Through a Mussar Lens: Compassion is Not Optional
I am the product of refugees. Both my mother and father were born in Europe and came to North America with their families when they were in their early teens.
My maternal grandfather, Pinchas Sholem, left Poland in 1913 with a plan for the rest of the family to follow soon after, but World War I intervened and it wasn’t until seven years later that my mother and the rest of the family arrived in Toronto. Two years after that, my grandfather died, leaving my grandmother with five children to support.
My father’s family escaped the pogroms that took place in Kishinev in the early years of the 20th century by making their way to Palestine as soon as the Balfour Declaration was proclaimed. Life in Haifa was very hard—my grandmother earned pennies selling home-baked buns to the British soldiers at the railway station—and without a strong Zionist ideology to see them through, they soon set out to join a cousin in Canada.
The boat to Canada stopped in Marseille, where officials discovered that the family’s papers were forged. They were aware of that, of course, but they were willing to do whatever it took to find a safe haven for the family. Parents and six children spent a year in a French displaced persons camp before receiving permission to complete their journey.
Both my parents ended their education in high school. They worked multiple jobs, bought their first house for $3,500, shared it with my paternal grandparents, put food on the table, and made sure that their children got the education they themselves were denied.
I feel for the immigrant and the refugee because it is only one generation back that the people who brought me into the world were immigrants and refugees. I can still smell our immigrant kitchen, see the plastic-covered living room furniture, hear my father’s Yiddish-inflected English, call to mind the numbers tattooed on cousin Zeeser’s forearm. And when I touch that experience, it resonates with a much deeper theme in Jewish thought and practice. Do not oppress the stranger, because you were strangers in a strange land.
Compassion for the stranger gets 36 mentions in the Torah. And almost every time, the rationale is given as well: Be kind and do not deal harshly with the immigrant because you know their experience since you, too, crossed the border in the dead of night, you too prayed that the dogs would not bark, that the sea would be calm, that the search lights would miss your tiny, bobbing dark spot on the waves, that they would not shoot.
The reminder is timely because Passover is at hand and we are about to sit down to our Seder tables, not only to commemorate our exodus from Egypt but to relive the experience with vividness in order to fulfill the instruction in the haggadah: “In every generation, each person must see himself or herself as if he or she personally experienced the Exodus from Egypt.”
What the haggadah recognizes and addresses is how quickly we forget. One generation suffers and sacrifices itself to create a better life for the next, and that later generation disconnects from that experience and acts as if the world was always theirs for the taking. No! Do not forget the razor wire, the guns, the payments under the table, the abuse, the humiliation. Open your nostrils and ears to the conditions in the stinking, clanging hold of the boat, and not just conceptually; relive the experience of the fear and nausea as well as the resolve, and the hope.
This is the foundation story of our people. We left slavery in Egypt in pursuit of freedom. Then we left Europe and North Africa and Iraq and Ethiopia in pursuit of freedom. From darkness to light. From subjugation to redemption.
Those last two phrases are from the Acheinu prayer that the leader and congregation recite together following the Torah reading on Monday and Thursday. The prayer is called “Acheinu,” which means “our brethren,” because that is who we are praying for—our brothers and sisters, which includes everyone “who is delivered into confinement and captivity.” Our prayer is that God “should have compassion on them and remove them from distress to relief, from darkness to light, and from subjugation to redemption.”
But could it be right for us to pray that God act compassionately to bring our oppressed brothers and sisters to freedom and redemption, while we ourselves sit on our hands and allow uncompassionate people to try to block that from happening? The midrash (Sifre to Ekev) calls on us to walk in God’s ways, and it elaborates: “As God is called compassionate so, too, should you be compassionate.” In our prayer, we call on God to show compassion to our brothers and sisters in need, and at the same time, we are obligated to model our own behavior on the compassion we call on God to show.
Where in Torah do we find this principle applied most consistently? In the biblical commandment: “And the stranger shall not suffer, and you shall know the soul of the stranger because you were strangers in Egypt.” This commandment to compassion demands our immediate action to alleviate the suffering of the stranger, who in our age is the immigrant and refugee.
So profound is this injunction to be compassionate that failure to follow that path actually disqualifies a person from being a Jew. “One who shows no compassion,” the Talmud says, “it is known that he is not of the seed of Abraham” (Babylonian Talmud, Beitzah 32b).
A person who stands by while immigrants and refugees are barred from the chance to build safer, more productive lives has no right to call themselves a descendant of Abraham and one who honors the Torah. Look and you will see that the memory of your own flight is not lodged far below the surface. When you make the choice to access that experience, you will feel in your heart what the immigrant feels, and that identification with the other is the root source of compassion.
As Rabbi Shimon Shkop writes in the Introduction to his book, Sha’arei Yosher (as translated by Micha Berger):
The entire ‘I’ of a coarse and lowly person is restricted only to his substance and body. Above him is someone who feels that his ‘I’ is a synthesis of body and soul. Above that one is someone who can include in his ‘I’ all of his household and family. Someone who walks according to the way of the Torah includes the whole Jewish people in his ‘I,’ since in truth every Jewish person is only like a limb of the body of the nation of Israel.
And there are more levels in this of a person who is whole, who can connect his soul to feel that all of the world and worlds are his ‘I,’ and he himself is only one small limb in all of creation.
Identifying with the immigrant and refugee is the beginning of compassion. Only a “coarse and lowly person” thinks of his or her own self in isolation. A person who aspires to an elevated spiritual life must acknowledge connection with acheinu—our brethren. But identifying with the immigrant and refugee because you were once an immigrant and refugee is actually only the beginning of compassion. To qualify as a Jewish spiritual value, the end must be action.
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