Capacity for greater Compassion

Chapter 2

Good Monday Morning to this week 3 of 2020

Exodus 3.3. Moses stared in amazement. Though the bush was engulfed in flames, it didn’t burn up. This is amazing, Moses said to himself.
Why isn’t that bush burning up? I must go see it!

One of the ancient Jewish texts that helps us conceive God in relation to compassion. God reveals his compassion in the calling of Moses. He chooses a man in Moses with a capacity for greater compassion.

One Midrash, an ancient commentary on part of the Hebrew scriptures, attached to the biblical text (found in Shemot Rabbah) offers an answer that I find particularly helpful:

The blessed Holy One only tested Moses by the flock. Our rabbis have said that when Moses our rabbi, peace be upon him, was shepherding the flock of Jethro in the wilderness, a kid (goat) escaped. He ran after it until he reached a shady place. When he reached the shady place, he happened upon a pool of water where the kid was standing, drinking. When Moses reached, he said: “I had not known that you had run away because of thirst. You must be tired.” He placed it on his shoulder and walked back. The blessed Holy One said: “You have shown compassion in guiding a flock belonging to a mortal; so, by your life, you should shepherd My flock, Israel.”

Geoffrey D. Claussen writes in his text “I will be with them”

In this Midrash, God characterizes Moses as acting with exemplary compassion. Moses, to his credit, does not rebuke the kid for escaping from the flock. Instead, he admits that he had not understood what it needed and shows the empathy required to understand what it must be feeling; he responds with an action that offers relief to the kid. God appears to Moses and charges him with his mission precisely because of this display of compassion to the kid.

One interpretation that in this moment Moses reveals not only his compassion for the particular kid but also his compassion for all beings. a Jewish movement focused on the cultivation of character, whose leaders gave considerable attention to the virtues of compassionate love for all creatures. Moses’ concern for the kid revealed his capacity to understand what all creatures need: “Our rabbi Moses, who followed the kid so that he could figure out why it ran away after he found that it was tired and thirsty had compassion for it and placed it on his shoulder and so it was revealed that he was understanding and discerning of the needs of every creature. And so the blessed Holy One found him fit to be the shepherd of Israel, Moses’ compassion thus came to resemble the divine ideal of compassion for all creatures, as suggested by a verse from Psalm 145: “The eyes of all look to You, and You give them their nourishment promptly” (Psalm 145:15).

I imagine the story of Moses and his calling in this way. The suffering kid is a revelation that demands Moses’ response, and as Moses acts with newfound compassion, he grows even more in compassion. As he realizes his capacity for greater compassion, he realizes how much further he could grow as he recognizes the broader ideal of compassion for all creatures—for each creature in its own right, in accordance with its needs. He understands that he is called toward that ideal—that this ideal obligates him, commands him, and demands his further action. This ideal of compassion burns within him and burns before his eyes, like a burning bush from which one cannot turn aside. The obligation to care for each and every creature rings in his ears and calls to him, as with a voice that cannot be silenced. Moses turns toward the ideal of compassion and the obligation that addresses him as if by his own name. He answers: “Here I am.

The idea that the burning bush is a manifestation of divine compassion is prominent in rabbinic literature. Another Midrash sees a verse from Isaiah, “In all their affliction God was afflicted” (63:9), as alluding to God’s suffering amidst the thorns of the burning thorn bush, and explains: God says to Moses, ‘If you do not sense that I am suffering just as Israel is suffering, then you should know that I am speaking to you from within the thorns, [thus showing that it is] as if I am a partner in their suffering.” The burning bush is a thorn bush that shows how God compassionately joins the people of Israel while they suffer in Egypt.

Those included within the circle of divine compassion include the entire people, and Moses cannot separate himself from the people’s suffering or from God’s suffering alongside them. Rather, he is called upon to emulate God’s compassion and to also experience the people’s suffering himself—and precisely so as to be able to respond that “he will be with them” in their suffering, just as God is with them in their suffering. The revelation of the burning bush calls Moses to feel the suffering of Israel, to be a partner in their suffering, and to take responsibility to alleviate their suffering, to free “My people”, the Israelites, from Egypt as God instructs him.

Moses famously resists God’s call: “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” But something has drawn him to the bush, and if we follow the Midrashic traditions discussed here, it is not merely the miraculous sight. Moses is drawn to the expressions of suffering that are deeply painful to behold, revelations of suffering that have something in common with the suffering of the thirsty and tired kid who has brought Moses to this spot, to sufferings that are far more painful—revelations of the drowning of children, the beating of slaves, and the cries of the oppressed. We might imagine that Moses sees not only thorns and fire that represent suffering, but that he in fact sees the images of what that suffering looks like, and that he hears not only the voice of God but also the cries of those for whom God is present. It might well be tempting to turn away from such scenes and even from the thorns and fire that represent suffering, but the text emphasizes that Moses feels that he “must turn aside” toward the bush (Exodus 3:3)

The Midrashim cited here suggests to us that compassion involves being a partner in the suffering of others, even feeling the painful thorns that others feel, and committing to being with those who suffer. We can imagine Moses, as he takes on his mission before the burning bush, moving more closely to this ideal and realizing that compassion for all must include awareness of and responsiveness to even the most horrible atrocities. We can imagine Moses realizing just how much the ideal of compassion obligates him and committing to greater and greater responsibility.

The biblical narrative implies that Mount Horeb and Mount Sinai are the same location.
From the burning bush, God promises that “when you have freed the people from Egypt, you as Nation shall worship God at this mountain. And this promise is later fulfilled: after leading the people of Israel out of Egypt, Moses will bring the people back to this mountain. Moses will thus bring the people back to the spot where he had found his escaped kid and understood its suffering, where he had realized the need for compassion for all creatures, where he had encountered the ideal of compassion for the people. When Moses returns to the mountain after the exodus from Egypt, it will no longer be only a single bush that will be in flames; rather, the whole mountain will now be aflame. The mountain was ablaze with fire and the divine voice comes “from out of the fire”.

As we understand the fire of the bush to be a sign of the ideal of compassion in response to suffering, we may understand the fire that envelops the mountain as an even more powerful symbol of compassion, a renewed manifestation of the ideal that Moses first encountered in the bush. Like that first fire, this fire also clearly demands, obligates, and commands; the divine voice that comes from it is the source of legislation, the “fiery law” ”placed upon all Israelites. God, the ideal of compassion, commands the people of Israel to strive toward that ideal, to obey the laws that will teach them and help them to grow deeper in compassion. The divine voice addresses each one of them and cannot be silenced; the divine ideal burns before the eyes of the entire people, threatening their complacency, setting forth a covenant of compassion that demands responsiveness to the suffering of others.

As I conceive of God, traces of the divine presence may be glimpsed through acts of compassion for those who suffer. All of us, I think, can apprehend the obligations that God imposes upon us when we, like Moses, act with compassion. And all of us can easily turn away from these obligations, especially when they threaten our complacency, our self-centered desires. All of us can be like Moses as he lifts a tired animal on his shoulder and turns toward the ideal of compassion that burns before his eyes. We may be moved by the rabbinic idea that atonement is achieved through lovingkindness. I see particular value in the model of Moses turning toward the kid, turning toward the bush and the vision of trapped birds, and turning to hear the divine name that speaks of all who suffer.

It is difficult to be with others who are suffering and even harder to feel their pain, and it is all the more difficult to be compassionate when the number of those who suffer is so staggering. We will inevitably fall short of the ideal of compassion, and yet great hope that the ideal is one toward which we can take steps, as best we are able. May God conceived of as an ideal of “being with them,” inspiration for our own growth toward ever-deepening compassion

Philemon

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s