COMPASSION AND FLEXIBILITY
Verse: “When he cries out to Me, I will hear for I am compassionate.” ~ Exodus 22:26
“It’s easy to judge. It’s more difficult to understand. Understanding requires compassion, patience, and a willingness to believe that good hearts sometimes choose poor methods. Through judging we separate. Through understanding we grow.”
~ Doe Zantamata
The greatness and goodness of God are made evident in that He hears even the unheard cries and responds in compassion – rachamim. This is illustrated in how He heard the cry of the Israelite slaves in Egypt, which resulted in their deliverance. Also, in Genesis 21:17, we read how Hagar and Ishmael had been driven out into the wilderness. They had run out of water and the boy, Ishmael, cried as he was dying of thirst. Suddenly an angel messenger appeared and told Hagar, ‘Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying” and he then revealed a well of water to her.
In his commentary on this passage, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that hearing is the basis of both justice and compassion. When King Solomon was asked regarding the gift he would like to receive from God he answered: “Grant Your servant a listening heart to govern Your people and to distinguish between right and wrong” (1 Kings 3:19).
Rabbi Sacks quotes a Hassidic leader of the 1800’s, Rabbi Jacob Leiner, who wrote: “Hearing has a greater power than seeing. Sight discloses the external aspect of things, but hearing reveals their inwardness.”
On my first visit to Israel, in a group of five women friends, I remember our meeting with a woman in Jerusalem who was blind from birth. As we spent time with her, I was astounded at how she was able to discern inner aspects of each of us without any of us actually sharing any personal information! I understood that she didn’t need to work through the facade of the external layers of personality we all have. She could “see” straight into the inner person, simply by being able to discern so much more of the subtleties in what she heard.
The central prayer in Judaism is the Shema. We are told in Deuteronomy 27:9, “Be silent, Israel, and listen!” We traditionally cover our eyes when we say the Shema to restrict the sense of sight in order to Shema – hear more intently. In the West we gain “insight” and usually say, “I see!” to denote understanding. In Hebrew we say, “Ani shome’a!” – “I hear you!”
Rabbi Sacks also points out that the word Shema occurs 92 times in the book of Deuteronomy alone and how there is no word in Hebrew for ‘obey.’ God is not a tyrant over His people but rather a loving Father and teacher of those who respond to His will because they love Him. The people of God are simply enjoined to “Shema” – to listen intently, to understand, to internalize, and to respond to His Word and will in thought, word, and deed. God does not want “blind” fear-based obedience but rather our voluntary love-based partnership and cooperation. In love we are called to imitate Him – to reflect His light of truth, love, and compassion into the world, as did our Master and Messiah Yeshua.
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Messiah —by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Messiah Yeshua, so that in the coming ages He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Messiah Yeshua.” (Ephesians 2:4-7)
COMPASSION IN BALANCE
Disinterest <——————— Compassion ———————> Sentimentality
Injustice Healthy benevolence Unwise tolerance
Cruelty Chessed / loving-kindness Suffering
As we see, healthy compassion brings more fairness and flexibility to justice.
JONAH – An Illustration of Justice and Compassion
In her book Return – Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe, Erica Brown highlights how the true struggle in the book of Jonah, which is read on Yom Kippur, is “the battle between justice and compassion.” Jonah clearly depicts the one who has turned away from God’s command and is running from the calling on his life. In the Hebrew text the word yored – to ‘descend,’ is used repeatedly as Jonah sinks lower and lower in his attempt to run from God. First he leaves his home in the hills around Nazareth and goes down to the coastal port of Jaffa. There he boards a ship and descends to the lowest area where he falls into a deep sleep. A raging storm arises and even this does not wake the sleeping prophet. The captain wakes him and in amazement asks: “How can you be sleeping so soundly?” This sleep reflects the spiritual state of one who is far from God; one whom the blasts of the shofar during Elul and Rosh HaShana attempt to awaken.
As we know Jonah’s next descent is into the billows of the sea when he suggest the sailors throw him overboard and they reluctantly comply. Immediately the storm subsides and Erica Brown points out: “The sailors then offered sacrifices to Jonah’s God, fearing Him in a way that Jonah [absorbed in his self-pity] did not!” Only now, facing the certainty of death as he sinks to the depths of the sea, does Jonah cry out to God, “Will I never gaze again upon Your Holy Temple?” (2:5). God exhibits His mercy and compassion and Jonah is swallowed by a “big fish” that spits him up on the shore in the vicinity of Nineveh! Jonah finally understands, albeit with great reluctance, that he must complete his mission and be the first prophet to prophesy outside of Israel, and to a nation that historically was and would be an enemy to Israel.
On hearing Jonah’s message of the impending destruction of Nineveh, the king expresses a hope in the compassion of God and declares a city-wide fast saying: “Who knows but that God may turn and relent?” (3:9). Jonah, on the other and, remains trapped in a black-and-white mindset of strict justice. He hopes that justice will prevail and that destruction will come! He sets ups a booth outside the city where he waits and watches. God causes a kikayon plant to spring up next to the booth that provides welcome shade for Jonah. For the first time he expresses happiness! To him it’s a sign of God’s care and provision for him. When it suddenly dies he is so distraught he wants to die. God, however, is wanting to teach him a vital lesson.
And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (4:10-11)
Erica Brown concludes: “Jonah wanted pity, mercy, nurturing and protection – all aspects of the love and care we receive from others. Yet he could not extend that gift of mercy to others.” God wanted to show Jonah that true authority lies in balancing justice and compassion. The ideal prophet – one who speaks for the Lord, wants to care for and encourage people more than to criticize them.
The book ends with a question and we are left to surmise whether Jonah would learn and repent, or not. The question challenges us too!
* Do we doubt God’s call on our lives and hesitate to do what we know we should?
* Do we judge and criticize others when we should be extending care and compassion?
* Are we filled with self-pity when facing tough challenges?
Jonah shows how there is no room for repentance – teshuvah – turning back to God, and to experience constructive, pro-active change, when we feel sorry for ourselves.
As we press forward on our spiritual climb, and in an attempt to imitate our faithful and loving Father God and to reflect His image in the world, we need to have a deep well of compassion in our hearts. The Torah constantly emphasizes the importance of being compassionate to the poor, to widows and orphans, and to others in need. The Sages of Israel consider compassion for others as so vital that they say that anyone who is not compassionate is certainly not a descendant of our father Abraham!
Another lesson we can learn from Jonah is that compassion helps one remain flexible and adaptable. Healthy adaptability is the ability to accept change and unpredictability, while also knowing when to remain constant. It requires finding the balance between being unstable and too changeable, what Alan Mornings calls a “dizzy chameleon” and being rigid, unbending and frustrated. A healthy balance will help us deal with any situation requiring change positively and will lead to success.
Five steps that help provide adaptability:
- Be flexible and realize that “My way is not the only way!”
- Focus on the big picture. Don’t get bogged down in the details.
- Keep a positive attitude.
- Pray for strength and wisdom. “Abba, please either lighten the load or strengthen my shoulders.”
- Ask for help! Don’t feel you need to “go it alone” if there are those who are in a position to give assistance.
ACTS OF COMPASSION
Exodus 34:6- lists the attributes of God, “The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness – rav chessed – ‘abundant in lovingkindness’ and truth.” In our desire to imitate His goodness, we can learn from this that God generously showers goodness on all, even those who may not deserve it. We need to aim to extend compassion and kindness even if we know we will receive nothing in return.
Alan Morinis, in Everyday Holiness, describes true acts of compassionate kindness.
* Don’t worry about loving the poor; your job is to feed and clothe them.
* If people you know are ailing in any way, don’t only think about them or pray for them – take your time to go and visit them [if possible. Or send them a tangible token of your care].
* Offer your comfort to the bereaved in a house of mourning.
He also points out that burying the dead is the greatest example of true chessed as a corpse is unable to do anything for itself and cannot reciprocate the kindness.
The best acts of kindness and compassion are done when we expect nothing in return.
MAY WE… BE the person who cares
BE the person who makes an effort,
who loves without hesitation
BE the person who makes others feel seen and heard.
There is nothing stronger than someone who continues to stay soft
in a hard and uncaring world.