The Latest from BZBI

Compassionate Attention

Shabbat Nahamu 2015

August 4, 2015

In 1946, Dr. Emmi Pikler, a Hungarian pediatrician, went to work at an orphanage in Budapest. In private practice before the Shoah, Dr. Pikler had developed distinctive ideas about raising infants, and in the aftermath of the war she brought her method to the orphanage. For Dr. Pikler, the most important thing was to treat the infant like a person, not an object. Caregivers — earlier, the parents she saw on home visits, and now the orphanage staff — were instructed to communicate with the infants when feeding or diapering, explaining each action as they did it, even with babies too young to understand. During playtime, Dr. Pikler advised the adults to let the babies explore on their own, watching but not interfering. In order to give the children a sense of security and dependable relationships, orphanage staff were expected to make a minimum of three years’ commitment. Despite the difficulties of life in an orphanage, it soon became clear that the babies under Dr. Pikler’s care were just as confident, inquisitive, and social as the family-raised infants she had worked with earlier in her career — an outcome very different from other Hungarian orphanages at the time. While her approach never became a mass movement, Dr. Pikler’s students brought her teachings with them wherever in the world they settled.[1]

In 1957, Magda Gerber brought Dr. Pikler’s ideas to America. The RIE Center, which Gerber founded in Los Angeles in 1980, offers classes for parents, nannies, and other caregivers, continuing Dr. Emmi Pikler’s legacy.[2] When Odelia, our eldest, was a baby, Rebecca and I had the opportunity to attend some of these classes. Seven years later, I still draw on the lessons we received from our RIE facilitator and from reading Magda Gerber’s writings. In particular, I remember how the facilitator would respond if a child became upset. For example, if Odelia crawled and bumped into a wall and began to cry, our facilitator would simply acknowledge, “You bumped your head.” As the crying continued, so would the calm recognition: “You bumped your head on the wall,” touching the baby’s head, pointing to the wall. As Rebecca and I followed her guidance, I was amazed to see how quickly Odelia would calm down — sometimes, it seemed, faster than if I had picked her up and held her.

It’s no surprise that the same holds true for all of us as adults; the foundation of Dr. Pikler’s philosophy is to treat babies and children just as we would want to be treated ourselves. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish underscore this point at the very beginning of their classic book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. When we imagine ourselves in our children’s shoes, it becomes easier to see the impact of our actions. In particular, Faber and Mazlish point out how important empathy becomes when we experience distress:

When I’m upset or hurting, the last thing I want to hear is advice, philosophy, psychology, or the other fellow’s point of view. That kind of talk only makes me feel worse than before. Pity leaves me feeling pitiful; questions put me on the defensive; and most infuriating of all is to hear that I have no reason to feel what I’m feeling…

But let someone really listen, let someone acknowledge my inner pain and give me a chance to talk more about what’s troubling me and I begin to feel less upset, less confused, more able to cope with my feelings and my problem.[3]

When we see those we love struggling, in pain, the best we can offer — sometimes, the only thing we can offer — is an empathetic presence, listening and acknowledging the reality of their feelings.

The idea of compassionate attention helps us understand why our Rabbis of Blessed Memory chose this morning’s haftarah for the Shabbat that follows Tisha B’Av. Just one week ago, we gathered upstairs in dim candlelight, seated on the floor as members of our community chanted איכה, the Biblical book of Lamentations, recalling the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and the millennia of exile, suffering, and persecution that followed. Now, with Tisha B’Av behind us, the haftarah opens with a message of comfort: נַֽחֲמוּ נַֽחֲמוּ עַמִּי, Take comfort, take comfort, My people.[4]  While Hebrew often doubles a word or phrase to emphasize the idea or action,[5] the Hasidic master Reb Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev reads this opening line as evidence of two different promises of comfort: one, in the future, when God will redeem the Jewish People from exile, removing the causes of our suffering; and a second act of comfort when, in Reb Levi Yitzhak’s words, “God will recall all of the suffering that befell us, which makes it a double redemption.”[6]  For Reb Levi Yitzhak, the emotional impact of hearing God’s acknowledgment of what we have endured matters as much as as the material effects of redemption. It makes such a difference just to hear someone say, “I notice you.”

Indeed, compassionate attention may be the most powerful gift we can offer another person. We find it at the core of נחום אבלים, the rituals of comforting mourners. The Talmudic sage Rabbi Yohanan established that “The comforters are not permitted to say a word until the mourner opens [the conversation],”[7] allowing the mourner space to express herself in whatever way reflects her state of mind. As comforters, we must pay attention to the cues the mourners give us, compelling us to recognize and acknowledge the mourners’ distress without attempting to diminish or deny their feelings through philosophy, advice, or judgment.

At the same time, lest we err in the other direction and ignore the mourners’ sadness altogether, the tradition developed for the comforters, before leaving, to bless the mourners המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים, “May the Omnipresent comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” Even if the mourner has said nothing — and thus the comforter, too, has remained silent throughout the visit — one should nevertheless offer at least these words of comfort.[8]  In requiring us to interact with the mourner and simultaneously denying us the easy outlet of mindless chatter, Jewish tradition attempts to create a space in which we will be able to see and validate the mourners’ pain and in which the mourners will feel the full strength of our attention.

Moreover, while God can promise both forms of redemption — material as well as emotional — as human beings, our capabilities are more limited. No matter how hard we try, we don’t always have the means to remove or mitigate the things that cause our friends and loved ones distress; but we always have the ability to sit, listen, and give another person our full attention. That’s not to say that it’s easy; it can be excruciatingly difficult and vulnerable to sit in the presence of another person’s pain. But experience also teaches us that offering another person our compassionate attention, hearing their truth and acknowledging their presence, invests the relationship with dignity and holiness.

Even better, just as compassionate attention helps to alleviate suffering it also serves to enhance joy. To use just the most recent example, I have been blessed in the past few days to have many of you, as well as friends and family in other places, email, call, and text me to wish me well on my first Shabbat. As excited as I am to step into my new role here at BZBI, it feels even better to know that so many people in our community and in my life share this excitement. It’s a gift you have given me, and it is a gift each of us are capable of giving, every day. As we move into the final weeks of the Jewish year, this morning’s haftarah reminds us that we have within us the capability to comfort those who suffer and amplify the joy in our lives. Although it may be difficult, we are called to give our compassionate attention to the people we love. May we be blessed with the strength to rise to the occasion.

שבת שלום
[1] Magda Gerber, Dear Parent: Caring for Infants with Respect, Expanded Edition, 185-187; Wikipedia, “Emmi Pikler.”
[2] Wikipedia, “Magda Gerber.”
[3] Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, 8.
[4] Isaiah 40:1.
[5] See, e.g., Radak, Isaiah 40:1.
[6] Kedushat Levi, Shabbat Nahamu.
[7] Moed Katan 28b; Mishneh Torah, Laws of Mourning 13.3; Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 376.1.
[8] Igrot Moshe, Orah Hayyim 5.20.21.


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