Emulating God: Connecting with Compassion (Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779)

Rabbi Sarah Reines | September 9, 2018


Adonai Adonai, El Rachum v’chanun, erech ah-payim, v’rav chesed b’emet. Noteir chesed la-alaphim, nosay avon va-feshah, v’cha-ta-ah v’na-kay. God, God! You are compassionate, gracious, endlessly patient, abundant with lovingkindness and truth; showing mercy, forgiving crookedness, defiance, and wrongdoing; giving another chance.

Ahhhhh. Just hearing those words is a salve. Especially this year.

This passage, the Thirteen Attributes of God, sometimes called the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, is taken from our Torah and is foundational to our High Holiday and festival liturgy. Cradling us in abundant comfort, it sings of surety and protection. It reassures us that a powerful goodness will forgive our falterings, accept our imperfections and embrace us with boundless love. It describes the divine, but these are human characteristics. And as we are created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, this is not only descriptive of God, but an expression of the best that we can be - that we must be - for each other: It’s an extraordinary vision, and a big ask. We might even think, impossible for us to fully embody.

But surely when we consider each aspect on this list, one-by-one, we can call up instances when others have been these for us: compassionate, gracious, endlessly patient, abundant with kindness and truth.  And surely, we can think of moments when we have behaved in this way toward others: showing mercy, forgiving crookedness, defiance, and wrongdoing, giving another chance.

We can do any and all of these things. We have! And yet, it is easy to slip into the equally human antitheses of these traits. Certainly others have been to us: callous, rude, hotheaded, insensitive, dishonest. And in our lives we have been judgmental, unforgiving, retaliatory, resentful, unwilling to understand.

That these merciful attributes are included in the liturgy of our most sacred days, speaks to the timelessness of their presence and our enduring struggle to achieve them. We return to High Holiday worship, year after year, to be reminded that this kind of behavior is possible, that we can make manifest the divine potential within us. But if you are like me, you feel even more desperate for that hope this year. Because beyond the heated struggle concerning policies, and battles over partisan issues, beyond the frightening instability of our government and the upending of historic norms, there is an adversarial atmosphere of distrust, nastiness, an unwillingness to hear and forgive, a jump to judgment and an intolerance of mistakes and misdeeds that is not only exploding at the highest forms of government, but has infiltrated the nooks and crannies of our everyday lives - hostility in workplaces, bullying in our classrooms, threats on twitter, hostility in our homes. Honestly, I am finding that this overload has toughened the sensitivities within my own heart.

The destabilization of our democracy’s scaffolding may lead us into free fall, but the deepening fissures within our society, distancing  neighbors, alienating strangers and fracturing families is happening now, and we are in immediate need of healing. People in this country, standing on every place on the political spectrum, are suffering. We are all affected by the toxicity surrounding us. Much of the solution lies beyond our control, but some, as we will read on Yom Kippur, is as close as own mouths, as our own hearts. (Deut. 30:14)

Our High Holiday liturgy confronts us with expressions of what we - as individuals and as a community - might be at our best, and our texts give us examples of  how we fail to do so, how we neglect to live the aspirations set by these Attributes of Mercy. We see this, for example, in the Haftarah portion we will read tomorrow from the Book of First Samuel, the story of Hannah. (1 Samuel 1:1-2:10)

Hannah suffered deeply. She could not conceive, and was desperate for a child. Even more painful, her husband’s other wife birthed many daughters and sons, and lacking compassion, she taunted Hannah, shaming her for her barrenness. Hannah fell into a depression, unable to eat or drink, unable to cease weeping. Her husband, Elkanah, didn’t ignore her despair, but took it as an affront.

“Hannah, why are you in such distress, don’t you know I am more devoted to you than even ten sons would be?”

Finding no comfort at home, no person to offer understanding or compassion, Hannah turned to God. Emotionally isolated, she entered the Temple at Shiloh, and from the depths of her despair, she swayed, wept and prayed. Her words were silent, but her body and lips expressed her outpouring of pain as she reached out to God.

Likely, few women were in the Temple. Likely, most pilgrims entered, made their offerings and then returned to the feasting in the Temple courtyard. Hannah stood out. Eli, the High Priest, saw Hannah, lost in movement, and assumed she was drunk. He accosted her, accused her, and worst of all, publicly humiliated her.

Post-biblical commentators of the early centuries didn’t express dismay with Eli’s insensitivity. Instead, they martyrized Hannah by elevating her suffering. Hannah became to them a vehicle to explore a confounding issue. Determining that Hannah struggled with barrenness for nineteen years, they raised the question: why was a virtuous woman burdened with such sorrow? They answer with metaphor, explaining that gold melts at a higher heat than silver, therefore, the more valuable the metal, the greater its resilience. In other words, the intensity of people’s suffering is evidence of their fortitude and goodness.

Dismissive of Hannah, and not a satisfying answer to the question of suffering.

Judaism, like every other faith, wrestles with this question of suffering. In the Talmud, the rabbis present a host of justifications for why people suffer: suffering is a result of sin and a deterrent, teaching us to behave better; suffering is a mark of intimacy between the person and God - a sign of love and closeness; suffering teaches empathy and builds strength. (BT Berachot 5a)

Now before we write off the rabbis, let’s see what is on the other side of this page of Talmud. Here we find a collection of stories describing various moments when these same rabbis have personally suffered. When they leave behind debate and theory, and instead live reality, all these justifications fall away.

For example, we learn that Rabbi Hiyya once fell ill, and his mentor, Rabbi Yochanan, went to visit him. Yochanan asked, “Are you at least finding value in your suffering?” And Hiyya answered, No. No I’m not finding value in the suffering, nor in the reward.

Yochanan didn’t scold his disciple. He didn’t try to correct him or convince him otherwise. He simply reached out his hand to Hiyya and helped him stand.

In every story, the suffering rabbi is asked the same question, and gives the same response: “No. I find no value in the suffering, nor the reward” And in each instance, the visiting rabbi accepts his colleague’s statement, then provides physical support, or sits with his friend in his pain, the two together. (BT Berachot 5b)

The rabbis tried to make sense of suffering in order to help people get through it. They knew that the world, wondrous as it is, also contains hardship and affliction. What they concluded, is that suffering is something unwelcome. Most important, it doesn’t hold intrinsic value. Connection holds value. Compassion, graciousness, withholding of judgment, forgiveness of erratic behaviors ... the Thirteen Attributes hold value.  They are pathways towards connection, which is the antidote to suffering.

Hannah’s experience is a timeless one. Isolated in her sorrow, Hannah then experienced judgement and humiliation in the place she sought solace. No fellow pilgrims reached out with compassion. We can imagine their scornful looks as Eli shamed her.

In our own city, a similar story briefly grabbed the headlines. A mother and her autistic child attended a matinee of “The King and I.” During an intensely violent scene, the child cried out, distracting the audience and the performers with gestures and sounds. HIs mother, alarmed and embarrassed, tried to quiet her son, but in his distress he continued to yelp and gripped onto the bannister when she tried to lead him out of the theater. Around them, audience members glared and huffed. Some murmured “Why would you bring a kid like that to the theater?” and one demanded, “Get rid of the kid!”  

Immediately after the curtain fell, a cast member posted a message on facebook that went viral. Here is a small segment:

“I am angry and sad...  You think I will herald an audience that yelled at this mother for bringing their child to the theater. You think that I will have sympathy for my own company whose performances were disturbed from a foreign sound coming from in front of them. No. Instead, I ask you - when did we lose compassion for others? ... Today, something very real was happening in the seats and, yes, it interrupted the fantasy, but ultimately theater is created to bring people together, not just for entertainment, but to enhance our lives when we walk out the door again.”

Ironically, that autistic child was connecting to the character on stage. He was expressing compassion. But no one in the audience had the patience, the forgiveness, the graciousness, to say to the mother, “It’s ok, we understand,” or to ask her “Can I be of any help,” or even to say to the child, “It’s just pretend. The man isn’t really hurting.”

The actor, Kelvin Moon Loh, did his best to reach out as soon as he was able. He said it broke his heart to see the mother and son’s seats empty before the performance ended. I don’t know if his words ever reached them. But the merciful qualities he expressed through his post reached families and individuals with disabilities, touching them with his compassion and understanding. They reached so many others, including us, as a reminder of our own humanity and how to respect the humanity of others. In the wake of insensitivity and hurt, Loh carved pathways of connection and healing.

Adonai, Adonai, El rachum, v’chanun. Chanun, graciousness, is the meaning of the name Channah, in English, Hannah. Every year, the Biblical Hannah is present with us on Rosh HaShana, not only in her story, but in our prayer.  This year, a modern day Hannah, the Australian comedian, Hannah Gadsby, joins her in reminding us about the merciful attributes that draw us toward one another.

In her recent one-woman show, “Nanette,” Gadsby described how in a previous act, she shared that she mentioned that she was on antidepressants. After that act, a member of the audience approached her and said, “You shouldn’t take medication because you’re an artist. It’s important that you feel. If Vincent van Gogh had taken medication, we wouldn’t have the sunflowers.” Gadsby responded by pointing out that van Gogh, often isolated and ostracized, did, in fact, medicate. He self-medicated and was treated by psychiatrists. She informed this man that van Gogh’s epilepsy medication likely led him to experience colors with greater intensity. “So perhaps we have the sunflowers precisely because Van Gogh medicated. What do you honestly think, mate? That creativity means you must suffer? That is the burden of creativity?” (On the advice of my husband, I cleaned up Gadsby’s language, but you get the idea.)

Hannah Gadsby’s show, which I highly recommend, focuses on the need to bring the most merciful of ourselves toward each other. At its conclusion, Hannah asks the audience, “Do you know why we have the sunflowers? It’s not because Vincent van Gogh suffered. It’s because Vincent van Gogh had a brother who loved him. Through all the pain, he had a tether, a connection to the world. And that… is the focus of the story we need. Connection.”

We are all in this world together, and we are all doing our best to make our way through life, headline by headline, hurt by hurt, kindness by kindness. We all have equal investment in this world, though not equal opportunity. No one is here to serve other people’s needs or enjoyment. No one is here to here to act as a foil, or a target, or a martyr, or even a muse. We are here because we have no other choice. And in order to imbue our existence on this earth with sacred value, in order to make meaning from our lives, we must follow the map that the Thirteen Attributes offers us.

We are a nation in pain. But even while we smart from the frustrations and injustices, we must strive to remain attuned to the pain of others, to remain ever aware of each person’s humanity. Yes, it has gotten harder for us to find places of connection. And the obstacles are likely to increase. We have reason to complain that politicians are not reaching across the aisle, if not with agreement, than with graciousness and compassion, with honesty and patience. With kindness and forgiveness. But for true healing, we, too, must be willing to embody these attributes as we reach across the aisle of the theater, the aisle of the temple. We too, must reach over the distances separating us, one from the other.

Let us enter this new year resisting the impulse within us to harden ourselves to the possibility of endless mercy and abundant goodness that we, created by God, can embody. Ordinarily we offer this prayer three times. Let’s read it together in English and then chant the Hebrew three times. While reading the English, take note of one of the attributes - whichever happens to jump out at you. The first time we pray the Hebrew, offer it in gratitude for a person who shared that attribute with you. The second time, offer it to a person who elicits that attribute from you; someone for whom this is an easy gift for you to give. The third time - and this is the kicker - offer it to someone it will be difficult for you to approach with this attribute. Let offering this prayer that third time be a first step for us to walk in paths of healing and connection.