compassion in an unjust world

Written by  rabbi paul saal

art-teaglassesA number of years ago, while taking a leisurely walk with my wife and in-laws, we happened upon a very understated and unpublicized public demonstration.

We had been visiting a local park well known for its exceptionally groomed rose gardens.  We decided to stroll along a path that led to a small shaded pond where we would sometimes go to relax and feed the ducks that abided there. On this day, the pond was crowded with about fifty participants launching small sailboats, and a number of spectators who, like us, probably happened serendipitously upon the event. It was not immediately apparent what the significance of the boats was until a series of speeches were given which proclaimed the activity as a commemoration of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima by the U.S. military.I was immediately impressed by the passivity of the demonstration against war in general and nuclear proliferation specifically. My father though was visibly upset. Though he was not a hawkish type, his reaction was to what he perceived as the overly simplistic nature of the demonstration, which in his words “had failed to acknowledge the lives saved” by the historic bombing. One of those lives saved might have in fact been his own, since he had just finished boot camp in Biloxi, Mississippi at the time of the unprecedented military action. It did not escape me then or now that the horrific attack on Hiroshima may have ironically saved not only my father-in-law’s progeny but by extension mine as well. As is often and oddly the case, in order to fulfill a mandate of compassion it is necessary to take drastic measures in dealing with the present injustices that exist.

Parsha Ki Tetse is indicative of this dialectic tension stating from the outset, “When you go to war against your enemies (Devarim 21:10).” The realities and assumptions of the ancient world are expressed in this statement from God by the mouth of Moses. Notice it says when and not if. This does not mean that the Holy One universally advocates war; rather that He recognizes that in this age there will be war. In the ancient world, life was governed and patterned by morally capricious and mean spirited deities, not a benevolent and purposeful God. The message then was clearly understood—grab what you can when you can. But Torah initiates a change in how first Israel, and then the other nations, would begin to understand and incorporate mercy and compassion into the fabric of society.

game changer

Ki Tetse lays out an array of commandments all concerned with ethical and moral treatment, and compassion for all. The favoring of siblings (Devarim 21:15-17), dealing with difficult, unruly offspring (21:18-21), the dignity of the deceased (21:22-23), compassion toward animals (22:6-7; 10; 25:4) and the proper treatment of hired help (24:14-15) are all covered in this portion, as well as the treatment of women. The statutes contained in this portion may at times seem inadequate, dated, or irrelevant to us. But in fact they represent a code and trajectory that has changed and transformed the world and continues to do so. They suggest to us that first and foremost our Creator wishes us to imitate Him by bringing a touch of mercy into an already unjust world. Only in Torah can mercy and justice be held together in such a delicate tension.

An ancient midrash tells of a king who was in possession of a delicate set of glasses. He desired to pour hot drink into them but feared they might expand and shatter. He wished to pour cold drinks into them but feared they might contract and break. So he chose to mix together the hot and the cold beverages and pour them into the glasses leaving them uncompromised and intact. In the same way the midrash continues, the Holy One, blessed be He, mixes together mercy and justice, for if the world were filled with only justice who might stand, but if it were filled with only mercy evil would proliferate.

who is merciful

I am still impressed with the story of Aaron Feurenstein, an orthodox Jew who owned Malden Mills in Malden, Massachusetts. On December 1, 1999, a fire destroyed one-third of the factory and it was completely closed. Out of his own pocket he paid 3 months salary and medical benefits until the factory was reopened. Everyone went back to work. When asked he said, “I only did what my religion teaches.”

Justice is necessary, but I think mercy trumps justice every time. God is a compassionate God and his mercy makes the world right.  If we want to make the Holy One smile we should ask ourselves the question, “How can I be a more compassionate human being and bring mercy into an often unjust world?”  Above all, God is Harachaman, the Merciful One. If we wish to imitate Him we must bring compassion into all of the circumstances of life.

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