As many of you know, I served as Rabbi of my first synagogue just north of here in New Hampshire. One day I got an urgent call. A family had an emergency in California. The mom and dad needed to be there. The teenage daughter wanted to stay home and not miss school. The parents both judged their daughter mature enough to stay at home alone, as long as the rabbi checked up on her regularly. Of course I agreed.
Almost immediately after the folks flew out, there was a rapid change in the weather. Suddenly, a nor’easter was bearing down on us. There was a flurry of phone calls. The daughter, Shirley, would certainly loose electricity. She could be stuck for days. It was decided that she would come ride out the storm with our family. I just had to pick her up before the snow hit. I quickly put baby Paris in the back seat of the car and drove over.
Unfortunately, the teen took way too much time to pack. Apparently it is a big decision, which jeans to wear at the rabbi’s house in a snow storm. By the time we left, the nor’easter was already bearing down on New Hampshire with wind and swirling snow.
This presented a problem. I’m from California and had never really driven in the snow before. All I knew was that people said you were not supposed to use your breaks in the snow, which didn’t make any sense to me at all.
We had about 30 miles to go on narrow country roads. The last couple of miles got very bad. Visibility was poor and the road was extremely slick. I was sliding in every direction. There was a granite wall on one side of the road, and a sheer cliff on the other. At one point, the car began to spin around out of control. From the backseat, Baby Paris squealed in delight. WHEEEEEEEE!!!! However, my teen passenger wasn’t at all amused. She gave me such a look, as if to say, “This is how you SAVE me????!”
I remember thinking, “I didn’t know to be a rabbi you have to know how to drive in the snow.”
We did make it home safely, thank God. The storm lasted just a day, during which time the visiting teen changed her clothes about six times and rejected everything to eat that we had in the house. Since then I believe I have learned the proper use of brakes in the snow. Teenagers, however, remain a mystery, which is too bad as I am about to have two of them.
For me, learning to drive in the snow is part of my continuing effort at what some people call “practical compassion.” Though we as a community have not used the phrase, I believe it is very descriptive of a fundamental Jewish principal: That it’s just not enough to FEEL compassion for someone. It’s not enough to WANT to help them. It’s not even enough to just TRY to help them. You have to go do it, to help that person, and you have to know enough or have the right skills not to maim, kill, or insult them in the attempt.
With “practical compassion,” the emphasis is not on the fervence of the feeling but the efficacy of the outcome. Its not that feelings don’t count, it’s that the proper place of feelings such as compassion and care is that of motivation towards effective and efficient getting something done.
A wonderful example of the difference between feeling and doing compassion occurred for me during a terribly cold winter in New York City. The shelters were overfull and homeless people had taken refuge in the subways. I remember feeling such compassion for them on the way to my cozy job on Park Avenue. I wished there was something I could do for these unfortunates huddled on the concrete and sleeping in the tunnels.
And then one day I saw two people actually doing something. One was carrying a big pot in his hands, while the other ladled out hot homemade chili for every homeless person there. Just like that. They had figured out what THEY could do—they could make chili and give it out to freezing homeless people right next to where they lived. It reminded me of how I once got hot chocolate from the Red Cross once during a December transit strike and how it gave me enough warmth and energy to walk the remaining two miles home in the cold.
One important aspect of practical compassion is that it can be contagious, and it was. My family was inspired by that couple’s “can do” attitude and the next day we called a social service department and got advice for own family homeless feeding project. We decided we couldn’t handle hot food but we could manage lunch bags: which we were instructed to fill with sandwiches, fruit, and granola bars. With our girls we made dozens of these bags and lugged them to a park where there were always homeless. People were surprised and grateful as our girls handed out the bags.
After a few moments, we saw some college students coming up the sidewalk with two little red wagons with several pots of vegetable soup that they were ladling out. Just like that, out of little red flyer wagons. They said they tried to do it once a week in the winter.
Another important characteristic of practical compassion is that it is not competitive. After fretting for a moment that the homeless would prefer the hot soup to our cold sandwiches, we realized that they could probably use both. The college students handed out hot soup while our girls gave out lunch bags with fruit and sandwiches. For a couple of hours it seemed like our impromptu coalition could hold up half the sky. And the movement has spread: It was the for-runner of our lunch bag assembly mornings here, where we make nearly 200 lunches for the Lowell Transitional Living Center.
According to ancient and not-so-ancient Jewish legends, it is this kind of practical compassion that sustains the entire world.
Judaism has always held that compassion and acts of loving kindness are a large part of what makes the stars go round.
I mean this literally, or perhaps I mean it mythically or mathematically or maybe even astrologically. You see, the story of Jewish compassion holding up half the sky begins with the Sumerians, who lived in what is now Iraq, in the 3rd millennium BCE. Like most ancient people, the Sumerians were very interested in the movement and influences of the stars. As far as we can tell, they and the Mayans were the first to divide the circle of heaven into 360 degrees which were also the days of the year.
In Sumer, each section was ruled over by a divine being called a dean. Every dean controlled the fate of people and nations as they passed through the corresponding day.
After a while; the 360 tiny divine deans became 36 more substantive divine beings. Each one ruled 10 degrees of heaven, and 10 temporal days here on earth. With this expansion in time and size, so also the role of the deans was greatly enlarged. They became the guardians and the providers for one-thirty-sixth of heaven and earth. Even though they could not be seen way up there beyond the clouds, the entire world depended on their watchfulness and, even more, on their compassion.
Some scholars think these 36 divine Sumerian deans are the ancient ancestors of what in the Jewish world we call the Tzaddikim Nestorim, the Hidden Jewish Saints, otherwise known as “the 36,” the lamed vavniks, the tzaddikim on whose practical compassion the whole world depends.
According to the legend and the teaching—for it is much more than just a legend—the very sustainability of the world is dependent upon the compassion of 36 hidden men (and, we know now, women) doing good deeds here on earth. WHO these men (or women) are may change or rotate, but there must always be 36 and they must always be hidden from us. In some forms of the teaching, they are even hidden from themselves. We know, however, that they are there because the earth continues to go round, and human suffering is less than it might be otherwise.
While it may be interesting to note the similarities between the Sumerian and Jewish leagues of 36, the differences are far more important. First, the Deans of Sumer are fixed and unchanging. They are immortal, divine, and have special powers with which they compassionately guide, guard, and bless humans as they pass through each specific set of 10 days.
In the later Jewish version, the 36 tzaddikim are distinctly and inescapably human. They have human bodies and limitations, they have human emotions. Yes, they might be invisible, but not because they are up in the clouds but because they are among us, they could be one of us. Moreover, while each divine Dean is only responsible for 10 days, the 36 Tzaddikim are responsible all year long.
These human Tzaddikim have many of the same tasks as the Deans of Sumer—they sustain the world, they guard, they guide, and bring down blessings. However, they also actualize their compassion by touching others in a way that no sky-bound immortal ever could.
In the prize-winning French novel by Andre Schwarz-Bart, The Last of the Just, Ernie Levy is the kind inheritor of the family tradition of lamed-vavnickim. The time is the Holocaust. His last compassionate act on earth is to accompany a flock of frightened children to the gas chamber. He is not superhuman or magical. He cannot save them from death. But he can spare them from some of the terror.
Riding in the freezing freight car to the death camp, he finds one of the children dead, and tells the others:
He’ll wake up in a little while with all the others, when we reach the Kingdom of Israel. There children will find their parents, and everybody will rejoice. For the country we are approaching is our kingdom, know it well. There the sun never sets and you can eat anything that comes to mind….
The children, hearing him, respond with their own new, dreamy hopes:
“There.” One child says, “There we will be warm day and night.”
“There,” calls another, “there are no Germans or railway cars or anything that hurts.” P. 364-5
The only way to lessen the children’s terror and pain is to speak of an olam haba a World to Come in which no child will have to be afraid. The children, desperate for comfort, grab for the idea greedily.
As lamed vavnik, one of the Compassionate who holds up half the sky, Ernie Levi responds to the situation with what is possible within that situation. If there must be suffering, then the lamed vavnik must strive to lessen it. He does not hold back and say to himself,
“Why help, they will be dead in an hour anyway,” or
“There are a million children dying—what difference will it make.” He does not rationalize or quantify or consider the cost and effect ratio. He offers that moment of balm, of escape from chaos an hour before their death.
Practical compassion might be entirely impractical in this one respect—even the smallest amount is worth doing. No gesture is too small or unimportant. Sooth one child for one hour, deliver one homeless person one hot lunch with a sandwich saved for later.
As it is written in Pirke Avot.
It is not given us to finish the task
Neither are we allowed to cease from the labor.
If you are a truly compassionate person, you do not cease, even for a moment. The compassionate heart knows this, lighting up like a beacon in the face of suffering, pointing the way, circumventing the doubting, hesitating brain.
Practical compassion has another requirement which may be more difficult than forgoing cost benefit analysis. When Ernie comforted the children they were not the only ones about to die within the hour. So was Ernie Levi. He could have become paralyzed with fear, or wrapped in his own emotional torment. But he didn’t. He was alive and focused and present for the kids. Such emotional maturity and control is a prerequisite for the role of saint, of tzaddik, v’yesh omreem, and some would say, for any good Jew determined to do good works.
I think even the most basic practical compassion—compassion which is a transformed into action and aimed at getting results—requires a degree of mental and emotional maturity. We see evidence of this with children, who feel for every hungry little furry creature they see, but have to argued with to feed the dog. A certain maturity of mind is needed to connect the dots: Food in the bowl means the cute little furry doggie won’t suffer from hunger.
It’s easy and in fact pleasant to look at a cuddly dog or child and feel moved. It’s just as easy and perhaps just as emotionally massaging to look at a hungry dog or child and feel compassion.
I believe that deriving pleasure from such a moment of emotional compassion without an action in response ought to be some kind of sin.
While it requires a certain maturity of mind to connect the dots between the emotional tug caused by a hungry animal or child, it very often also requires a level of emotional maturity in order to actualize a response.
For example, I remember well my chaplaincy internship at Sloan Kettering Hospital on an oncology ward. Our assignment was simply to walk into patient’s rooms, introduce ourselves, ask if we could stay a few moments, and minister to the patients. Just like that. Find out what they need and give it to them.
At such an assignment I balked.
“The patients could be any religion,” I argued. “They might be Orthodox Jews and not want a female rabbi, and they might not want a woman. What if they don’t accept gay people?” Subtext — What if they don’t like me? What if they don’t like my pants or shoes or hair or nose?
My supervisor just shook her head:
“This is Oncology. They are lying there scared and alone. They don’t care who you are or what you look like. They will only care that you are there.”
It was the single most valuable lesson of all my years of rabbinical school.
Ernie Levi could have worried that the kids wouldn’t like him or think that he was uncool.
The couple feeding chili to the homeless in the subway could have worried that they would seem bourgeoisie or condescending.
I’m sure the New Hampshire teenager with whom I almost crashed in the nor-easter did think I was pretty lame.
Practical compassion requires that we let go of worrying what other people think of us. In the world of helping other people, preoccupation with self always leads to a dead-end in the circle of self.
On this Yom Kippur, I believe that, if we are judged, it will be not on the intensity of our compassionate feelings, and not even how much we wanted to help or even how hard we tried. Rather we are judged on the maturity and efficacy of our response to suffering.
I believe that many of you here at Temple Emanuel have proven yourselves ready to meet that challenge, whether at the community table soup kitchen, the lunch bag assemblies, the literacy project, and in the day to day operations of this Jewish house of worship and compassion in Lowell.
Which brings us to another level of lamed vavnick activity we have not yet considered.
This story is told about Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli who is widely held to have been one of the hidden saints, the lamed vavniks of the 1700s.
One day there was a big wedding. It was a very happy affair with much eating and dancing. Unfortunately there was also an accident that only Rabbi Zusha saw. It seems that when the bride was walking her seven circles around her new husband, melding their souls together on all mystical levels, she had gotten distracted by a dog barking or a plate getting dropped. She lost count of how many times she had gone round her husband. She stopped after five circles, instead of going the full 7.
Now, this may not seem like such a problem to any of us. After all, wedding circling for us today is a lovely, symbolic bit of choreography done to music. Some modern couples even choose to not do it.
Centuries ago in the Old Country and still today in Hasidic communities, circling was thought to mystically insure peace within the marriage and the birth of healthy children. So Rabbi Zusha, when he sees only five circles believed this couple was doomed to strife and illness, unless he can help them make up for the lost two circles.
While everyone else is dancing and eating, he goes someplace by himself and prays. And the answer he receives is the same as every time he has prayed about a person in trouble or in pain. He is instructed to use every means he can muster to get this couple to give tzedukkah and do tikkun olam. This will fix the imbalance in the cosmos and a few things here on earth as well.
So of course this is what Rabbi Zusha does. Every time there is, as they say in the world of Jewish philanthropy, a tzedukkah opportunity, Rabbi Zusha is at this couple’s door, insisting that they give. Each time the synagogue needs volunteers or there is cooking to do for an oneg, every time a sick person needs tending or a young mother needs a hand, Rabbi Zusha is visiting this couple getting them to give and do and assist and deliver.
According to the teachings and legends out of the middle ages, this is the true role of the 36 hidden saints, the lamed-vavnikim–of being a person who holds up and sustains the entire world through compassion: That person is best described in an old word derived from the Yiddish and still in use today:
That person is: a Nudge.
And so it is still today: And we know who they are, don’t we. Those board members or committee chairs who are always bothering us to give more money, to work at the soup kitchen, to serve on committees, to chip in for the roof, or the Religious School, or the operating budget.
According to our Tradition, the true 36 righteous men and women, the lamed vavnickim, are the people who encourage or cajole or even guilt trip us into doing what needs to be done and giving what needs to be given. They hold up half the sky by getting everyone else to hold it up with them. They do it because they are human and limited and without magic and they know that together is the only way to get the job done. So when their heart feels compassion, their hand reaches for the phone.
These mere mortals deserve to be the true saints because theirs is the least pleasant job—the one that requires the most self-lessness, maturity, steadfastness, and the thickest skins–That’s cause they have to deal with the rest of us.
This House was built decades ago, a small and beautiful expression of practical compassion. Here children have been named and schooled and bar/bat mitzvahed, adults have learned and prayed and got married, circling each other any number of times, folks have found comfort and family and community. This temple is a home of practical compassion that all of us have built.
May this loving Yom Kippur become a day of growth and re-dedication of a community of tzaddikim, of human saints and their holy nudges. May we grow together in love and in good works and in the practice of living, vital practical compassion.
And may all good people here affirm my prayer and say, Amen.