Compassion Fatigue and the Exodus from Egypt | Parashat Beshalach

In Australia we speak of “Eureka!” moments: moments when something crystallizes in the mind, when vague thoughts that have been floating about suddenly come together to provide an insight that wasn’t there previously.

I had this kind of Eureka! moment as I sat down to prepare the drash on this week’s sidra Beshalach. I realized that much of my thinking over the past few weeks, this period during which the Torah has once again led us up to the Exodus from the land of bondage and across the Sea of Reeds into freedom, has been toying with a particular theme. This theme has a modern name: it is called “compassion fatigue.” As the name itself suggests, compassion fatigue occurs when a caring person has run out of the energy needed to continue giving to others; when the demand for compassion exceeds the supply; when the problems of “the world” seem too great to be ameliorated by the efforts of a single individual; when a caring person is spiritually overwhelmed and defeated by the enormity of the need to which he or she is trying to respond.

In an insightful drash on Beshalach produced by the American Jewish World Service, Sigal Samuel locates an ancient take on compassion fatigue in the Torah’s portrayal of Pharaoh and his “hardened heart.” She describes Pharaoh’s brutal refusal to acknowledge the suffering of his own people during the ten plagues as a defense mechanism in the human psyche that protects him from collapsing in the face of constant exposure to a series of tragedies, even – or especially – if he contributes to those tragedies through his behavior. Pharaoh closes his heart towards the suffering of his people because it would overwhelm and defeat him to accept responsibility for their suffering.

Samuel sees another expression of this defense mechanism in the way that ordinary people like us shut out tragedies that confront us every day in the media. On some level, we feel responsible for the starvation, violent displacement and genocide of peoples in distant parts of the world; yet, we cannot deal with caring about these people too much. We would suffer compassion fatigue if we personally took on board every act of injustice that crosses our television screens.

How, then, do we avoid compassion fatigue, spiritual burn-out of this nature? Samuel directs our attention to a passage in Deuteronomy, where, she says, the image of a hardened heart makes a striking reappearance. It is the passage in parashat Re’eh which warns us against hardening our heart against the needy, for the poor will always be with us; and we are bidden to “open your hand to your poor and needy brother” (Deuteronomy 15:11).

Rashi has a keen-eyed comment on the word “poor”, aniyecha. He points out that it is spelled here with a single yud rather than two as we would expect. The word “poor”, then, refers to a single person. Compassion is revitalized, Samuel suggests, by attending to the suffering of a single individual. If we seek to extend our caring too widely, we run the risk of compassion fatigue, of “hardening our hearts.” She says, “precisely because ‘the poor shall never cease out of the land’ (Deuteronomy 15:11) – precisely because the problem seems so huge and so overwhelming – we are instructed to form highly personalized attachments. The way to the universal, Rashi hints, is through the particular.” And she points out that even Pharaoh’s “heart of stone” was softened when he saw his own child slain during the final plague. Indeed, it is at that very moment that he lets the Jewish people go out from Egyptian bondage.

The tale of Beshalach, and the entire Exodus narrative, is often understood as the depiction of the birth of a nation, the quasi-historical origins of the Jewish people. But it also records the birth of our social and ethical responsibility as individuals towards those who are still enslaved, however we understand enslavement. If we try to pursue this responsibility too broadly, we risk turning our backs, hardening our hearts and ignoring the suffering which is constantly presented to us in order to protect ourselves from compassion fatigue. Many members of the Jewish community seem to react in just this way to what the internationally renowned jurist and human rights activist Irwin Cottler has referred to as “Rwanda moments”: instances when we see genocide occurring before our very eyes, and we do nothing about it. Cottler offers ways in which the international community can respond to the genocides that are occurring, for example, in regions bordering on South Sudan.

When I raised Cottler’s alarms recently, I was rightly challenged by a congregant who asked: What can we as individuals do about it? If we take seriously the theme of compassion fatigue and follow up on Rashi’s comment concerning the poor, the answer is that an individual relates most authentically to an individual. If we really want to fulfill our responsibility to others, then we need to find the individual lurking within the tragedy. This requires us to educate ourselves about injustices that are happening in other parts of the globe, to watch the media reports and keep attuned to them even as we attune ourselves to happenings in Israel.  Education leads to greater attachment and concern, and through our caring we may discover intimate ways to give individuals renewed courage and hope.

There is no compassion fatigue in sponsoring a child from a war-torn region of Africa, or in encouraging our friends to contribute to the building of an orphanage in a violence-ravaged province of Southeast Asia, or in supporting a charity devoted to protecting women and children in a particular place from abuse or intimidation. By giving our attention to these specific areas of need, we soften our hearts and revitalize our sense of compassion.

Compassion fatigue is the innate human characteristic that prevents us from acting for the good of others, even when we feel a responsibility to help them. The true mitzvah is to find a way to circumvent compassion fatigue in order to keep compassion alive. My “Eureka!” moment was in coming to see that this is in large part the obligation that the Exodus from Egyptian bondage lays upon us.


About the author:

Rabbi Fred Morgan is the movement rabbi of the Union for Progressive Judaism (UPJ) serving Australia, New Zealand and Asia. He has lived in America, England and Australia and spent extended periods in India, Hungary and Israel. For several years he was a lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Bristol in the U.K., specialising in the religions of India, before entering Leo Baeck College in London to study for the rabbinate.

Ordained as rabbi in 1984, Rabbi Morgan served North West Surrey Synagogue in England for 13 years before taking up the position as Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in Melbourne. He has also held a number of other positions in the Jewish and wider communities, including Hon Associate Rabbi of Sim Shalom Congregation in Budapest, Hon President of the Council of Christians and Jews (Victoria), and Hon Fellow in the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy, Australian Catholic University.

His main rabbinic interests are the ways of Midrash, Jewish thought through the ages, social justice and interfaith dialogue. He also delights in leading Jewish-themed tours and has introduced groups to Central and Eastern Europe, India, and Spain and Morocco.

After 16 years as Senior Rabbi, Rabbi Morgan took up the position as Emeritus Rabbi in August 2013.

Rabbi Morgan is married to Sue, a pastoral care coordinator, and they have three children and one grandchild.


Note: The above formerly appeared as #100 from our Torah from Around the World series.