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What Is Our Obligation to Homeless People?

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You pass a homeless person on the street and you put a coin in his or her cup. Is that a demonstration of empathy, or should you do more? In this video, Rabbi Simon Jacobson discusses the emotional attribute of empathy in light of this question. What defines healthy empathy? While we should certainly help people, often the way we help people — and when — is dependent on our emotions-of-the-moment. One day you may feel kindness to a homeless person, and on another day you may choose to ignore him or her or even get angry at the presence of a vagrant disturbing your comfort zone.  How do we determine when and how we should be helping others? Is it dependent on our own subjectivity? Does it matter if it is coming out of guilt or other self-serving reasons, as long as the beneficiary gets whatever material gift we give them? Is it selfish to think that we’re getting something out of selflessness? Kabbalah says that on the soul level, there is in fact something in it for us when we give. Though the focus is on the recipient, the giver receives in return more than the recipient does. When we give, we receive spiritual and emotional energy — the good kind of energy that empowers us to fulfill our purpose in life, and that nourishes our souls and specifically our empathy faculty. The catch is that in order to receive that spiritual energy, we have to give compassionately, and compassion takes practice. Just like the human body has parts, the soul has parts. And just like parts of the human body will atrophy if left unused, the soul needs exercise. (That’s why the Meaningful Life Center offers Soul Workouts.) When you develop your empathy “muscles” through practice and honest self-evaluation, you become empowered to help homeless people — and everybody else. Giving is not about you, but about the recipient. But when you give, you become a far healthier and greater person.

 


Go deeper into this subject: Do You Know How to Empathize? | Breaking Down the Highest Level of Empathy | Do You Care? | Money: A Blessing or a Curse?

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Lezlie Ely

Thanks for this. It makes a lot of sense!

Marcus Gundlach

On the one hand there is a political obligation. I think, “Our” obligation is a problem. If this theme is a ethic theme, it is a challenge of a individual person. If “our” means jewish, we all have to develop standards of reflection.