From Callous to Caring: The Key to Jewish Compassion

I never thought of myself  as a callous person, and yet, I can’t deny that there were times when I was just too “busy” to stop and treat certain situations with the importance they deserved. Like on the morning of September 11, 2001, when my mom (who has a tendency to over-worry) called to report that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.

She was certain that something bad was happening, but in a I’m-a-too-busy-New-Yorker-who-can’t-be-bothered-with-your-conspiracy-theories kind of way, I brushed her off and said I had to go or I’d be late for class. Of course, when I tried to hop onto a bus to get to said class, the cop, who had closed down the street in order to keep the roads open for emergency vehicles, looked at me like I was crazy. “Didn’t you hear that two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, lady?”

I also used to have a tendency to ignore emails with prayer requests in them. It’s not that I wanted anything bad to happen to the sick people who needed the prayer, God forbid. There was just a lack of a connection in seeing a stranger’s name and feeling compelled to stop what I was doing and pray for him. I was busy. I had “things” to get to.

But then, seven years ago, my mother was diagnosed with two cancers. (Thank God, neither cancer has progressed in any real way, and she continues to remain healthy.) Suddenly, the bad news I was receiving was extremely personal. And it occurred to me that bad news is always extremely personal – just for another person.

So how do we take a stranger’s pain and make it our own? The secret can be found in the Hebrew word for compassion“rachamim,” which is connected to word “rechem,” meaning womb. When you think about it, a fetus is not only a stranger to its mother – it’s a parasitic one at that! And yet a woman feels an automatic connection to this being, even though she has never met it, has only been disturbed by it, and knows none of its redeeming characteristics yet.

Despite all that, in any normal situation, the bond is undeniable. Her love and concern for this person she has never laid eyes on is one of the most profound connections that exists.

As an old Hasidic tale goes, a rabbi once asked his students how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun.

“Is it when you can see an animal in the distance and can distinguish whether it’s a sheep or a dog?” asked one student.

“No,” answered the rabbi.

“Is it when you can look at a tree from a distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?” asked another student.

“No,” replied the rabbi.

“Then what is it?” the students demanded.

“It is when you can look upon the face of any man or woman and see this it is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.”

I’m no less busy than I was before my mother’s diagnosis, in fact, I’m far busier. But now when I get a prayer request, no matter what I”m doing, I stop, say the sick person’s Hebrew name and his (or her) mother’s Hebrew name out loud (which has a certain spiritual power), and ask God to give the person a refuah sheleimah (a complete recovery).

I haven’t reached the level of tapping into the pain I felt when it was my own mother on the line, though I hope to get that point one day. But in the mean time, I’ve committed to taking a moment and sincerely beseeching God to heal this person in need. Life is busy, but somethings are just more important.  

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  • Avatar photo Fashion-isha says on February 25, 2012

    Beautiful post! Empathy is one of the most important traits to have and it’s a work in progress! Have a great Shabbos!

  • Avatar photo Batya says on February 25, 2012

    Finding the ability to feel someone else’s pain taps into the holistic “I” which is the Jewish people. When we heard the revelation at Sinai, we answered as one person. The language in the Torah is written int he singular. We Jews are all part one person; dispersed as we are, and separated from our kin, we share something basic which joins us together.

    I, too, haven’t reached the level of tapping into the pain I felt when it it was my own family member who developed the cancer — nor is the pain as sharp today as it was at the time of its revelation. It’s as if a screen has fallen or a bluntness has rounded the sharp edges. Of course, walking around with that level of pain for years would be damaging.

    There’s a conundrum: I’d like to feel deeply yet I know it would destroy me, or at least, make me less effective. I can only hope that when I submit my prayers, for that one heartfelt moment, I am returned to the state of “I” which is joined to my people, and that my prayers will be heard as such. And, I can hope that I will be sensitized to how precious each and every soul is in adding my voice to the prayers in his/her behalf.

  • Avatar photo Kathy Kaplan says on February 25, 2012

    Beautiful post. You have the ability to reach into a person and touch their soul with your teachings.

  • Avatar photo Batya says on July 8, 2014

    You have an incredible ability to give over important messages in a succinct way. This article (as well as many others of course!) is short and to the point but at the same time incredibly meaningful! You make Jewish ideas so accessible, thank you.

  • Avatar photo Phil says on June 4, 2016

    Havent felt a smile in my cheeks in 6 years until reading this. Odd for me i used to wear have a sincere smile for minutes after something beautiful.


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