Radical Compassion

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, November 11, 2022 / 17 Heshvan 5783

Summary: This week, I explore a notion of radical compassion that is part of the spiritual legacy we inherited from Abraham.

Reading Time: Three minutes

Who are the Jews? This is the sort of question that has generated countless answers. There is the historical approach, which will track our origins at least to an ancient Egyptian stele, or stone column, with an inscription that mentions how they “laid waste” to the Kingdom of Israel, thousands of years ago. There is a biological answer as there are definite genetic markers that the priestly class of kohenim carry. There of course is a religious answer, in which the Jews offer to the world the purest, earliest form of monotheism.

There are also spiritual answers, which relate more to how we experience and act in the world. As an example, many of us grew up understanding that we are Yisrael, the people who wrestle with God; this answer supports our identification as a people who are unafraid to argue in service of the truth and may even highlight our contemporary focus on tikkun olam. In this week’s Torah portion of Vayera, for instance, Abraham argues with God as to whether or not it would be just for the “Judge of all the earth to destroy the righteous along with the wicked.”

I want to highlight another spiritual answer that we can also see at work in this negotiation that Abraham carries out with God, which is contained in a midrashic interpretation of his name. The Bible is often interested in the etymology of names, but quite often the answers it gives are homiletical. For instance, the Torah states that the name Abraham means the “father of a multitude of nations,” yet this doesn’t make linguistic sense. Rather, it teaches us of the many nations—the Abrahamic faiths—that ultimately link their lineage to him.

The Midrash will often substitute similar letters to derive a new meaning, and occasionally, the letters “hey” and “chet” are interchanged. With only a slight addition of ink, a “hey” becomes a “chet;” if one listens to the manner these letters are pronounced by Yemenite Jews, it becomes apparent that they are phonetically related as well. What this means is that the name Abraham can also be read as Av Rachem, the father of compassion.

One of the traditional names for, or description of, Jews is “rachamim b’nei rachamim.” We are the compassionate children of compassionate parents. This is as much a part of Jewish lineage as is the part of us as spiritual wrestlers. Sigmund Freud’s creation of the field of psychology is indicative of this form of compassion, where we come to identify with the different parts of ourselves that we each carry.

It is easy to have compassion for those who are like us, or those who are less powerful than we are. Feeling compassion for bad actors, especially those who are more powerful than we are, requires a more evolved form of compassion. Abraham displays this in his negotiations with God over the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. On the surface, it seems like Abraham is arguing against collective punishment and wants to ensure that innocent souls won’t perish along with those who are guilty. Yet Abraham’s compassion extends beyond such a clear form of justice. He asks, “What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?”

In other words, Abraham is asking that the unrighteous be saved because there are good people in the city. He seems to be seeking “collective reward,” not merely wanting to avoid collective punishment. That’s a high order.

There are clearly cases where such radical compassion would be dangerous and in which it would cause the innocent to suffer at the hands of the wicked. Yet sometimes the unexpected gift of compassion that we give to those who don’t deserve it can change everything.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

    1. Can you recall a time when you were out of line and still were treated very compassionately by someone? How did this impact you?
    2. When have you extended compassion to an undeserving bad actor? Why did you do so? What happened? Would you choose the same course of action again?

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