By Rabbi Brant Rosen
Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, Evanston, IL
Bless what forces us to invent
goodness every morning and what never frees
us from the cost of knowledge, which is
to act on what we know again and again. Marge Piercy
As the 2006 Hurricane Season commences, many of us still recall the indelible images from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina last fall. But in addition to the tragic ruin of Katrina, it is impossible to ignore the remarkable mobilization of American citizens that ensued. In the wake of this terrible disaster, so many of us created a real and palpable communal bond with people who lived far away from our own neighborhoods—in most cases with people whom most of us did not know personally. It was truly a time in which we saw first-hand how citizens and communities can work together in the spirit of compassion and caring.
However, nearly one year later, we would do well to ask, do we still care? Indeed, as inspiring as these mobilizations were, they beg deeper and more troubling questions. Why do we invariably seem mobilize our compassion in response to the “crisis de jour,” if you will? Why does our compassion so often seem to be after the fact: reactive rather than proactive? And why does our compassion invariably seem to have such a short shelf life?
It is true that we are often simply overwhelmed by the sheer depth of the human suffering that the 24-hour news media brings to our door. As a result, when it comes to our compassionate impulses, we often don’t know where to start. So just as we tend to compartmentalize everything in our immediate world—our family lives, our careers, and our social lives, our religious lives—we also compartmentalize our reactions to the larger world outside our door. Compartmentalized compassion.
Statistically speaking, it should be pointed out that Americans are a compassionate and generous people. In fact, American philanthropic giving is relatively high compared to other countries. But it is also well known that private giving is on the decline. Many experts point out that with increased mobility and the breakdown of community, our culture is becoming increasingly privatized and individualistic. In a society that has always defined itself as volunteeristic, apparently more and more people are volunteering not to give away what they feel “belongs to them.” As a result, in contemporary America, collective compassion too often feels like a precious—and even sometimes arbitrary—commodity.
Here’s one little cultural reference point that might serve as an example: the ubiquitous bumper sticker that advises, “Practice Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty.” In its way, this slogan reflects something very profound about contemporary American culture. As a society that values individual initiative, it is natural that we will view compassion as a random, voluntary enterprise. We act compassionately whenever we feel compassionate. And yes, we might well feel a great deal of compassion: for our loved ones, we may even feel compassion for people we don’t actually know. But the problem with this approach, of course, is that feelings cannot be guaranteed. They come and go. Feelings are, by definition, elusive and transient.
Jewish tradition provides us with a different model. Compassion is not random—it is an imperative. Even love itself is commanded: Love your neighbor as yourself. You shall love Adonai your God. You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt. In other words, feelings are wonderful, but feelings are not enough. Compassion should not be reduced to a random feeling—it is should be a mindful, ongoing conscious practice. We must learn how to be compassionate even if we are not feeling particularly compassionate—even if we are too overwhelmed to feel compassionate. Compassion is, for lack of a better word, a discipline.
Jewish commentators have pointed out that one well-known Hebrew word for compassion, chesed, might be more accurately rendered as “covenantal loyalty.” To demonstrate this point we can look at the specific contexts in which the word chesed is used in the Bible. God shows chesed for Israel—and Israel for God—when they remain loyal to the mutual relationship they established at Sinai. In another example, Ruth is praised in the Bible for the chesed she demonstrates to her mother-in-law Naomi when she remains loyal to her promise to stand by her side.
The Rabbis took this abstract notion of chesed and applied it to the everyday life of the Jewish community. Chesed societies, for instance, were the proto-typical Jewish communal welfare institutions that were the cornerstone of Jewish communities for centuries. They too were guided by the central ethic of covenantal loyalty—of “commanded compassion.” At its core, chesed is intrinsically connected to the concept of covenant and mutual obligation. It is the kind of love and compassion that comes from a deeper sense of communal accountability.
Though the Torah presents this covenantal model in a Jewish context, we Americans have a great deal to learn from it. Too often, it seems, our American culture venerates individual freedoms to such an extent that we often view the suggestion of communal obligation as a personal violation. In a covenantal context, however, our individual freedom is necessarily refracted through the experience of our mutual responsibility to one another.
As long as we view our mutual responsibility to one another as random or voluntary, will continue to access our collective compassion in a reactive manner—arbitrarily—in response to whatever new crisis the media decides to present to us at any random point in time. But if we affirm that our compassion is not dependant on how we feel—if we understand that compassion is neither random nor voluntary but rather is guided by a sense of obligation and responsibility to the fellow members of our community—then we may find that our compassion is not as limited a commodity as we might previously have thought.
The concept of chesed has implications for our actions as private citizens, but it clearly has implications for public policy and advocacy as well. Indeed, with the 9th Ward of the City of New Orleans still as devastated as the day Katrina’s waters receded, we would do well look seriously and unflinchingly into nation’s responsibility to the ongoing challenges that face the Gulf Coast region, and to the untold numbers of American citizens displaced by the hurricane. And we must face honestly our communal responsibility toward addressing policies that leave too many American citizens vulnerable: the poor, the elderly and the infirm, vulnerable—the very people who bore the tragic brunt of this terrible disaster.
Many have pointed out that one of the greatest, most empowering spiritual gifts that the Jewish people has bequeathed to the world is our unique conception of covenant. Whatever we believe about what actually occurred at Sinai, there can be no doubt that it was a radically counter-cultural statement for its time. To claim that human beings did not have to live at the whim of the powerful, that we could live with a sense of covenantal loyalty to one another and to a Power much greater than us—this was truly a spiritually revolutionary concept for the cultures of the Ancient Near East.
This notion is just as counter-cultural in today’s world as well. In a nation increasingly gripped by a culture of self-focused individualism, where compassion is defined largely as a matter of personal choice, standing up and promoting chesed—mandatory covenantal compassion—is truly the ultimate act of chutzpah.
On the other hand, perhaps it is a spiritual model whose time has come. As a follow-up to Shavuot—the time in which we stand once more at Sinai to reaffirm our covenant with the Source of Chesed, may we all find a measure of compassion: for ourselves, for those we love, and for our world at large.
And then, if and when we succeed, may we all come to understand – truly understand – that with compassion comes responsibility.
Questions for Thought/Discussion: