compassion in action

Written by  rabbi benjamin ehrenfeld

art-tzedakahI may be naïve, but I really do believe compassion comes naturally to most people at a core level.

If one notices a crying child in the street there is usually a longing to do something to remedy the situation (remove the child from the street, find the parents, etc.).   I actually feel that our visceral default is to show compassion to suffering creatures. Nevertheless, as we are all aware, there is a dearth of compassion in this world and this has been the case for a long time. If that tug on the heart when we see a drowning man is really so prominent within us, why do we turn away from suffering. How is it I can walk over homeless people in the streets barely helping at all? How is it I can see pictures of dying children in other countries and do so very little?


There are many factors involved, but two of the major ones are familiarity and distance (paradoxically).  Action is born of a sense of urgency of need that is decisive in character. The more familiar a thing, the less it is able to provoke a sense of newness and urgency. The homeless man hanging out in the same corner every day almost begins to become more of a landmark than a human being. On the other hand, distance from suffering also presents a challenge. It is difficult for us to maintain a deeply felt sense of the suffering that occurs in areas where we are not present.

The truth is there is too much suffering in the world for any of us to tackle it all on our own. My Great Grandma Esther (may her memory be a blessing) had a unique way of dealing with this situation: She would donate one dollar to any charity organization or person who would ask! She never turned anyone down but only gave a dollar because she needed to make sure there would be enough for her and her family. Others may choose a different approach through honing in on a specific cause or need in the world and devoting most of their energy towards that. This too is very good.

As is the case with all of the other middot, Yeshua provides the perfect example of compassion. It may be because the authors of the Besorot only wanted to share the exciting bits, but it is worth noting that we have no record of Yeshua ever turning away a single person who came to him for healing. There were some close calls, but ultimately he responded to the needs of every person he encountered. On more than one occasion the texts speak of the compassion he felt for the people he encountered. He had compassion for the folks who were fixtures of infirmity in their communities as well as the strangers who everyone thought of as outsiders (i.e. the landmark homeless man AND the dying child from a foreign country).  While Yeshua is unique in his identity and station, he has called us to have the same compassion for those in need as well as realize we all have need for God.

Many of Yeshua’s acts of compassion happened while he was “on the way,” from one place to another. Compassionate behavior was not reserved for those situations in which he was already planning to need to respond to suffering people. The same can be true for us. When strong and healthy, the middah of compassion can move us into random acts of compassion as well as pre-meditated ones. We won’t solve all the world’s problems, give money to everyone, heal everyone, etc. But we can allow our hearts to become more sensitive to needs by not allowing distance or familiarity to stop up our natural inclination to want to respond. We may not always be able to give what is needed or as much as we want, but we can embrace our instinct to act for the benefit of others to catapult us into more consistent compassionate action.

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