Ki Tissa: A Passion for Compassion

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Are you a compassionate person? 

 

If you’re like me, you would like to think of yourself as compassionate.  But are we really? And if not, why should we be?

 

This week’s Torah portion, Ki-Tissa contains, at Exodus 34:6, the so-called “Thirteen Divine Attributes.” It is a passage that is part of Tachanun in our daily liturgy, also on every fast day, and during Neilah on Yom Kippur.  It begins: 

 

יְהוָ֣ה יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן 

 

“The L‑rd, The L‑rd, a G‑d compassionate and gracious.”  It continued with the other Divine attributes, including: “slow to anger and abundant in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin…”

 

These attributes are G-d’s self-description; G-d is describing G-d’self to Moses.  Note that compassion --  רַח֖וּם  -- which has the same root as the word --  רֶחֶם  -- meaning “womb” -- is the first of G-d’s self-descriptors.  

 

What does it actually mean to be compassionate?  Jewishly, it means to feel concern for those who are suffering, and to act reduce their suffering.  To give to them according to their needs.  

 

There are, of course, many examples in the Torah of G-d’s compassion, the quintessential example being G-d hearing the cries of the Israelites and then acting to remove them from the unending misery of slavery.  In fact, in his Guide for the Perplexed 1:54, Maimonides explains that the Divine “attributes” refer only to G-d’s actions, not to G-d’s “emotions” or qualities, since ascribing these to G-d would be limiting. 

 

So, if we are to consider ourselves to be compassionate, we first must see and/or hear the suffering of others. Then, we must take action to mitigate their suffering.  And this is where, I’m sorry to say, many of us fall short.  We feel pity, but we do little or nothing to actually help mitigate the suffering. 

 

We all know -- or know that there are -- people who are suffering.  They, or their loved ones, are ill or have experienced a death in their family. They have been in an accident. They have lost their jobs, business, or home. They have experienced heartache in a relationship.  They are deeply hurt or even in despair from any of innumerable causes.  Perhaps they are Jews living in mud huts in Ethiopia (a situation that I and others seek to help ameliorate through our website, anJieonline.org).    

 

At the beginning of my remarks, I asked “If we are not compassionate, why should we be?”  Being Jews, we are required to try to emulate G-d, to “Walk in His Ways.”  (Deuteronomy 11:22).  Not only does G-d identify compassion first among the Divine attributes, the phrase "merciful and gracious G-d" is repeated nine times in the Bible.  

 

As Rabbi Abraham Bloch noted in his, A Book of Jewish Ethical Concepts: Biblical and Postbiblical, most biblical social laws are motivated by compassion.  As examples, we can think of the law of the sabbatical year, at which time the poor were given free access to the produce of the soil (Exodus 23:11); the required nightly restoration of a garment taken from a poor borrower in pledge for a loan, (Exodus 22:26), the prohibition upon cursing the deaf or placing a stumbling block before the blind" (Leviticus 19:14), the obligation to treat the stranger fairly (Exodus 22:20, Leviticus 20:34), a master's abuse of a slave resulting in he being set free (Exodus 21:26-27), the repeated demands to care for the widow and the orphan (Exodus 22:21, Deuteronomy 14:29).  And for everyone, including even work animals, a weekly day of rest.  

 

Why, also, do we repeat the 13 Divine attributes in prayer?  Because we ask G-d to be compassionate with us.  We must treat others as we would wish to be treated.  [This can also be expressed in the positive or in the negative, i.e., we should not (fail to be compassionate) when we would not want others to (act similarly).]  Indeed, it’s likely that each of us needs compassion now, and even if not, that we will in the future.  Should we not, therefore, be motivated to demonstrate our compassion to others? 

 

Our tradition is so insistent that we be living vessels of compassion that the Talmud asserts that "anyone who is not compassionate with people is certainly not a descendent of our forefather Abraham." (Beitzah 32b)

 

Acts of compassion include mercy -- treating others who are suffering better than they deserve -- and forgiving those who suffer from guilt.  

 

We might say that G-d has a passion for compassion.  But we only know that from G-d's compassionate acts.  And so it is with us. 

 

This Shabbat, may we reflect upon the state of our compassion, and resolve to increase our actions to ease the suffering of others.  

 

For more information about this and many other Jewish ethical topics, please visit theethicaltorah.com.  

 

Shabbat shalom and thanks for reading this!  

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3