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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Finding Compassion Within - a commentary on Parshat Emor

Margins are still problematic. Again, my apologies if you are receiving this post multiple times. I think I figured out the problem and I'll make sure it doesn't happen again (hopefully)!


This week's parashah/portion is Emor (Vayikra/Leviticus 21:1-24:23). In this parashah we find the commandments to observe the three pilgrimage festivals: Pesakh/Passover, Sukkot (the Feast of Booths) and Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks).  All three of these festivals were traditional pilgrimage festival when the people would thank God for the various seasonal harvests.  Later, in rabbinical times, the festival of Shavuot became associated with the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, since the festival occurs exactly seven weeks from the second day of Pesakh, which represents the exodus from Egypt.
Immediately following the instructions for the festivals and the commandment to harvest the fields and bring grain as an offering for the Shavuot festival, we find a reiteration of the commandment found earlier in the Torah.  "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I YHWH am your God" (Vayikra 23:22).  
The proximity of the instructions concerning Shavuot, which becomes associated with the giving of Torah, to this commandment to save the corners of the fields, prompted the following commentary in Meshekh Hokhmah (Latvia, 1845-1926):

"You are to observe Shavuot, the festival commemorating the Giving of the Law, not only for the sake of the statutes for which we would never have felt a need if they had not been set down in the Torah, but also in thanksgiving for the laws which readily make sense even to the human mind, such as the laws pertaining to compassion on the unfortunate and charity to the poor. For experience has shown that, without faith in God, man [sic] is liable to become like a wild beast which has not a spark of compassion and is therefore capable of committing the basest crimes in order to satisfy his selfish desires.  "Only if you will observe the commandments concerning the leaving of parts of your harvest for the poor and the stranger are you permitted to proclaim the festival of Shavuot as a `holy convocation' to give thanks even for such readily understandable commandments of charity and compassion as these.  For had the Torah not been given, you might never have come to observe them" (Wellsprings of Torah, pp. 255-56).

One might think that the author would have written that the Torah was given primarily to instruct us on the commandments that do not readily make sense to us, so that we might perform them.  But, be seemingly to reversing this logic, the author teaches that it is normal for a law code to focus on the laws that aren’t instinctive or seemingly rational.  However, it is actually more important for the law to focus on those acts that may appear to be instinctive, but which we often ignore precisely because of their instinctive nature.

Just think for a moment.  We all know that it is right and just to help those in need, to give tzedakah/charity and to do gemilut hasadim/acts of kindness.  Yet, how often do we neglect to perform these mitzvot because we get so caught up in our own lives, or we believe that someone else will do it if we don’t?  Furthermore, as my colleague, Rabbi Ethan Franzel pointed out, the modern worldview of the early 20th century that prized rationalism above all else, and so it was easy to believe that the rational mind would lead one to perform rational, meaningful acts, such as caring for those in need. However, today we know all too well that the rational mind is not all that we believed it to be.  In the extreme, the rational mind created the irrational and inhumane horror of the Holocaust, and the genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.  On a more everyday level, the rational mind allows people to ignore those in need who are right in front of our noses or half way around the world.  It also permits us to ignore the thousands of children who to go to bed hungry every night in our own country and to cut allocations to crucial social service agencies rather than, God forbid, to raise taxes or repeal tax cuts.

Keeping these facts in our hearts and minds, it is easy to see why the author of
Meshekh Hokhmah wanted to remind us that, were it not for the fact that the Torah makes compassionate actions towards others a Divine Commandment (Mitzvah), we might easily care only for ourselves.  After all, isn't that precisely what  many human beings have done so many times in our history up until today?

Therefore, he continues, we cannot truly proclaim Shavuot as the communal festival of the Giving of the Torah, the moment when the people acknowledged the covenant, the oneness with the Divine,  if we do not act compasionately.  It is not the practice of the "irrational" commandments, such as not mixing linen with wool that gives us permission to celebrate our covenant with the Divine.  Rather, it is the observance of these seemingly rational, intuitive commandments of leaving food for the poor, caring for those less fortunate and having compassion on all of God creatures that gives us permission.  It is as if he is saying, "If there is no compassion, there is no Torah!”  Perhaps that is the essence of all the teachings of Judaism?

Of course, the cultivation of compassion towards oneself and towards all of God's creatures is an ultimate goal of mindfulness practice as well.  We cultivate compassion first by paying attention to each moment as it arises.  The commentary above teaches us that the Torah is meant to remind us to pay attention to that which seems ordinary, mundane and instinctive and not only to what we might label as irrational, illogical.  Mindfulness also teaches that we must pay attention to all of the thoughts that arise in our minds without labeling or judging them, even those that we might be inclined to label as inconsequential or mundane.  For paying attention to all that arises in our minds, in our lives and in our world helps us to view the world with compassion and not with judgment. It helps to create compassion within us for the suffering we cause ourselves by our actions and reactions.  This, in turn, leads us ,by extension ,to a sense of compassion for all of creation.  It is this sense of compassion that then calls us to compassionate, kind and just action in our world.

The Meshekh Hokhmah commentary ends with the statement that "without faith in God, [a human being] is liable to become like a wild beast which has not a spark of compassion …[so that s/he will do anything] in order to satisfy his/her selfish desires." I would like to reword this as my closing statement. For, I believe that without a connection to the soul, the Divine essence that we share with all humanity, we are liable to become cold and indifferent to ourselves and to all of creation. By focusing only on one's suffering, one becomes unable to feel and acknowledge the inner Divinity of one's soul.  Therefore, one becomes increasingly self-focused and caught up in the story of his/her own suffering.  This makes it impossible to focus on the  pain and suffering of others.  Over time, such a person builds a wall that is cold, unfeeling and self-centered around his/her soft, loving, compassionate soul. This is what the ego desire and what we must do our best to avoid through being mindful and paying attention.

The person who has built this wall around themselves cannot celebrate Shavuot, or any moment, as a `holy convocation' of the Giving of the Torah.  For that would require the person to have a sense of connection to God, the source of holiness, and a sense of belonging to community and of oneness, that is necessary for a convocation.  And this person can only feel, see and connect with themselves and no one else.

When we see this we must have compassion on them and turn our hearts towards them.  By doing so, we can hopefully help them to break through the wall  their ego has built and begin to rediscover the soft spot of Divine compassion that we call the soul, which is found deep within each of us.  If that happens then they will then be able to have
compassion not only upon themselves, but upon others as well.  Then they will be willing  and ready to rejoin the community of the One and truly celebrate what it means to receive Torah, the sense of unity with the Divine.

As we count down to Shavuot, now only a little more than two weeks away, may we do our best to help ourselves and others find the soul, the divine essence within, that is filled with compassion.  Then we will be able to truly join together as a holy community, at one with the Divine, with all Jews and all of humanity to receive Torah.

Shabbat Shalom.

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