” for it rips us from the communal human story and devolves our soul into narcissism (Talmud Sanhedrin 63a). The Torah is telling us that you cannot separate the idea of empathy for each other from the relationship we have to the universe itself. If you live in a world where you deny the possibility of wonder, and believe that you are the only author of your life, how can you possibly live life from the perspective of another human being?
The second law in the couplet reflects God’s desire for mutual empathy, as in the first. “Do not wrong or oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20). Here too, we are asked to build a society with empathy at the center. Thirty-six times, this commandment appears in the Torah (Babba Metzia 59b). Over and over again we are told to care for the poor, the widow and orphan because we were strangers in Egypt. And like the first commandment, God is asking us to extend our consciousness to an experience that is not our own. I’ve never been a slave in Egypt; my parents were never slaves either. The power of the Torah’s ethic is in its enjoining us to experience something mythic and powerful. It is teaching us to take an experience that is unknown to us and unseen by us and put it inside of us so deeply that we make life choices based on it. As remarkable as it is for us to have empathy for the stranger, it is even more remarkable – and explicitly theological – that the source of our empathy lies outside of our actual life experience. We are asked to make the mythical practical and to take something outside of our life story and make it the center of our life story. What is more faithful than that? Empathy is more than altruism. Empathy is godly.
Everything floats upon our willingness to step into another person’s experience and not just to walk in their shoes, but to live in their feet. We shall not take the poor person’s garment as a pledge, for we know they have nothing else (Exodus 22:25). Even an enemy deserves our help (Exodus 23:4). And if we mistreat the poor it is as if we are mistreating God (Exodus 22:22). At the core of the laws of Exodus is God’s vision for a great city. One in which justice and integrity are built on the foundation of empathy. One which requires from us the highest of commitments to keep ourselves open and growing, to fight against skepticism, to experience each other fully and to give each other the chance to succeed instead of just waiting for each other fail. What makes for a great city? It is not its nature or its art collection, gilded towers or its sports champions. What makes for a great city is our ability to transcend our own story and live in each other’s soul, to take care of each other, to remove oppression and pain, and to act on love by committing ourselves to justice.