Empathy is an essential skill for our personal, social, and religious development. We generally associate empathy with the ability to feel sorry when someone else is struggling, but this is only one side of empathy, referred to as emotional or affective empathy. A second type of empathy is called cognitive empathy, which is the ability to intellectually understand the perspective of other people, identifying what they may be feeling, why they may be feeling that way, and how their behavior connects to what they are feeling. Someone who has cognitive empathy for another person may not feel emotional about the other’s plight but will intellectually understand it better.
Yet, experiencing either of these types of empathy is not inherently beneficial to others. Some people who feel intense emotional empathy for another, may be too overwhelmed by their own negative feelings that they are unable to help. Just understanding intellectually what someone is going through also does not necessarily lead to helping behaviors. In fact, sociopaths often score high on scales of cognitive empathy, because they understand what people are feeling very well, and can then use that knowledge to hurt and manipulate them. Developing cognitive and emotional empathy are morally and socially important, but only when they lead to the service of others. When the empathy leads to helping, it is referred to as compassionate empathy.
In describing Moshe’s rise to becoming the leader, prophet, and teacher of Bnei Yisrael, the Torah and the commentators emphasize his ability to empathize. The first act that Moshe does of his own volition is to go out amongst his brethren and see their suffering (“vayar be-sivlotam”). But seeing their suffering was not just a visual act for Moshe. Rashi, based on the Midrash (Shemot Rabba 1:27), adds that Moshe “gave his eyes and heart, and felt troubled for them.” The Midrash itself adds that Moshe cried after seeing their suffering. Moshe, in other words, felt emotional empathy for the plight of his people.
In his commentary on the same verse, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin adds a cognitive component to Moshe’s “seeing.” He writes that he looked carefully and analyzed how Pharaoh was making them work, concluding that the work wasn’t for a functional purpose, but just to make them suffer. Rabbi Berlin’s interpretation may be based on the same Midrash that Rashi quoted, as the Midrash also inserts a cognitive element to Moshe’s empathy. Moshe paid attention to the fact that people were forced to do jobs that weren’t fitting their physical abilities. The weak, small, and young were forced to do jobs that were for stronger, bigger, and older people. Men were forced to do jobs generally designated for women and women were forced to do jobs generally appropriate to men. Thinking through the nuances of the situation, identifying how his brethren must have been feeling, and how their feelings were impacting them are all parts of cognitive empathy.
Yet, Moshe did not just think cognitive empathy or feel emotional empathy, he took action to help alleviate their pain. The same Midrash writes that “He extended his shoulders to help carry the burden of each person.” Moshe worked hard himself to make the work easier for Bnei Yisrael. The fact that Moshe’s cognitive and emotional empathy leads to a compassionate empathy, sets the stage for the rest of his growth and development.
Moshe is someone who thinks, feels, and then acts to save and help those in pain. It is this blend of cognitive, emotional, and compassionate empathy that make Moshe the great leader, prophet, and teacher of the Jewish people.