“Compassion is a breakdown of all of the barriers between us – A heart-to-heart bonding. Your pain is my pain. It’s mingled and shared between us.”
– Nomadland filmmaker Chloe Zhao, quoting nomad, Bob Wells
As Sabbath approaches this week, I reflect back upon this unusual year and consider what we have learned on the pandemic’s first anniversary. For me, the overriding lesson is that compassion and reaching out to others is what will ultimately save us and bring us through this time. Whether these gestures are grand ones or smaller in scale, the message we send to others is the same: I care about you, I am here for you, together we will get through this difficult time, and you are not alone. During times of trial, this is the most important thing anyone needs to hear and feel. In fact, it is a lifeline – and without it, an individual can feel unmoored, like a boat floating on a stormy sea. The other day, I received a call from a friend, and to be honest, I was feeling a bit blue that day. When she said to me, “So, how are you?” I answered her, as many of us do, rather automatically, “Oh, you know, fine, working hard, getting through.” But then she said: “No, really – how are you? I really want to know.” And that allowed for a very different conversation. It sounds so simple, but it was far more than that. Compassion and empathy are not simple, but they are easy, if we are mindful about it. When I found the sign photographed above, I thought about the motivation for the homeowners to place it in their yard. To me, it felt like a love letter to their neighbors and the community.
Our Jewish tradition is rich with examples of compassion and lovingkindness set out for us from which to learn and to follow. In fact, the Torah begins and ends with striking examples of acts of lovingkindness exhibited by none other than the Divine acting as our role model. At the beginning, God clothes the naked Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, teaching us that we must strive to clothe the naked – and at the very end, God lovingly buries Moses personally, showing us the importance of honoring the dead and escorting them to their final resting place as one of our highest mitzvot. In between these two examples, many other biblical characters provide other instances of compassion to learn from. Abraham opens his tent to strangers, and he is visited when he is ill, recovering from circumcision. Rebekah is chosen as a wife for Isaac, since not only does she offer Eliezer water to drink, but also offers drink for his camels. In fact, much is said about compassion for animals, including the famous prohibition against cooking a kid in its mother’s milk, which ultimately led to the kosher law against eating dairy with meat. Our Torah includes some very forward-thinking laws, including ensuring that a worker does not wait for his wages until the next day. We learn about leaving the corners of our field for the poor, so they may glean and not feel ashamed. We must care for the stranger, the widow and the orphan – those most alone. Rabbinic law includes many examples as well, but perhaps my favorite is that it is permissible to lie to an unattractive bride and tell her she is beautiful on her wedding day. Now, if that isn’t the ultimate in compassion and empathy!
Often, in the worst of times, the best and most generous of people’s goodness emerges – and in many cases, we never learn of these stories, so I thought I would share one with you here. During the Holocaust, there were many such cases of Upstanders, ordinary people who chose to do the extraordinary – and chose compassion in a time of the greatest lack of compassion. One such story started in the small French village of Biars sur Cere, the town where the Andros Company is based, makers of a favorite product of mine – and if not yours yet, soon to be: Bonne Maman Preserves. The story recently made the rounds on social media told this way: “At the supermarket today, I found a small, elderly woman standing in front of a high shelf holding Bonne Maman Preserves. She was having trouble finding the flavor she wanted, because the jars were set back on the shelf. She couldn’t read the labels or reach them, so I offered to help. After I handed her the raspberry preserves, she thanked me, paused and then asked, “Do you know why I buy this brand?” I laughed and replied, “Because it tastes good?” “Yes, it tastes good.” She paused again. “But also because I am a Holocaust Survivor.” This was not the conversation I expected on a Sunday grocery run. “During the war, the family that owns the company hid my family in Paris. So now, I always buy it. And whenever I go to the store, my grandkids remind me, ‘Bubbe, don’t forget to buy the jelly.’” I told her that was the best reason I ever heard to buy any company’s product. And then we both smiled behind our masks.” It's stories like these that can restore our faith in humanity.
Recently, I heard about an extraordinary gem of a book, written during the pandemic – a simple book, with simple wisdom: “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.” Starting out with simple sketches and as Charlie Mackesy, the author says, his “own feelings,” this humble book expecting to sell 10,000 copies, has instead sold more than 3 million copies, spending a year on the New York Times bestsellers list. So, what did this small, simple book speak to for so many? What part of us did it touch? For me, it is sketches about kindness and empathy, encouraging all of us not to give up. It is about relying on each other for support and not being afraid to ask for help when we need it – and yet, knowing we are each enough on our own. I don’t want to quote too much from the book, since I suggest you run, not walk to find it, but I’ll leave you with one of my favorite pages: “What do we do when our hearts hurt?” asked the boy. “We wrap them with friendship, shared tears and time, till they wake hopeful and happy again.”
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom – a peaceful time to consider kindness for yourself and others,
Ruth Steinberg, LCSW
Director, Jewish Family Service
Image caption: Driving around on my happy challah deliveries recently, I spotted this sign in a front yard. It made me realize that kindness and compassion is fairly easy to do if we choose it – and also something which can have great impact. Seeing this, I was instantly cheered up! And I imagine the residents of this neighborhood feel the same way whenever they see it, too.