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Compassion: A Jewish Perspective

More than two thousand years ago in Jerusalem, one of our greatest sages, Rabbi Hillel, faced a challenging test. Hillel was known for never getting angry. Wanting to mock the Torah and the rabbis, a young heathen was so sure he could make Hillel angry he was willing to bet on it. Two hundred zuzim (worth thousands of dollars) later, after he had interrupted Hillel repeatedly with superficial questions, all of which Hillel answered with great respect, the young man burst into the study hall while Hillel was teaching and demanded, “Tell me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot!”

Of course Hillel saw that the heathen was scoffing, but calmly and patiently he said:" You want to learn a great deal quickly, don't you? Very well, I shall teach you the Torah while you stand on one foot. This is our Holy Torah: 'What is hateful to you, do not do unto others. Now go and learn.'"

As a people, the Jews are guided by the Torah. We learn from the Torah to be compassionate through loving-kindness to the widow, the orphan and the stranger, through tzedakah – “righteous giving”, through ethical speech, honouring ones’ parents, being kind and humane to animals, and treating the world with the respect that God intended. Time and again in the Torah and throughout the bible we learn lessons from our ancestors who lived righteous lives and performed acts of loving-kindness. As Jews, it is our duty to take these to heart, to make it who we are, to live compassionately every day without thinking about it, or without thinking about WHY we’re doing these things, but just to automatically live this way because it’s the right thing to do – it’s the right way to live. This is what it means to be Jewish.

Photo credit: Ed Yourdon

Our liturgy, as well, comprises prayers in which we acknowledge that it is our duty to live our lives as Jews. At the beginning of the morning service one of our prayers, Eilu D’varim, - contains a list of the basic acts of decency that all of us are commanded to do – among them are: honoring our parents, visiting the sick, comforting the mourner, celebrating with and providing for the wedding couple, and making peace where there is strife. Performing these acts for each other is what makes life bearable. The prayer ends with the statement “and the study of Torah encompasses them all” - if we study the Torah, we will learn all of this.

So, what does this mean to us as a community? At our synagogue in Oakville, we have a very active Social Action committee whose involvement goes beyond that of our own membership. We have prepared and served meals at the Kerr Street Ministries, had a dinner fundraiser for "Canadians in Support of Afghan Women", have worked with SafetyNet and Habitat for Humanity. Within our own membership, when someone is ill, there are immediate offers of visits to the hospital, drives to appointments, shopping, help with meals. There is never a shortage of help with driving the elderly to attend services or events. When someone in our community dies, the support from within is overwhelming – attending funerals, organizing and making meals for the family in mourning throughout the 7 days of “shiva”, the mourning period when a family member has died.

Compassion, however, is not reserved for the adults - in our Jewish religious schools, summer camps and youth groups, you will always find an emphasis on tikkun olam, “repairing the world” and performing mitzvot “God’s commandments”. At our religious and Hebrew school in Oakville, the children give tzedakah money – charity - each week. As a school, they bring in food and prepare bagged lunches for children in Oakville who do not get lunch for school. They have discussions in their classrooms as to how to behave in respectful and honourable ways, how they can help to prevent bullying, how they can make their grandparents feel good by just spending time with them. Our teen youth group has an active involvement in charitable events, such as tournaments to raise funds for Sick Kids’ Hospital and other forms of tzedakah.

The word “tzedakah” is commonly translated as “charity” – though what it actually means is “righteousness”, “fairness” or “justice” – when we give tzedakah, or perform acts of loving kindness, we are acting according to our religious obligation to perform charity and philanthropic acts, an important part of living a spiritual life.

However, as parents and as teachers, it is our duty to teach our children through our own actions – be role models.

I started with a story from one of our sages about what the Torah says and how we learn compassion through the study of Torah. I’d like to end with a teaching from Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), one of the greatest Torah scholars of all time; he was a rabbi, physician, and philosopher in Spain, Morocco, and Egypt during the Middle Ages.

Maimonides believed that Tzedakah is like a ladder. It has eight rungs, from bottom to top. Each step you climb brings you closer to heaven.

1. The person who gives reluctantly and with regret.

2. The person who gives graciously, but less than one should.

3. The person who gives what one should, but only after being asked.

4. The person who gives before being asked.

5. The person who gives without knowing to whom he or she gives, although the recipient knows the identity of the donor.

6. The person who gives without making his or her identity known.

7. The person who gives without knowing to whom he or she gives. The recipient does not know from whom he or she receives.

8. The person who helps another to become self-supporting by a gift or a loan or by finding employment for the recipient.

By: Susan Polgar who is stepping in for the Rabbi. Susan teaches Torah in Hebrew to children studying for their Bar/Bat Mitzvah, teaches at SBE Hebrew School, and lives with her family in Oakville.