You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. —Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
I’m sure, like me, you last read To Kill a Mockingbird decades ago and yet—if you’re at least as old as me—you still have such a clear visual of Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch: dignified, stalwart, humble but righteous. A leader by responsibility rather than by right.
When my daughter Aliza was in the eighth grade, she was required to read Harper Lee’s classic novel, and I decided to download and listen to the audio version, so she and I could talk about it. (There was no getting her to watch the movie: It’s not even in color, Dad!) Narrated by Sissy Spacek, the audio book was just as revelatory as the original paperback, and I fell in love with the story all over again. And Aliza and I talked about parent-child relationships, innocence and its loss, justice, racism, and basic human decency. At the core of our discussions was the idea of empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person.
It seems to me that empathy is what this week’s Torah portion is about. Korach is, in fact, eponymous: he is the leader of a revolt against Moses. Why name the portion after the anti-hero? I think it’s a reminder of how things become distorted when our needs override our sensitivity to another, when our capacity for empathy fails us.
In the reading, Korach foments a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. He believes it is he who deserves the post, not because he has the qualities of a leader but because he is wealthy. Korach sees leadership as his due; he wants not to serve but to reign, and he contests Aaron’s role.
Moses says to Korach, “And as for Aaron—what is he that protest against him?” Does Korach, when he assembles a group of like-minded rebels, consider Moses and Aaron the men or does he merely covet their position at the head of the tribe? Does he try to understand Moses and Aaron, or does he simply want what they have? Had he empathy, Korach might see that leadership is a process not an achievement, just as it is a responsibility and not a right. Had he empathy, he might be the leader that Moses is, that Aaron is.
In 1960, Harper Lee’s act of imagination gave birth the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, circa 1930, to its inhabitants, black and white, and to Atticus Finch, a character whose empathy is the central lesson of the beloved book. This Shabbat, may we use our imagination to climb inside someone else’s skin, to walk in someone else’s shoes, to see through another’s eyes. And may that experience give us the compassion we need to navigate this moment in our nation’s history.