Thursday, January 16, 2014

A First Step Towards Compassion

I mentioned in this morning's post that compassion (rahamim in Hebrew) has been on my mind. So, I decided to also teach a bit about it at our monthly lunch and learn today (you can always join us--look for it on Congregation Beth Am's website, always on a Thursday at noon). At the end of the (really interesting, fun) session, I shared a metaphor which seemed to resonate with people. So, I'll share it here, too.

I've heard that one of the harder tasks for baseball outfielders is learning to always take their first step out. When a ball is hit to them, it always looks, at first, like it's going to fall in front of them, so they naturally start moving in. But, the ball is actually often going over their heads, and so then they need to scramble backwards. That's why you see so many little-leaguers chasing balls which got past them; they haven't yet learned to always, reflexively take that first step out. Even if the ball is in front of them, they'll have time to adjust to that, most often. It's not perfect, but it's a good rule.

That's kind of how I feel about compassion. I know that there are times when an actual compassionate response might not be right. There are times when strict justice is needed, or self-preservation, or something else. But, so often compassion is the right response, but we aren't trained to respond that way. So, our first step is in another direction, and it's really hard to adjust back towards compassion once our fear, or righteous anger or whatever else get going.

What I want is to train myself to always react with compassion first. To have compassion be my reflex. It won't always be the right reaction, but it will more often than I might instinctively think.

As I once said, when in doubt, err on the side of compassion.


For various reasons, sympathy and compassion have been on my mind a lot (they keep coming up in teaching, in reading, etc). I saw something today which crystalized a thought I've been having on the subject. And, it's about baseball, of course. Specifically, it's about the A-Rod/Steroid scandal which has been dominating baseball news for the past few days/weeks/years. More specifically, it's about Derek Jeter's reaction to the scandal, and one of my favorite blogger's reactions to Jeter. It's a short posting, so here it is in full:
The Captain has made his first public comments about Alex Rodriguez. As is usually the case with Derek Jeter, he hits the right notes and it’s hard to take any issue with what he said:
“As a teammate, you’re saddened by the whole thing. The whole thing has been kind of messy . . . he’s human. I’m sure it’s a rough situation.”
I feel like, once some time has passed, Jeter’s take — that he’s “saddened” — will be felt by more people. Not for A-Rod personally, as he’s done pretty much zero to earn sympathy from anyone. But generally speaking.
In the long view, this is going to be a story of one of the most talented athletes in the history of professional sports driving his career and legacy into a ditch. And no matter how much he deserves the disapproval he’s getting, it’s sad to see that happen. It’s all the sadder when, for the past decade, he’s had an excellent example of how one can and should carry himself publicly standing just to his left on the Yankees infield.
I didn't check the comments (because I'm trying to remind myself that almost nothing good ever comes from checking the comments on a widely-read blog). But, I'll guarantee you that many of them are something like: "I don't feel sorry at all. A-Roid got what he deserved. Why feel sorry for a cheat?"

I get that. I do. A-Rod has no one to blame but himself. Of his own free will, he (allegedly!) made a conscious decision to cheat, and then to cover that up. Everything that is happening to him is the direct result of his unethical behavior.

But, I still feel bad for him.

I think people often feel that we have a choice--we can either feel bad for someone, or we can hold them accountable. Having sympathy is, in some way, being soft on, or going easy on, someone who deserves punishment. I disagree. I don't think it's an either-or situation. The whole A-Rod situation is kind of sad, but more specifically, I feel sad for, or maybe about, A-Rod. I don't hope that he somehow beats this, or that he suddenly gets off on some technicality. I hope that he gets all of the punishment that he deserves. And, when he does, I'll feel bad for him.

I'll feel bad for someone who was so full of drive and ego that he couldn't be happy with what he had. I'll feel bad for someone who's intense, overwhelming love of and commitment to baseball led to his being reviled within, and possibly shut out from, that world. It may be his own doing, but it's pathetic, in the original sense of "arousing pity."

There are times when I have to punish my kids for something (or, in the modern terminology, impose appropriate consequences for their actions). It's the right thing to do, and the kids "earned" that punishment. I don't regret doing it. But I hate it. I feel terrible for them. The fact that they deserved their consequences doesn't change how sad those consequences make them, or how bad I feel for them in their sadness.

This is a good thing. This feeling of sympathy, even for those who "deserve what they got," is a good thing. Compassion is never wasted. Compassion which makes us so soft that we let people get away with things, that's not good. But, compassion for all people, even the "guilty," is a virtue.

I don't have an exact quote or text to include right now, but this is the general sense I've been getting from my (halting) reading on Mussar, a discipline of personal, moral and spiritual improvement. Compassion--rahamim, in the Hebrew--is never bad. It's always something we should be striving for.

Actually, I do have a quote. It's from Alan Morinis' Everyday Holiness, an intro book on Mussar. "Kindness, empathy, and care arise from standing so close, feeling what the other feels."

One of the great lessons of a spiritual life is that we are all connected. All of us. The people I love, the people I hate, the people I don't even know--I am, in some way, connected to them all. When they hurt, I hurt. Not equally for all. But, ideally, at least somewhat. For all.

In the end, I'm not sure we can really choose when to be compassionate. When to feel for others who are in pain. If we're really going to be compassionate people, we have to show compassion for all. Even those who deserve exactly what they're getting.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Selling Women In The Jewish State

Rabbi Daniel Gordis writes about the incredible shame that is the ongoing trafficking of women, to be used as sex-slaves and prostitutes, in Israel. He argues, compellingly, that while Israel (rightly) demands that the Palestinians recognize it as a Jewish state, Israel also has the undeniable responsibility of acting Jewishly. And, to state the (hopefully) obvious, that would mean doing everything humanly possible to protect the weakest and most vulnerable in society, and not allowing some of them to be forced into a life of prostitution:

The Chief Rabbinate, of course, is silent; powerless women aren’t very high on its list of priorities. The haredi modesty patrols, too busy measuring the lengths of women’s sleeves and skirts, do absolutely nothing to keep the men, many from their own communities, away from brothels and “discreet apartments.” The mainstream press has reported the story, but without finger- pointing. Why? Because women at the very bottom of the social food chain don’t worry many people – especially when they provide men with sex.
We’re right to point the spotlight at the Palestinians, noting that part of the impasse in the negotiations stems from their refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. But if that moniker is so important to us, shouldn’t the content be as well? In a genuinely Jewish state, women’s bodies wouldn’t be for sale.

Of course, this is far from just an Israeli problem. Sex trafficking happens in every country, including our own. It almost is certainly happening, right now, in whatever city you're in. According to, over 100,000 children (to say nothing of adults, who aren't mostly "making a decision to prostitute themselves") are trafficked, sold, raped and otherwise exploited, every year. 

The average age of a newly trafficked child is 13. Average. You should be shuddering just thinking about what has to happen to get the average age that low.

It should shock and outrage us that, in this day and age, in this wealthy, powerful country, this continues. We should be losing sleep, knowing that this is happening. It should be on the news, constantly. Leaders--political, religious, communal and other--should be talking about it. I honestly don't know why, for the most part, we aren't.

Ideally, I'd have a "what now" to write. I'd explain that, if you are outraged about this, as I hope you are, then you can learn more at this program we're running, or attend this rally that we're supporting. I don't have anything like that. This is an issue that's come up as a potential cause to pursue here at Congregation Beth Am a couple of times, but it's always fallen by the wayside. Hopefully, we'll be able to correct that in the near future.

But, at the very least (the very, very least), let's start with awareness. Let's start with not hiding from the fact that toddlers are used in pornography and pre-teens are sold and raped. 

It's sickening that, in the Jewish State, this is allowed to happen. It's not one bit less sickening that it happens in our own home.