When I was twenty-three, I was hired as an adjunct lecturer at Brooklyn College to teach Composition. My only previous teaching experience had been with high-school seniors, and I wasn’t quite sure what I was in for.

The first day of class, I entered the room and quickly surmised that I was by far the youngest one there. And if I wasn’t, I certainly looked it. Being that Brooklyn College has a lot of returning students and students from around the world, the room was filled with every age, nationality, culture and religion you could imagine.

No one even noticed me standing at the deskFor the first minute, no one even noticed me standing at the desk. Then, when they did, they couldn’t believe I was their instructor. “Are you kidding me?” “She looks like she’s sixteen!”

Not a great start.

I introduced myself to rolling eyes, slouched bodies, heads on desks, and utter boredom and lack of interest about ten seconds into their very first class.

Then I told them to take out a piece of paper. On one side, they were supposed to write exactly how they were feeling at that moment. I told them to be honest. Brutally honest. Smiles appeared and pens moved.

Then I asked them to flip the paper over. On the other, they were to write exactly how they thought I was feeling at the moment.

And everything changed.

As soon as they had to think about me as a person—with feelings, with insecurities—it all shifted. If they were bored, I was nervous. If they didn’t want to be there, I was pressured to make them interested. If they didn’t think I looked old enough or experienced enough to do the job, I had to prove to them I was qualified. They quickly realized that as bad as they had it, I had it a lot worse. I was not the enemy . . . I was just standing on the other side of the room.

In this week’s Torah portion of Lech Lecha, we learn of Abraham needing to leave his home, to go out. Chassidic commentaries explain that we should understand lech, “go,” and then lecha, “to yourself,” as “Go and find yourself.” And how true that is. But I think there is another lesson as well. If we want to truly find ourselves, and truly connect with others, we need to go outside of ourselves while simultaneously letting others inside. In order to relate, we must feel.

In order to relate, we must feelThis is the difference between sympathy and empathy. If I sympathize with you, I feel sorry for you. Yet if I can empathize, I don’t just feel sorry for your pain, I feel your pain. It is a part of me. We are on the same team.

This is why the word for empathy in Hebrew is rachamim (and why the month of Elul is called chodesh harachamim, the month of empathy). The root of rachamim is rechem, which means “womb.” To understand you, to relate to you, to have a relationship with you, I need to be able to put you at my center. To be other-centered when needed to feel what you feel, think as you think.

It’s not necessarily easy. But it works. Trust me.

(And to all my teachers at whom I rolled my eyes, in front of whom I passed notes, and behind whose backs I did worse . . . I am truly sorry!)