Birthing Worlds of Compassion
Erev Rosh Hashanah ~ 1 Tishrei 5774
Rabbi Jennifer Gubitz
Temple Shir Tikva, Wayland, MA
Wandering the streets, his clothes ragged and tattered, his shoes threadbare and his hair bedraggled and disheveled, full of passion Jeremiah zealously and fervently entered the town square. It was market day and people gathered around stalls of spices, booths of breads, bushels of produce, wagons of home goods, and tables where scholars and their students hunched over, swaying back and forth learning, almost singing, ancient texts.
Surely, people will hear me this time, he hoped. They cannot ignore me if I yell loudly enough! He could feel a passion welling up inside as he reflected: Even if they don’t look at me, because they never look at me, at the very least while they shop, perhaps just this once they might stop and listen - even for a moment.
And then Jeremiah began to shout these words which are read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, these words from God: Ahavat Olam ahavtich al ken m’shach’tich chased. He yelled: We are loved with unbounded love and ceaseless compassion. And then he screamed: And so we can love with unbounded love. We can care with ceaseless compassion.
Jeremiah shouted and yelled and screamed, but the market kept bustling as it always does on market days. No one paid notice. No one stopped. No one even looked up.
And they dispassionately went about their day. For he was just another prophet in the marketplace passionately preaching the pursuit of lovingkindness. He was just another prophet in the marketplace passionately preaching the practice of compassion.
Would a prophet in our day stand up at a farmer’s market or at the entry to Fenway yelling at us these words from God or any words from God, we, too, might not even look up. Rather, we might look away or we might look down on him. We might think him crazy and we might dismiss the depth of his message, lost in his ragged and tattered veneer - disdaining even the depth of his message lost in our assumptions of people who look...like that.
Perhaps we’re not so different from those ancients.
Some years later when the Holy Temple fell, Jeremiah - ragged, tattered and threadbare - continued to shout. He continued to yell and scream aggrieved at the destruction, which he all but predicted would happen.
The Rabbis teach that the Ancient Temple fell because of Sinat Chinam - senseless, baseless hatred. And as we look around our world - right this very moment, we know that still today temples fall, countries fall, missiles fall, people fall…and their voices
scream out to us. They scream out to us in the marketplace, in the workplace, and everywhere that hate has become commonplace. The past catches up to us converging senselessly with the present.
Perhaps we’re not so different from those ancients.
When we read the headlines, when we see the breadlines, when we hear about red lines - we might look away (and it’s hard not to.) We might think: this Sinat Chinam, this senseless hatred is them not us. But we’re not blind and we know we all belong to humankind and clearly, in many ways this year humanity has missed the mark.
Perhaps we’re not so different from those ancients, but perhaps we can be.
For we have the capacity, we have the power, we have the potential, we have the technology, and we have an obligation to confront sinat chinam - senseless hatred -
with what the early 20th century Rabbi, Rav Kook, called Ahavat Chinam - senseless love.
We can confront Sinat Chinam with Ahavat Chinam - senseless love, just as Jeremiah called out to us: Ahavat Olam ahavtich al ken m’shach’tich chased. Since we are loved with unbounded love and ceaseless compassion - whether from God or something else divine, whether from family or from friends… Because we know what that feels like
to be beneficiaries of love and compassion - we should have the capacity and we should pursue our obligation to offer it to others. Compassion is in our very core.
Compassion is in our very DNA.
No, we’re not so different from those ancients.
Rather, 18th century philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argues that we and our ancestors, those ancients, share two traits with all species: amour de soi, self love, and pitié, compassion for the suffering of others. Rousseau teaches that compassion is a trait or characteristic found deep within humans. In some cases it might be so deep that one is not able to access it, which is why philosophers, educators, authors, world leaders,and spiritual leaders encourage the nourishment and cultivation of our “compassionate core.”
But a few examples:
“Compassion is the chief law of human existence,” writes Dostoyevsky.
“Our task must be…to widen[ing] our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty,” hypothesizes Albert Einstein.
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring,” preached Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Compassion is the radicalism of our time,” reflects the Dalai Lama.
Such global truths and yet this ethical ideal - to radically widen our circles of compassion beyond dropping money in a cup to bringing about broader social change - seems so hard to even approach. It seems so hard to tap into this inner wellspring that Rousseau suggests we have. It is fatiguing even - and compassion fatigue is a real thing. It is much easier to look away or to look down or just to shut down and focus only on ourselves and our immediate inner circle.
Perhaps we don’t want to be so different from those ancestors.
But should we - should we choose to explore the depths of our compassionate core -
we need not look to other traditions or schools of thought for this imperative of cultivating compassion exists deep within our own.
In the Mussar tradition, Jewish teachings focused on ethical and spiritual discipline,
we learn that compassion is deep within the realms of our soul. Mussar teaches that from the very beginning, from birth “we are endowed with every one of the full range of
middot - of human traits.” Mussar scholar Alan Morinis, in his accessible guide
Everyday Holiness:The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar writes, “that what sets one person apart from another is not whether we have certain traits while someone else has different ones, but rather the degree, or measure, or middah, of the traits, [middot,] that live in each of our souls. The angriest person…[may have] an excess of the anger trait, but Mussar insists that there must be at least some degree of calm within that raging soul…” Morinis continues, “it’s not whether we have [or don’t have] the traits - all of us have them all...” [nor is any trait] particularly bad, but Mussar leads a student
on a path of discovery and uncovering and balancing.
But yes, compassion is an extremely noble trait.
And there are so many Hebrew words that indicate compassion, loving-kindness,
love, mercy - so many nuances - that I’ve avoided using but one so as not to belabor in translation, but to labor in the potential for transformation. One word - however - crucial is the Hebrew word rachamim - it is probably the best translation for compassion and is connected in root to rechem - or womb. Even in the building blocks of our beloved Hebrew, we understand that from the womb, from our very birth, we are endowed with the capacity to cultivate compassion. It’s already within us. We just have to tap into it.
From the 11th century Mussar Text, Chovot Ha’Levavot: Duties of the Heart, Spanish Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda lays it out for us. Quite simply he writes: “Express compassion when you encounter the impoverished, the poor, the diseased; with people who are outside the mainstream of society, who do not know how to improve their lot, who do not know how to conduct themselves, who are imprisoned by enemies, who have lost great fortunes, who regret having transgressed, and who weep for the consequences of their sins.”
Compassion, then, is not just tzedakah. It is not just good deeds. It is not just mitzvot. It is not just about justice. Rather, in Hebrew, as rachamim it is plural. There is no singular form because compassion embodies a plurality of depth. It is all of those things AND compassion is an attitude. It’s a countenance. It is a way of being.
It is what one rabbi Sharon Brous defines as “kindness drenched in love.” And it is defined by its Latin roots com (with) and pati (suffer), literally meaning “to suffer with.”
Compassion means weeping with those who weep. And because we can all find ourselves at some point within the definition offered by Rabbenu Bachya, compassion means weeping with everyone because everyone weeps.
“Compassion,” writes Henri Nouwen, a scholar and yes, priest, “compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”
And compassion is the basis upon which the world was built. For our sages teach that “the world from its inception was created only with compassion.” And the world - our world - was created on the first day of Tishrei.
Today the world was built with compassion. And today and tomorrow and the next day, we can build worlds of compassion.
But should we ever find ourselves lost or looking away or looking down on the Jeremiah’s of the world who preach or the weepers of the world who reach into our hearts because we are unable to breach that which has been within us since our Genesis - we can look to God to teach us because, our tradition reminds, “just as God is called compassionate and gracious, so you too must be compassionate and gracious.”
And we can look to the words we will recite over and over in the coming days: Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum, V’chanun...Adonai! Adonai! You are compassionate, you are gracious.
And if still, days from now already distant from these moments of turning, maybe you can hear the prophet Jeremiah. If you just listen, ever so closely you can hear him
calling out to us: Ahavat Olam ahavtich al ken m’shach’tich chased. He’s yelling: We are loved with unbounded love and ceaseless compassion…
Listen - Do you hear him? He’s screaming now: And we can love with unbounded love and we can care with ceaseless compassion…
And if still you can’t hear Jeremiah, then listen for the shofar. It, too, calls out, reminding us that with Ahavat Chinam, senseless love, and Chesed, kindness drenched in love, and with Rachamim, deep, abiding, ceaseless compassion we can be the bearers, the holders, the molders, and the menders - such that the Shofar’s sounds of brokenness can once again become whole.