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What Really Constitutes ‘Compassion’?


Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

I’ve received numerous e-mails in response to my recent columns on the Sandy Hook massacre, gun control, and the violence and immorality in our society. Here is one of those e-mails, followed by my response.

Dear Rebbetzin Jungreis,

I was deeply moved by your words about Sandy Hook and the brutality that has become the norm in our culture. I was especially inspired by your recommendations that might make a change in our world – at least in our Jewish world. You pointed out a need to present our children with role models who could become our role models as well. And even if they appear beyond our reach, at the very least we would have something to aim for – something to visualize in our hearts, minds, and souls.

The Midrash regarding Moshe Rabbeinu spoke to my heart. I had, of course, heard that particular Midrash many times before, but as so often happens, you hear something a thousand and one times without it making an impact and then suddenly you hear it one more time and it becomes life transforming.

When I read your article it suddenly hit me that the greatest man to walk on earth was not chosen for his brilliance, his power, or his wealth but simply because he realized one little lamb from his flock was missing. He went in search of it and when he found it drinking at a brook he picked it up, placed it on his shoulder and carried it back to the flock.

People need to think about that Midrash and contrast it with the heroes of today. I learned from your article that the greatest value we can impart to our children is to be more compassionate and more caring of others. But to teach compassion, care, and concern is no simple challenge, especially in our callous world. People today feel entitled and demand more and more. But if we consider your suggestions, at the very least we will have a framework to keep us anchored to a higher purpose.

Thank you, Rebbetzin, for all you are doing for our people.

Dear Friend,

I have often said and written that Hebrew, the holy tongue, is different from all other languages. Every word is definitive and speaks to us. You must only explore the concept, find the root, and suddenly you will have insight into that word that you never knew was there. For example, the word “compassion” in English or any other language has little meaning in and of itself. Everyone has his own version, her own interpretation, of what “compassion” means. In Hebrew, however, there is no such leeway. The Torah defines the meaning through the root of the word. Rachamim – the Hebrew word for compassion – does not allow for arbitrary interpretation. The word is derived from the root of the Hebrew word “rechem,” womb, teaching us that the way a mother feels about the child she carries under her heart constitutes compassion.

Not, mind you, how she feels about her son or daughter but rather about that unborn infant she carries within her. As much as a mother loves the child who stands before her, there are times the child can irritate her and even evoke anger. But she can never be annoyed by that little one who has yet to be born. That child is guarded and awaited with joy. And that is the meaning of “rachamim.”

Such feelings are not easily come by, and before parents or teachers can impart these emotions to their children they must first awaken them in their own hearts – not an easy goal in our self-centered society where genuine manifestations of rachamim are almost nonexistent. It is rachamim that separates one man from another and endows him with greatness.

Moshe came by this feeling naturally. It was part of his spiritual heritage, a legacy from his great-grandfather Levi. In contrast to the other tribes in Egypt, the Levites were never enslaved. Nevertheless, Levi, the patriarch of the tribe, felt the impending bondage with such intense pain that when his sons were born he gave them names that would remind them of their people’s suffering.

Moshe was raised in the palace of Pharaoh. He was a royal prince, an heir to the throne of the mightiest empire in the world, and yet he chose to give it all up so that he might join his oppressed brethren.

When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the High Priest was not permitted to wear shoes while he conducted services. Why was there such a prohibition? Though there may be many reasons, the most salient one is that he who walks barefoot feels every little pebble, every little grain of sand. The High Priest was constantly reminded that as the leader of his people he had to feel the heartbeat of every person, hear his cry, and see his tears.

There are, of course those who will argue, “Of what avail is it to assume someone else’s pain? If you can’t eliminate their suffering, why cause yourself distress?” The Midrash teaches us that such was the thinking of Job.

Pharaoh had three principal advisers – Bilam, Jethro, and Job. When the “Jewish problem” came up for discussion, Bilam recommended the murder of all Jewish male infants. Jethro (the future father-in-law of Moses) protested and had to run for his life. Job, upon witnessing all this, concluded it would be futile for him to speak up and so remained silent. And it was for this silence that he was later punished.

It’s natural for people who experience even a minor injury to cry out in pain. Such a reaction is an involuntary reflex. The one who is hurting does not calculate, “What’s the point of my crying ‘ouch’? It won’t help anyway.” No; his reaction is automatic, instinctive, beyond his control. If he remains silent, if he does not cry out, we can assume he does not feel the pain with any degree of intensity. The nerves are dead, no longer capable of feeling.

Our souls have their own nerves and if, G-d forbid, those nerves are dead and no longer transmit feelings of rachamim, one’s sense of humanity is lost. Such a person no longer remembers the image in which G-d created him. So, yes, Job remained silent when Jewish blood was shed, but when, in another time, his own children became ill and were dying, he cried out in torment. “Oh my G-d, oh my G-d, why don’t you have rachamim on me? Didn’t I give tzedakah? Didn’t I open my house to the poor? Didn’t I share everything I had with others? G-d, why don’t you answer me? Surly this is not the reward I deserve.”

And then the big questions came. “Job, now you cry? Now you weep? Now you ask for mercy? Why did you not cry when Jewish lives were being snuffed out? Why didn’t you protest?”

To which Job answered G-d, “I saw what happened to my colleague Jethro when he protested. He had to run for his life. It would have been futile for me to speak out – Pharaoh wasn’t listening.”

“Job,” G-d replied, “should you not have cried out in pain instinctively? Should you not have protested even if you knew it would be of no avail? Is it only now that you understand – now that it is your own children, your own house, your own family at risk?”

Jethro was not the only one who protested the evil, who felt the pain. There were two women who also had to make choices – the Jewish midwives Shifra and Pua (pseudonyms for Yocheved and Miriam, respectively the future mother and sister of Moses). They were summoned to the palace and under pain of death ordered to kill all newborn male infants. These two women not only protested the evil of Pharaoh, they did everything to subvert it. This is the real meaning of compassion, of rachamim: to go beyond oneself for the sake of another. Their inordinate strength stemmed from their reverence for G-d and their compassionate, loving hearts.

As a survivor of the Holocaust, I’ve always wondered about the shameful silence of the world. “What could we have done?” people ask. My response: You could have tried to emulate those two little ladies in Egypt and found ways to save our lives; at the very least you could have cried “ouch!” You could have said, “I feel your pain, I hear your cry.”

The question still remains. How do we teach rachamim to our children and to ourselves? If we are to impart new values to our sons and daughters, this question must be addressed. And, undoubtedly, we ourselves have to change. We must probe our hearts and come to a new understanding of our responsibilities.

(To Be Continued)

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