Every Friday morning, at the time of the Penitential Prayers, the Rabbi of Nemirov would vanish.
He was nowhere to be seen-neither in the synagogue nor in the two Houses of Study nor at a minyan. And he was certainly not at home. His door stood open; whoever wished could go in and out; no one would steal from the rabbi. But not a living creature was within.
Where could the rabbi be? Where should he be? In heaven, no doubt.
That’s what the people thought.
So begins one of the most beloved short stories in all of Jewish tradition, If Not Higher. Written around the turn of the last century by the author I.L. Peretz, the story has charmed and inspired readers and listeners through the years and for good reason.
I assume many of you know the story. For those who don’t, I am about to ruin it by sharing the ending. But, there is much more to the story than the ending so you will find copies of the story on the table outside the synagogue. You don’t have to put aside too much time, as it is very short.
So, the disciples of the rabbi of Nemirov think he goes to heaven on the Fridays during Elul when the penitential prayers, the Selichot prayers, are said, because, after all, the only thing that could be more important than being with the community is pleading directly to the Kadosh Baruch Hu for their health and prosperity.
But, a skeptic, referred to in the story only as a “Litvak” doubts that the rabbi goes to heaven so he secretly follows him, lying under the rabbi’s bed at night and following him the next morning. He finds that, in fact, the rabbi changes into peasant clothing, and chops wood bringing it to a small cold cabin in which a frail, elderly woman lives alone. He places the wood in the stove, lights the fire, tells her she can pay him later and leaves to change back to his clothing, arriving at the shul just before Shabbat.
So, now when the disciples say that the rabbi ascends to heaven, the Litvak, now a disciple himself, adds quietly: oyb nisht noch hecher, “if not higher”.
Tonight, on the holiest night of the year, in the spirit of this beautiful story, I want to address on one concept, one quality, one human attribute which is one of the most important treasures we possess: the ability to show compassion.
I fervently believe that the most important principle of Jewish belief is the absolute conviction that we can turn this world into heaven, into the garden of Eden. In fact, we can, despite all of our woes and despite all of our disappointment, reach even higher than heaven; but only if we live lives of compassion.
There have been many books written on compassion in recent years and I can’t possibly do justice to the subject tonight. I know I can only skim the surface of what is a much deeper and more complex issue than I will present this evening. Yet we all must begin somewhere and taking time on this holiest of holy days to speak about the subject of compassion is an expression of how indispensable this value is to our lives.
And I know of what I speak.
Over my years as a congregation rabbi, I have learned how deeply compassion matters in the rabbinate. I have learned how compassion or lack thereof and the perception that we are or are not compassionate at any given moment can solidify or completely undermine a relationship with a congregant. Learning this, sometimes the hard way, has been an essential part of my growth in my profession. Neither I, nor any of us is perfect. Each of us, no matter who we are and what we do, must work daily, hourly, to develop further the power of compassion within our souls and learn how sincerely demonstrating compassion is absolutely critical in our relationship with others.
Alan Morinis, the inspiration behind the contemporary revival of Mussar, a Jewish path towards ethical and meaningful living, notes that “the moral precepts of Judaism demand that we be compassionate to every soul”. He defines compassion as “a deep emotional feeling arising out of identification with the other that seeks a concrete expression”.
There are two key elements of that statement. The second is found in the words “concrete expression”. Compassion can not be just a feeling, it must be expressed through action to be meaningful. We must be willing to chop the wood and light the fire.
But, the other key element of the statement is found in the word “identification”.
In one of the most powerful statements in the Torah, we are told that we must not oppress the stranger because “you know the soul of the stranger since you were strangers in the land of Egypt”. According to the Torah, our history of being slaves obligates us to sincerely care for those who are enslaved or who are strangers.
But, this raises a question. If we hadn’t been slaves, if we hadn’t been strangers, if we couldn’t identify based on our own personal or in this case historical experience, would we still be obligated to show compassion to the stranger? And the answer must be yes. There can be no double standard.
While knowing the soul of the stranger might make us more empathetic, it does not excuse those without that experience from acting with compassion. As Alan Morinis teachers, it is about “identification with the other”. We can and must identify with another person simply because he or she is, like us, a human being.
Compassion is not dependent on completely understanding and identifying with the situation another person finds herself in. It means cutting through all of the defense mechanisms we have built that prevent us from deeply listening to and sincerely connecting with others and seeing in another person a human soul, a kindred spirit.
For example, we may not know how it feels to face a particular illness or to endure a difficult financial hardship or to be alone in a new community without friends or family. We may not have experienced the stress that honest and well-meaning police and other law enforcement professionals face and we may not be able to directly identify with Americans of color for whom merely walking down a street or driving a car can mean taking a serious risk. But that can not and must not prevent us from being compassionate and acting to support to those who are faced with those situations. It may make it more difficult but that is no excuse.
Compassion is not sympathy and it most certainly is not pity. Compassion demands that we meet another person face-to-face and eye to eye, as equal human beings, to seek to better understand what another faces as she goes through daily life. Compassion demands that we show respect for another individual as an equal creation of God, deserving of that respect and sincere concern.
In her book entitled: “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life” Karen Armstrong writes about the charter for compassion which you can read about at charterforcompassion.com. These are statements of commitment to caring for others which many institutions, including the city of Ann Arbor, have signed on to. On the website, which has some wonderful resources on the subject, you will find the simple but powerful words: “We believe that all human beings are born with the capacity for compassion and that it must be cultivated for human beings to survive and thrive.”
This quotation reflects what actually inspired me to give this sermon, one I’ve been thinking about ever since we started using the Sim Shalom siddur some 20 years ago. Every Shabbat morning, we read in our prayer for peace: “Compassionate God, bless the leaders of all nations with the power of compassion”. I can’t tell you how much I dislike that sentence. God has already given all human beings the power of compassion. We don’t have to pray for it. We just have to use it. We are all born with the capacity for compassion.
Both Alan Morinis and Karen Armstrong and my friend and colleague Rabbi Amy Eilberg in her book: “From Enemy to Friend” note that the Hebrew term for compassion- rachamim- shares its linguistic root with the word rechem which means “womb”.
To me, the connection of the word rachamim to rechem means that the ability to be compassionate is part of our very being from the beginning.
In her book, Armstrong notes a theory which I understand has been refuted by many scientists. But I still like it, so it doesn’t matter to me whether you hear it as fact or myth. It is still powerful.
She says that in the “deepest recess of their minds, men and women are indeed ruthlessly selfish. The egotism is rooted in the “old brain” which was bequeathed to us by the reptiles that struggled out of the primal slime some 500 million years ago.” She writes that these creatures were motivated by what are referred to as the “four fs”: feeding, fighting, fleeing and reproduction. She continues: “But over the millennia, human beings also evolved a new brain, the neocortex, home of the reasoning powers that enable us to reflect on the world and on ourselves and to stand back from these instinctive, primitive passions.”
I find this idea to be so deeply meaningful if only as midrash. It is reflected in our Jewish tradition of yetzer ha-tov and yetzer ha-ra, the good inclination and the evil inclination which in at least one classic rabbinic text is represented, not as good vs. evil, but as the self-centered vs. the altruistic and compassionate inclinations. These two tendencies struggle for dominance in our minds and actions. This concept teaches that a part of us is hard wired to be compassionate and that we only need allow it to take precedence over the self-serving parts of our soul.
Compassion is so important in so many arenas of life, most notably in our relationships with one another. But, let me share some thoughts first on the issue in the public arena.
Where is the compassion in our nation? Why, during this election season, are words of kindness and concern and empathy and sympathy not universally expressed? Why, even given differences in our perspectives on policy, are we so often hearing words which degrade and demean other human beings with no compassion and simple kindness?
We see this in the discussion relating to refugees or those in this nation illegally and yes, there must be limits to compassion when it comes to public policy. We have to understand that self-preservation is critical. But, our policies and our priorities as communities and as a nation need to be rooted in respecting individuals and accepting and honoring the basic humanity of another man and woman, whomever and wherever they are, no matter what they look like and, I can not believe that I have to say this, how much they weigh. For they are us. And this is what America must stand for.
And it is what our community must stand for and I am so proud of the efforts of our Jewish Family Services regarding refugees in our community. You will hear more about this and volunteer opportunities tomorrow morning.
Now, I should be point out that Karen Armstrong ends her 12 step program with a chapter called: “Love your Enemies”. I’m really not there. We need to have enough concern for ourselves and our needs to protect ourselves and our families.
But, we would do well to remember the words of the classic rabbinic text, Avot deRabbi Natan which is the basis of the title of Rabbi Eilberg’s book: “Who is a hero, one who turns an enemy into a friend”. It is not prudent to show boundless compassion for those who intend to hurt us but, seeking out ways to better understand another individual and to perform carefully chosen acts of compassion may in fact turn an enemy into a friend and that I have seen happen in my own professional life.
That is why I am so distraught over those who have given up the dream of an end to the Israel/Palestinian conflict and refused to even consider the possibility that there are many Palestinians who are just as frustrated and sick over the continued conflict as Israelis are and who have been so deeply harmed by the past 50 years of occupation. And that is true no matter to whom one ascribes the blame for the suffering of the Palestinian people.
A group of Beth Israel congregants has been meeting monthly for over a year with Jewish and Palestinian members of the group Zeitouna, to learn from each other and share thoughts and fears and hopes with each other. It has been such an uplifting and inspiring experience and I believe strongly that there is still hope. Without endangering our love of Israel and Israel’s needs for security, a relationship based on mutual compassion is still a possibility.
Compassion is a critical piece in Jewish law as well. Our sages repeatedly taught that we must act lifnim mishurat hadin beyond the letter of the law to show compassion for another.
And, there are times when even the law itself fades in importance to compassion. Let me give you an example. We are commanded not to lie. But, a midrash comments on the story in Genesis about Abraham and Sarah in a way which is very enlightening. In the Torah after Sarah says to God: “how can I have a child as my husband is old?”, God relates the statement to Abraham saying that Sarah said: how can I have child seeing that I, Sarah, am old God doesn’t mention what Sarah said about Abraham’s old age. The midrash says that God is teaching us that one can lie for the sake of peace within the home. One can tell a falsehood if the intent is to be compassionate.
Then there is the lovely rabbinic story about the rabbi who is approached by a poor woman. She has just slaughtered a chicken and found its lungs discolored, which might make the chicken tref. She shows the lung to the rabbi and asks him if the chicken is kosher. Before he answers, the rabbi must ask himself one question: can she afford to buy another chicken?
Compassion is more critical than the law.
A few years ago, our Conservative movement radically changed its approach to same sex relationships. It was too long in coming but our rabbis finally found a legal justification for formally recognizing such relationships and same sex marriage within Jewish law. But, whatever resolution their legal investigation brought them, I believe that most rabbis entered into the halachic process with a desire to change the law. That desire was rooted in compassion; not pity, not patronizing attitudes, but in the recognition that the human instinct to love another person is so basic and so foundational that we could no longer turn our backs on what clearly is true love. For so many of us, and I include myself, learning to move past the defenses we had set up to truly look into the eyes of couples who so clearly love each other made all the difference in our attitudes.
And, I believe that our Conservative movement needs to use that same compassionate spirit to allow rabbis to do what we can’t do now and what we could do without violating Jewish law. I believe that Conservative rabbis should be given permission to officiate at a wedding ceremony for an interfaith couple should we choose to do so If a couple approaches a rabbi to officiate at their wedding because they know and trust the rabbi or because they find Jewish tradition meaningful, we need, within certain guidelines, to say “yes”. I would not seek to make this a traditionally halachic, Jewish legal ceremony as that would unnecessarily compromise Jewish law. But, we could easily develop a spiritual ceremony outside of the law. For the good of our movement and our people, we need, as rabbis, to be part of that couple’s life at that critical moment.
But it is more than pragmatism. It would be an expression of compassion, of validation of the feelings of a couple in love and an opportunity to bring more spiritual meaning to their relationship and to show them that we sincerely mean our words of welcome.
I will not officiate at such a ceremony unless and until I am given permission to do so by our Rabbinical Assembly. But, I hope that day comes soon.
But, to return to the subject at hand, compassion is critical not just in public policy but in our actions towards one another.
Last year, on the first night of Rosh Hashana, I asked you to commit to one new Jewish activity over the year. Many of you talked to me about what you chose to do.
This year, I want to ask you to do something different.
This year, I want to ask you to find one new way each month to express compassion in the year just begun.
There are so many possibilities. We can truly listen to someone in need and hold their hands or hug them tightly. We can perform acts of tzedakah for their own sake and with a willing attitude. We can, as Rabbi Eilberg expresses beautifully in her book, demonstrate compassion by having more patience with the person who drives slowly or cuts us off or searches for the proper credit card while standing ahead of us in line at the store. By the way, my family will tell you that that is where I have to start.
And, we can teach our children, even more sincerely and urgently than we already do, to care for others, to reach out a hand to a friend, to stand up for them when they are bullied or excluded or shamed.
There are so many possibilities. We must constantly search for ways to express compassion in all phases of our lives.
But, as we do, let us remember three additional things:
First, let us learn to freely accept compassion from others. Too often, we think we can get by on our own or we raise the bar of our expectations of others to the point where we reject well-meaning acts of compassion because they didn’t respond exactly or as quickly as we might like. Let us judge others’ actions lichaf zechut, with the benefit of the doubt and accept the kindness of friends and strangers without judgment.
Then, let us learn to be compassionate to ourselves. Let us do what we must do to take care of ourselves, to recognize that we are important too and that in order to do for others, we must be compassionate with ourselves and give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and the respect we seek to give others. Our tradition would demand of us that we practice self-compassion. If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
I’ll preface the third and final point with a story. One erev Shabbat, many years ago, I read If Not Higher to a group of 12 year olds at Camp Ramah in New England. I asked them: “Why do you think the rabbi of Nemirov performed his act of compassion in secret? Why didn’t he tell his community where he was going and what he was doing?”
I assumed the kids would recognize the importance of humility when performing an act of compassion. “Do it secretly and don’t take credit for it”.
But, no one answered my question until one of the campers whom I later found out was the son of a rabbi, hesitatingly raised his hand and said, and I swear this is true; “Maybe she wasn’t a member of the congregation and the rabbi was afraid the congregation board would be angry for spending his time with someone who wasn’t a member”
I am proud of everything this synagogue does here in this building and outside of it to act with compassion for members and non-members alike. I am proud of our willingness and readiness, at all levels of the congregation, to be there at all times for those in need.
But, it is not enough. We must try even harder. Each of us, each of us in our own lives must find more and more ways to bring the spirit of compassion out of our souls and into our world and while I can’t be critical of the rabbi of Nemirov, as I understand his humility and his desire for anonymity, the third point is that it really is OK if others know we act compassionately. It’s OK to be a visible role model for compassion. In that way, we teach others.
All the things that we do here are meaningful only if they inspire us to try to make this world or at least a little corner of it like heaven, if not higher.
So go, be good, do good things, show compassion, light a fire and warm one corner of the world.