Tag Archives: empathy

Parshat Va-Yishlah

Share This:

We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” (Gen. 32:7 (6))

What did Yaakov’s messengers really mean? A well-known explanation says that Esav was coming to fight him: “We came to your brother, but he behaves towards you like Esav, the one who hates you” (Bereshit Rabba, Pseudo Jonathan, Rashi, Radak). Others consider they reported only plain facts: “he comes to see you the same as you come to see him” (Ibn Ezra, Nahmanides). Other commentators see here the happiness of the reunion: “Esav comes with a large retinue to welcome his brother joyfully and cheerily” (Rashbam, Hizkuni).

So, how should we deliver a piece of information? How should we tell somebody, somebody else’s message?

Even though there is not an exclusive way or technique to do that, three basic qualities are to be met by a messenger: objective approach, empathy and control of emotional sensitivity.

Objective approach: to rely on facts, without adding or omitting elements.

Empathy: to try and understand what the receiver of the news feels (not “how”, but “what” he/she feels), without being emotionally involved. Emotional engagement may lead us to not to understand other person’s feelings, but to be engrossed in our own feelings and to react according to the latter.

Control of emotional sensitivity: to understand the emotional process we go through, so as to prevent these feelings from interfering.  Our feelings may lead us to detachment and coldness (out of distress to deal with the facts), or to overexcitement, or even to decide not to deliver information that is hard for us to grasp (assuming it will be hard for the receiver to hear). In other words, our feelings thwart our real understanding of the fellow person, they dazzle the soul and may lead us to act in a paternalistic way (“my feelings know better what is good for him or her”). At any rate, we should not annul or neutralize the feelings – the real challenge is to control them.

These three qualities must be present together. Relying on only one of them may cause us to deliver a wrong message, an inappropriate one, which consequences may be disastrous… even having the best of the intentions… like Yaakov’s messengers.

They failed to apply two out of the three qualities. They were very objective in their report, but they were neither empathetic, nor did they measured their own feelings. They described the facts without taking on account Yaakov’s situation, his problematic relationship with Esav, his fears, or even the threat of death because of which he fled the land he’s now returning to. Maybe they felt it was better for Yaakov not to return. Maybe they were full of anger against Esav. It is possible that they preferred not to influence Yaakov in any way, so they took the objective approach. At any rate, they did not measure the emotional sensitivity required by the situation.

The messengers transmitted only facts, without any context. Over-objectivity, that was not objective at all, since the context was lacking. And the context is a built-in part of reality.

In this way, they let Yaakov’s fear and anxiety tint the information with tonalities of loss and destruction. His apprehension coming from the past conquered him and prevented him to properly judge the now different current reality.

It is not easy to put in practice the three basic qualities of transmitting a message. Especially hard are empathy and control of emotional sensitivity. But to ignore them is tantamount to disembarrass oneself of the great responsibility of being a messenger of truth.