Torah Reading for Week of April 1-7, 2018
“Begin With Compassion”
By Chaplain Muriel Dance, PhD, ’11
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
My mother’s yahrzeit always falls during Passover. As an adult I still regret that I did not know that her headaches were the result of a brain tumor. I did not fully acknowledge her pain. I was not compassionately attentive.
The portion chosen for Chol HaMoed Pesach is from Exodus, after Moses has witnessed the Golden Calf and experienced the pain of this enormous sin. The success of his pleading with YHWH encourages him to request to see God’s face. He also listens to the enumeration of the Thirteen Attributes of the Divine, which start with compassion (mercy) and grace. Would that I had such compassion and could return to my mother’s bedside where she lay debilitated by pain. Would that I could have held her hand, acknowledged her pain, prayed with her.
These regrets lead me to ask two questions: Why don’t we always begin with compassion when we are with another? Why did the rabbis choose this portion of Ki Tissa to be chanted on Hol HaMoed Pesach?
I did not start with compassion because my mother’s illness dumped lots of responsibilities on the oldest child: running the house for a working father, more wash, more dishes, more meal prep. I did not start with compassion because more than one doctor had suggested the stress of a large family was causing her headaches. I did not start with compassion because I was a senior in High School and in the process of separating from my family so I could go to University. Our own needs get in the way of starting with compassion. Focused on ourselves, we fall short of our aspiration to be B’zelem Elohim (in God’s image).
The rabbis chose this portion for us to read because the excitement of the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Mount Sinai are stained by the debacle of the Golden Calf. We are so human, so fallible, so fearful. We need to be reminded again and again of YHWH’s mercy. We need to feel His compassion and grace,
This brings me to prayer: When Moses dares to ask to see YHVH, Adonai replies, “I will make all My goodness pass before you . . . (Exodus 33:19). Rashi interprets the meaning of this verse that the time has come for Moses to see God’s glory because God desires to teach him the order of prayer. The order that Rashi discusses is when it is necessary to ask mercy for Israel. Rashi goes on to imagine YHWH enwrapped in a prayer-shawl and reading the Thirteen Attributes. Israel should follow this example. Rashi continues, “by means of mentioning before Me (the prayer which includes the words) ‘merciful and gracious’ they will be answered, for My mercies do not end.”
The Thirteen Divine Attributes, at the center of the portion, begin with the familiar words: נצר חסד לאלפים נשא עון ופשע וחטאה ונקה יהוה אל רחום וחנון אררך אפים ורב חסד ואמת יהוה
(Adonai Adonai el rachum v’chanun, erech apayim v’rav chesed v’emet, notzer chesed la’ala’fim no’she avon v’feh’shah v’chata’ah vnakeh.)
These lines resonate from their repetition throughout the High Holy Day services especially during Selichot. They focus first and foremost on YHVH’s mercy and compassion. The Talmud comments on the doubling of the name– “Adonai, Adonai,” as further evidence of God’s mercy. “I am the merciful God before a man commits sin, and I am the same merciful and forgiving God after a man has sinned” (Hertz, p. 364).
If YHWH invites us to depend on His mercy, then possibly through prayer I can restore the compassion I lacked as an adolescent, the same compassion Adonai extended to the Hebrews, newly freed from slavery, and their need for a physical presence to allay their fears.
On this Passover HaChamoed we are invited again to connect with God’s mercy. In the midst of the joy of liberation we hear our need for God’s compassion that we will be calling on during the Days of Awe. God’s compassion is always the same and always available. Why is it so difficult for us as human beings to start with compassion? What difference would it make in our lives if we did so?