Spiritual Oxygen Masks: Chassidic Tools for the Empath in You
Ahavas Yisroel / Essays 2019
A fortified city is so-called because a defensive wall surrounds it, defining its borders and safeguarding its inhabitants against the perils of the outside world. People, too, require defense against external influences, and many tend to fortify themselves by erecting emotional walls around their hearts. As we see in the case of a city, a breached wall means infiltration. For sensitive people, this kind of emotional breach may be a fairly common occurrence. But if you’re an empath, the border between your own heart and the heart of another is so elusive, it’s as if there are no walls at all.
This essay will aim to characterize the advantages and disadvantages of an empathic nature, highlight the essential value of empathy in the world, and demonstrate how chassidus offers the tools for empaths to overcome their unique challenges and channel their gifts. We will examine human connection as defined in the Rebbe Rashab’s Ma’amar Heichaltzu, empathy as it has been exemplified in the Rebbe-chassid relationship, the Divine attribute and soul faculty of compassion as explained kabbalistically, insights on compassion from the Alter Rebbe’s Tanya, and the commentary of Rashi.
Know the Heart of a Stranger – Psychologists Define Empathy
“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger: You were strangers in the land of Egypt” Exodus 23:9
“Empathy”, in contrast with “sympathy”, goes beyond feeling for another person. Rather, empathy is defined as the ability to feel with them. It allows us to put ourselves aside and step into the shoes of another, rejoicing with them during the good times, and supporting them in times of need. Empathy can make or break relationships, whether personal or professional. In a society full of conflict and friction between people, psychologists have deemed empathy the medicine the world needs.(1)
The term “empath” was coined to describe a person whose heightened sensitivity allows them to experience the emotions, energies and even physical sensations of other people as if it were their own.(2) They are typically characterized as highly intuitive, great listeners, and the most loyal of friends. They are frequently sought out for their insight, advice and emotional support, and may commonly pursue healing professions.(3) The emotional intelligence they possess make them particularly well-equipped for bridging gaps in human relationships.
For many empaths, these abilities constitute both their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. For example, while they are adept at reading people with pinpoint accuracy, their frequent exposure to the internal climate of others can leave them feeling inundated. Because they are susceptible to absorbing the energy of those around them, even brief and casual social encounters can be emotionally exhausting. They are usually generous when it comes to giving of their time and talents, but it’s easy for them to give too much and forget to take care of themselves. Because they tend to take on the feelings of others, it can even be difficult for them to distinguish which feelings are their own. For these reasons, they may become overwhelmed in crowds, prone to physical illness and fatigue, and may require a lot of alone time to decompress and replenish their inner resources.(4)
We see that in order for empaths to make use of their abilities, these individuals must adopt a mode of operation which will simultaneously protect them from becoming engulfed in input from the outside, while allowing them to express their gifts.
Like One Person, with One Heart – Chassidus Defines Connection
“And Israel encamped there, facing the mountain.” Exodus 19:2
“The verb is in the singular, in contrast to the previous verbs. This is to teach that the huge multitude of people encamped like a single person, with a single heart.” – Rashi
Upon scoping the vast body of Torah wisdom, countless examples can be found of what would appear to be superhuman connections made between people. The Torah recounts that when the Children of Israel encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai, as they prepared for the greatest Divine revelation humankind has ever seen, they attained a state of unity that is described as “all together, as one man.” Yet we know that the Jewish nation was divided into twelve tribes, and that there was no shortage of friction between them as individuals with differing personal interests and opinions. What is it that allowed them to transcend their differences and become one?
From “Other-Centered” to “G-d-Centered”
The answer is hinted to in the words facing the mountain.(5) When facing Mount Sinai, upon which G‑d Himself would descend to give them His Torah, any differences or barriers that may have existed between them vanished. Why?
1. Bitul – Removing Oneself from the Equation
The term bitul literally means nullification, and describes a spiritual state wherein one removes
his sense of autonomous self, thereby opening himself up to G-d’s Will and Wisdom.(6) By getting yourself out of the way, you can actually transcend worldly limitations and gain access to the “big picture” – the higher truth of reality, that we are all interconnected, and that our souls stem from the same source.
2. Achdus – Synthesis Between Opposites
Achdus means oneness, from the word echad. Torah defines two types of division in the world. The first causes separation, but the second is a type of division which can ultimately lead to synthesis. This occurs when a single entity is broken down into different parts, and those parts reunite to make one whole. Based on this, Chassidus teaches that true unity is achieved when individuals work together, each offering his unique contribution to strengthen and complete one another, like different organs functioning interdependently within one body.(7)
For an empath, these can constitute two vital steps in the process of establishing and maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships. Through attaining bitul, an empath is able to release the buildup of energy and emotions they’ve absorbed from the outside, and reconnect to the reality that ultimately, all belongs to G-d, and everything is in His Hands. By submitting to His Will, you can become an instrument for serving a G-dly purpose, while enjoying the peace and comfort there is in knowing that everything He does is ultimately for the good.
After transforming your approach from one characterized by personal interaction to one of an elevated nature, you can reintroduce your individuality according to the achdus model – as one particular element dedicated to doing its part within an infinitely greater whole.
By making the shift from “other-centered” to “G-d-centered”, you can offer your G-d-given strengths and abilities to strengthen others, and rather than being drained by it, you may even find that you receive strength in return.
It is said about Rabbi Shmuel, the fourth Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbe, that after receiving people for yechidus (a private audience), he would need a change of clothing, as the clothing he’d worn to yechidus would invariably be soaked with perspiration.
He once explained: “In the past hour, twenty people came to see me. To relate to each one’s dilemma, I must divest myself of my own personality and circumstances and clothe myself in theirs. But they came to consult not with themselves, but with me. So I must re-clothe myself in my own persona in order to advise them.”
The word “yechidus” literally means to become one. But connecting with another person so fully is no simple task. “Losing” oneself in another is an intense labor of love.(8)
Gevurah of Tiferes – Discipline in Compassion
The most foundational principle of the Torah is that G-d is One(9), and that there is none else besides Him.(10) Torah’s mystical dimension teaches that in order for G-d to create the perception of “otherness”, He had to put Himself through a process of contraction. In other words, He purposefully withdrew the Infinite to allow space for the finite to come into being.(11) In doing so, the possibility for a relationship arose between the Creator and His creation
Furthermore, Chassidus explains that G-d manifests Himself and interacts with His world through ten Divine “attributes”, like ten channels through which different aspects of G-dliness are revealed. Man was created in the Imagine of G-d, so our souls, too, consist of ten faculties.(12)
If we want to understand the faculties of our souls, we must first examine their source in the corresponding Divine attributes. The one which is of particular interest to us is called Tiferes, the channel through which G-d reveals His attribute of compassion.
Tiferes can be described in part as a fusion of the two Divine attributes which precede it: chesed (loving-kindness) and gevurah (discipline). Tiferes creates a balance between these two diametric opposites by introducing a third element to the equation: truth, which is accessed through nullification of the self, and can therefore rise above the opposing qualities of love and discipline, and allow them to become integrated.(13) These are the ingredients which produce Divine compassion.
We also need to know that each of the ten divine attributes, and likewise our corresponding soul faculties, contains expressions of the other nine. For example, the attribute of tiferes contains within it “chesed of tiferes”, “gevurah of tiferes”, and so on. Gevurah of tiferes, in particular, can serve as an invaluable tool for empaths. We know that for compassion to be healthy for the giver, and effective for the beneficiary, it must be shared with discipline and focus. Discipline in compassion is knowing when to express compassion, how to determine the appropriate measure of compassion to show, and what mode of expression will truly benefit the recipient. In fact, sometimes true compassion means withholding compassion altogether.(14) In this scenario, the empath must ask himself, Is it possible my compassion is unwarranted, or perhaps even harmful?
This principle applies whether the compassion may be detrimental to the receiver, or too dangerous for the giver, as in the case of contact with “toxic” personalities. It’s important to acknowledge that harmful relationships exist, and that there are some which can be particularly unhealthy for empaths. Dr. Judith Orloff, psychiatrist and author of The Empath’s Survival Guide, coined the term “energy vampire” to describe the types of personalities with whom empaths must take extra caution.(15) She explains that these are people who can quickly drain the empath’s energy, spoil their peace of mind, and even go so far as to make them believe they are unworthy or unlovable. The framework that Dr. Orloff lays out for dealing with these types allows the empath to feel compassion while setting limits, which includes maintaining a healthy distance when necessary.
We find examples in the Torah of instances when our forefathers and foremothers had to separate from destructive relationships.(16) Abraham had to part ways with his nephew Lot. Sarah sent away her maidservant Hagar and her son, Ishmael, in order to protect her own son Isaac. Jacob ran away from his father-in-law Laban as soon as he had the chance. It’s important to note that circumstances may arise wherein separation may be the only way to protect oneself.
Love Your Fellow Like Yourself
“I hereby take upon myself to fulfill the mitzvah, ‘Love your fellow like yourself.’” – The Morning Prayer
In the Tanya, the magnum opus of Chabad Chassidus, we are taught that the easiest and most direct path to fulfilling the mitzvah, “You shall love your fellow like yourself,” is by viewing the soul as primary and the body as secondary.(17) In fact, one should always regard the soul as infinitely more precious. Bodies are separate entities which distance one person from his fellow, and lead us to focus on the differences between us.
On the other hand, souls bind us together, and the commandment to love our fellow is based on the unity between souls. The great Torah sage, Hillel the Elder, said that this mitzvah is the basis of the entire Torah and all of its commandments. He also said, “Be one of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving creatures and drawing them near to the Torah.”(18) The word “creatures” is used to refer to individuals whose sole virtue is that they are G-d’s creations. In other words, those who may not be so easy to love at first. Yet we are obligated in the mitzvah to love them just the same. But how can we be commanded to feel an emotion, and what if we simply just don’t?
The Tanya goes on to tell us that we must show compassion to the souls of these individuals. It is compassion which will allow us to arouse love for our fellow, and especially for those who we are not initially inclined to love.
Once, during the childhood of the Rebbe Rashab (the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe), he was playing a game of “Rebbe and chassid” with his brother, who played the role of rebbe, while he himself played the chassid.
The scenario they acted out was that of a “chassid” coming to his spiritual mentor with a complaint of a deficiency in his personal spiritual service.
When “the Rebbe” advised him on how to correct it, the “chassid” exclaimed, “You’re not a rebbe!”
“Why not?” asked his brother.
The child answered, “A rebbe first sighs in understanding before offering advice.” (19)
Kotzer Ruach – Securing Your Own Oxygen Mask Before Assisting Others
“Say to the Children of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will take you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians…’ They did not hearken to Moses because of shortness of breath.” Exodus 6:6-9
“’They could not hear Moses…’ They could not accept, receive and feel any consolation from his words. ‘Because of their kotzer ruach/shortness of breath…’ When someone is under stress and duress, they become short of wind and breath, and are unable to breathe deeply.” – Rashi
Interestingly, we see in the Book of Exodus the term “kotzer ruach” or “shortness of breath” used to describe a state of emotional stress, anxiety and hopelessness. In truth, “kotzer ruach” can also be rendered as “depression of spirit”. Our Sages observe that the feelings of the Jewish people during the arduous oppression they endured in Egypt were so dense, they were rendered incapable of being receptive to the promise of redemption.(20)
It isn’t difficult to relate to this on a personal level. Anyone who has ever felt overcome with worry, grief or anger knows how hard it is to look past the present moment and their current state of raw emotion.
Lessons for the Empath to Internalize:
1. In Relating with Others
When offering emotional support to someone who is in a state of kotzer ruach, we can learn from the example of Moses. The people couldn’t hear what he had to say when he delivered the news of salvation from the very tribulations which made it impossible for them to accept his message of hope. Nevertheless, his very presence represented redemption. When a person is so immersed in their suffering that they can’t picture the end of it, it really helps to have someone who stands tall enough to see light on the horizon.
2. In Self-Care
An empathic person is always a short distance away from reaching the point when there is no more room in his heart and he simply can no longer bear other people’s burdens.(21) When confronting the emotional hurdles of others, there are precautionary measures we can take to protect ourselves against the strain of kotzer ruach. Scheduling alone time, practicing bitul and exercising discipline in compassion are all methods of navigating these hurdles, and precluding “shortness of breath”.
Together, these principles constitute your spiritual oxygen mask, serving as your life-force on an ordinary day, and your lifeline in times of trouble. And, as we know, you must secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others. While it’s true that you must first help yourself before you can help others, this is also a paradox, because in truth – through helping others, you help yourself.(22)
- The Power of Empathy by Judith Orloff, M.D.
- The Top 10 Traits of an Empath by Judith Orloff, M.D.
- If You Have These 30 Traits, Consider Yourself an Empath by Christel Broederlow
- 10 Traits Empathic People Share by Judith Orloff, M.D.
- Correspondence by Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, The Lubavitcher Rebbe [May 9, 1985]
- Likkutei Sichos Volume 25, pgs. 213-219
- Ma’amar Heichaltzu, Chapters 5-7 by Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneerson
- How Many Friends Do You Have? On being a Rebbe by Mendel Kalmenson
- Deuteronomy 6:4
- Deuteronomy 4:35
- The teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria
- Tanya, Chapter 3
- A Spiritual Guide to the Omer by Simon Jacobson, Week Three – Tiferet
- Omer Day 16 – Gevurah of Tiferet
- 4 Strategies to Survive Emotional Vampires by Judith Orloff, M.D.
- When Separation Is Protection by Miriam Adahan
- Tanya, Chapter 32
- Avot 1:12
- HaYom Yom: Tackling Life’s Tasks – 25 Sivan
- A handful of commentaries on the verse Exodus 6:9
- Rashi on the verse Numbers 21:4
- In Helping Others, You Help Yourself by Marianna Pogosyan Ph.D.