Torah from around the world #184

Reflections for Yom Kippur 5774

by Rabbi Dr Charles H Middleburgh, Director of Jewish Studies Director of Jewish Studies and Senior Lecturer at Leo Baeck College, London, and rabbi to the Cardiff Reform Synagogue in Cardiff, Wales


Many, many years ago, when I was a child, there was one part of the High Holy days to which I always looked forward; it was the singing of Psalm 103:13 – “ke-racheym av al banim, richam Adonai al ye-rey-av, Just as a father has mercy on his children, so You, Eternal One, have mercy on Your children.”  It was a soprano solo that my mother used to sing, either in Hebrew or English, and as its notes soared skywards I always felt transported, and when I read the passage now I hear her singing, and feel moved afresh.

When we came to preparing the gender neutral machzor for the Liberal movement (Liberal Judaism, 2005), Rabbi Dr Andrew Goldstein and I knew that this passage was one which posed a particular challenge.  Rendering Adonai as ‘Eternal One’ was easy, as that was a now established and accepted translation, but what to do with the phrase “Just as a father?”  In the end we left it, and we did so because immediately following it was a verse from Isaiah (66.13) which states:  “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.”

Our tradition, it was clear to us, associated both male and female characteristics with God, paternal and maternal, and trying to cloak these in a form of linguistic disguise would deprive us all of images of God that we can readily comprehend.

The verb in the Psalms passage is, in any case, interesting: רחם, meaning ‘to show mercy’ or ‘compassion’, is derived from the Hebrew word rechem, meaning a ‘womb’.  It is a particular sort of fellow feeling, that of a mother for a child.  By associating that emotional response and capacity with the Deity, our tradition makes a powerful statement about the nature of divine love.

When we pray to God for comfort at a funeral, we evoke this special compassionate concern, crying out El Maley rachamim, O God, full of compassion, and in the 13 attributes of God identified by Moses Maimonides, we state that God is an El rachum, a God of compassion.

In the machzor we translated the verb richam with the word mercy, it fitted that particular context well, but a better rendition is undoubtedly compassion, derived from a Latin word com-passio, itself made up of the words ‘com’ meaning ‘with’ and ‘passio’ meaning ‘to suffer’.

In our usage today of the word compassion we usually mean ‘feel sorry for’, or ‘have sympathy with’, but there is little doubt that in its original sense the idea of suffering with someone, that is, empathising with such a degree that you can sense, if not actually feel, their pain is a truer expression of the word.

But while we may talk a lot about compassion, it is an instinct that is more often than not ignored, constrained or otherwise restricted by our own selfishness or lack of time.  We pass beggars in the street with a curl of our lip, we ignore the collecting tins shaken in our direction on the high street, we look straight through the campaigners who seek to sign us up to their charities without even wondering about the nature of their cause.  We console ourselves, if we care enough even to do that, that we just don’t have time, we are too busy… someone else can pick up the slack.  Yet it must surely be the case that if we fail to show any compassion for others, if we fail to accept that our own good fortune, however relative it may be, must always act as a goad to do something for those who have less, then we are not just behaving badly but denying something divine within us that clamours for release.

It was perhaps with this in mind that the theologian, philosopher and thinker Karen Armstrong wrote her latest book

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

(Bodley Head, 2011): now those of you who, like me, frequent bookshops whenever we have the opportunity and know that they usually have a section where the more ‘flaky’ books are kept, often under the rubric of Mind, Body, Spirit or some such, may jump to the conclusion that

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

belongs there rather than anywhere else!

This would be a mistaken assumption, however, for Karen Armstrong is a much too serious writer to be so lightly dismissed, and the knowledge that she brings to her subject is a distillation of many years of immersion in the teachings of the world’s religions, teachings which she is able to synthesize as well as anyone that I know.

In an introductory paragraph Karen Armstrong sets out clearly why she has written her latest book:

…it is hard to think of a time when the compassionate voice of religion has been so sorely needed.  Our world is dangerously polarised.

There is a worrying imbalance of power and wealth and, as a result, a growing rage, malaise, alienation and humiliation that have erupted in terrorist atrocities that endanger us all.  We are engaged in wars that we seem unable either to end or to win.  Disputes that were secular in origin, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, have been allowed to fester and become ‘holy’ and, once they have been sacralised, positions tend to harden and become resistant to pragmatic solutions.  And yet at the same time we are bound together more closely than ever before through the electronic media.  Suffering and want are no longer confined to distant, disadvantaged parts of the globe.  When stocks plummet in one country, there is a domino effect in markets all around the world.  What happens today in Gaza or Afghanistan is likely to have repercussions tomorrow in London or New York.  We all face the terrifying possibility of environmental catastrophe.  In a world in which small groups will increasingly have powers of destruction hitherto confined to the nation state, it has become imperative to apply the Golden Rule globally, ensuring that all peoples are treated as we would wish to be treated ourselves.  If our religious traditions fail to address this challenge, they will fail the test of our time

. [p.2f.]

Karen Armstrong sets out, unsurprisingly in view of the book’s title, twelve steps to compassion, some of which resonate more quickly and comfortably than others but all of which, she avers, are necessary if we are to build the basis for a world society that will endure.  Alongside steps like Empathy, Mindfulness and Action are steps entitled How Little We Know, and How Should We Speak to One Another.  Each one is informed not just by the teachings of one religious faith but of many, and though the title of some of the steps, Concern for Everybody or Love Your Enemies, for example, may cause a Pavlovian curl of the upper lip, if we are able to suspend our disbelief and cynicism and read them with an open-mind they are surprisingly persuasive.

In the step entitled How Little We Know, Armstrong takes people like us to task, in a manner wholly fitting for Yom Kippur, for our dogmatism and narrow-mindedness.  She writes:

I began to notice how seldom we ‘made place for the other’ in social interaction and how frequently people imposed their own experience and beliefs on acquaintances and events, and made hurtful, inaccurate and dismissive snap judgements not only about individuals but about entire cultures.

It often becomes clear, when they are questioned more closely, that their actual knowledge of the topic under discussion could comfortably be contained on a small postcard.


Think about that for a moment and realise how much it describes you, and me, to a tee; and then ask yourself how that realisation makes you feel?  Does it make you feel proud of yourself?  Ashamed? Or somewhere in between?  Does it make you feel that some serious thinking is required – hopefully beyond question?!!

In the tenth step, Knowledge, Karen Armstrong quotes a Buddhist prayer which struck me forcibly, when I read it for the first time, as containing many of the themes of the Shemoneh Esrey and other prayers in our liturgy.

Let all beings be happy!

Weak or strong, of high, middle or low estate,

Small or great, visible or invisible,

Near or far away, alive or still to be born –

May they all be perfectly happy!

Let nobody lie to anybody or despise any single being anywhere.

May nobody wish harm to any single creature out of anger or hatred!

Let us cherish all creatures as a mother her only child!

May our loving thoughts fill the whole world, above, below, across –

Without limit; our love will know no obstacles –

A boundless goodwill towards the whole world,

Unrestricted, free of hatred or enmity.

Whether we are standing or walking, sitting or lying down,

As long as we are awake we should cultivate this love in our heart.

This is the noblest way of living


After a lifetime of High Holy Day services, most on this side of the bimah, I cannot help feeling that the true measurement of the success of the Days of Awe experience should not be in the grandiose gestures or promises that we make but in the small actions by which we seek not only to change our own lives but positively to enhance the lives of others.  Finding compassion in ourselves is not only discovering an element of the divine within us, it is a means whereby we may change our outlook on life and our inter-action with our fellow men and women for the better.  Discover the rachmanut in yourself and you will begin to change in other ways to, and for the better.

Karen Armstrong’s final paragraph says all of this better than I can, and concludes with a call to action that is hard to resist:

A truly compassionate person touches a chord in us that resonates with some of our deepest yearnings.  People flock to such people, because they seem to offer a haven of peace in a violent, angry world.  This is the ideal to which we aspire and it is not beyond our capacity.  But even if we achieve only a fraction of this enlightenment and leave the world marginally better because we lived in it, our lives will have been worthwhile.  There is no more to be said.  We know what we have to do.  This is the end of the book, but our work is just beginning

. [p.178]

Keyn yehi ratzon: AMEN

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