A people of compassion: Mercy and love are the essential nature of Jews

Rabbi Adir Glick

By Rabbi Adir Glick, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Chol Hamoed Sukkot

Every year around the festival of Sukkot, Rabbi Levi Yitzhcak of Berditchev would compete with one of his fellow Chasidic Rebbes to see who had the most beautiful etrog – the citrus fruit used as a ritual item during the holiday.

They would send their followers to the four corners of Ukraine and Poland to fulfill the ancient commandment. But one year, not a single etrog could be found in the whole region and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak despaired of finding one. Then, one day on the eve of the holiday, one of his Chasidim told him of an etrog, but only for an enormous sum. Without hesitation, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak gathered all the money that he possessed and set out to buy the etrog.

As he was travelling on the road, Levi Yitzchak passed a dilapidated looking wagon. As he looked closer, he noticed an old man walking between the poles of the harness, dragging the cart himself.

“Where is your horse?” Levi Yitzchak asked. “My horse died,” answered the wagon driver, “and I do not have any money to buy a new one.” “How much will a new horse cost?” enquired Reb Levi Yitzchak.

The old man told him a sum and it was the exact amount that the Rebbe had with him. Immediately, he took out all his money, gave it to the cart driver, and then he headed back home.

When the Chasidim of his rival heard that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak had not succeeded in finding an etrog, they rejoiced and celebrated, saying: “Surely this year, our Rebbe will have the finest etrog in the land!”

But when their Rebbe heard what they were saying, he hushed them and said: “While Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was using an etrog to fulfill the mitzvah of waving the four species I still had a chance of competing with him, but when he uses a horse to wave, how can I possibly compete?”  

The Torah reading for Shabbat Hol Hamoed Sukkot is the story of the revelation of the thirteen attributes of compassion. In the Book of Exodus, after the tragedy of the Golden Calf, Moses once again ascends Mount Sinai to plead with G-d to save the Jewish people. Moses also asks Him to reveal His presence.

G-d responds in the affirmative but adds, “You cannot see My face.” At G-d’s instruction, Moses hides in a cleft in a rock. G-d descends in a cloud and Moses has an experience of G-d’s essential nature. In response, Moses exclaims (or, some believe G-d exclaims — the Hebrew word hu, “he,” is ambiguous) the words of the thirteen attributes of compassion:

“Lord, Lord, a G-d compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness. extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; and He cleanses.”

Our rabbis saw in Moses’ experience the manifestation of the truth that the G-d of Israel is a G-d of compassion. Despite the brokenness of our world, we believe that G-d is merciful.

Like as in the case of Moses, there is a long Jewish tradition of turning to the heavens to appeal for compassion. Mercy is what Abraham seeks earlier in the Torah, when G-d announces that He will destroy the cities of Soddom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness. Abraham turns to G-d and challenges: ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

There is a story in the Talmud (Tractate Berakhot 7a) of one of the last High Priests before the first century CE destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Yishmael encounters G-d in the Temple as he enters the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur.

He sees the Lord of Hosts sitting on His High Throne. Curiously G-d says, “My son, bless me.”

Yishmael responds, “Master of the Universe, may it be Your will that Your mercy conquers Your anger. That You behave toward your children with the attribute of mercy. And that for their sake, You go beyond the boundary of judgement.”

We follow in the footsteps of Moses and the High Priest Yishmael throughout the holidays as we recite the thirteen attributes to invoke G-d’s mercy, and to draw a flow of divine compassion into the world to relieve all of its tragedies and afflictions.

The thirteen attributes are part of the liturgy of Selichot (recited before the New Year), as well as sung during the Torah service of Rosh Hashanah, when we believe that the Eternal One stands in judgement of the world. On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the thirteen attributes are repeatedly chanted throughout the fast. Finally, on Sukkot, we read about the origin of this powerful supplication and we continue to recite its words during the Torah service of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.

Every time we chant these attributes, we do so three times in succession, each time building in intensity. The thirteen attributes are our Jewish way of opening the door to compassion when all doors seem closed.

We are appealing to the Omniscient One, proclaiming, ‘we know that Your essential nature is forgiving.’ In the process, we ourselves become agents and vehicles for that compassion.

This prayer proclaims that not only that the Divine is merciful, but that compassion is at the heart of Judaism. We are the people of tzedek, of righteousness, of justice. We are also the people of rachamim, of compassion.

G-d knows how much we have undergone in our history, and how much we may yet have to undergo. On this last Yom Kippur, there was a shooting attack at a synagogue in Germany. We understand how shattered our world is and how easily human beings turn to violence and let their yetzer hara (their evil inclination) overpower their yezer hatov (their good inclination).

Our response to all the brokenness that we see around us can be to remove ourselves from the world and look the other way, or it can be to labor to become agents of compassion in the world, in emulation of the Divine.

During the month of the holidays of Tishrei, when we reconnect to our Yiddishkeit, we also reclaim our relationship to Judaism as the path of compassion. Our hearts open and we become, like Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev in the story, willing to do anything to help another human being in distress. We feel the suffering of others and empathize with their struggles. We become a rivulet of the flow of compassion for which we have prayed so intensely throughout the month. We turn to the Heavens and plead that the All Merciful’s forgiving nature override the merited judgement.

In the story of the High Priest Yishmael entering the Holy of Holies, the Lord of Hosts nods in response to his entreaty. Yismael’s supplication is the prayer that G-d desires to hear from each of us.

During this season of the year, we are reminded that our essential nature is compassion, and that we too should walk in the world following a path of mercy and love.  Rediscovering that truth is the real joy of Sukkotzman simhateinu, the time of our happiness.

Rabbi Adir Glick is rabbi of West Suburban Temple Har Zion.

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