Compassion: The World Is Wide Enough – Rabbi Joshua Caruso Rosh Hashanah 2016

This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is adapted from the Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon shared by Rabbi Joshua Caruso in the Contemporary service at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple on October 2, 2016. We encourage you to post comments and questions below, and to share the link to this post by email, and on Facebook, Twitter and social media so as to engender conversation on the themes shared in this teaching.

The musical, “Hamilton”, has become a national phenomenon[1]. And perhaps you have had better luck getting a ticket!

It’s appeal, separate from the amazing music and talent of its cast and creator, is the show’s compassion for the people behind the politics of that time. We feel it deep within when George Washington resigns from his presidency singing, “History Has Its Eyes on You”, a song about legacy – and what we leave after our work is done. We hear about Aaron Burr’s struggles with ambition. We learn about Anjelica Schuyler’s striving to have her voice heard as a woman. And we feel both elation and sadness when Hamilton boasts about his talents and his certain shortcomings. The show is a portrait of the human condition. It’s almost biblical in scope, and the high stakes impact generations to come. Our actions and our words always do.

Hamilton the Musical is both a biography of Alexander Hamilton’s life and the story of the creation of this nation. It also profiles the competition between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. The two were rivals for their entire careers. Hamilton worked the brand new political system to his own advantage, leaving Burr with less and less power and influence. Finally, and tragically, the two squared off in a gun duel that left Hamilton mortally wounded. In the wake of Hamilton’s death, Burr regretfully reflects on his actions in a song titled, “The World Was Wide Enough”. He sings: Now I’m the villain in your history I was too young and blind to see… I should’ve known I should’ve known The world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me The world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me

The story of Hamilton and Burr reminds us that even those who have achieved greatness often exhibit fundamental flaws. Yet, on a very human level, we identify with these characters as people. We feel for them due to our shared human connection.

We also identify with Hamilton and Burr’s fixation on who and what is “right.” For Aaron Burr, his fixation on being right—on winning or, even more so, on revenge—ended up being his undoing. If only he could have seen before he pulled the trigger that “the world was wide enough” for both him and others who did not think like him.

This, sadly, has become a fixation in our current political climate as well. People on both sides of the political spectrum are convinced they have the only right opinion on the economy, the only right view on immigration, the only right take on race relations. Worse, however, than each side’s conviction that they have the monopoly on what is right, is the complete disregard that is shown for those with whom they disagree. Believing that we are right does not give us license to replace compassion with contempt.

We humans tend towards the binary – one is either right, or wrong – with apparently little ability to see nuance, possibilities, compromise. As a result, we regard a dissenting opinion with disdain and suspicion. And we may impose our own prejudice.

If you vocally support law enforcement, you MUST be a racist. If you support Black Lives Matter, you MUST be anti-law enforcement.

 If you’re pro-Israel, you’re DEFINITLEY anti-Palestinian, and if you support a two-state solution, you are FOR SURE anti-Zionist.

Pro-gun safety? Anti-2nd amendment!

Pro-life? Crazy religious extremist.

I could keep going. The polarization has become more and more extreme. What has happened to meeting in the middle, even if only in conversation, if not in legislation? Am I being naïve? I hope not!

Tonight, on the eve of a New Year, we are charged to think about what kind of people we want to be. If history really has its eyes on us, then what will be our legacy? Will our values and beliefs strengthen us, or will we use them to denigrate others? Will we practice compassion or contempt for our fellow human beings?

A recent TED Talk about Compassion[2] featured Sally Kohn[3], a well-known liberal cable news pundit who is regularly at odds with conservatives. In her work, she seeks to disagree agreeably – and avoids personal attacks. She has reflected on her experiences debating others whose views she opposes, and believes that we are mistaken in focusing only on political correctness. Kohn believes that what we really need to be is “emotionally correct.” Being emotionally correct requires us to see beyond the issue – to view the person behind the views he or she may hold.

She shared how when she met Sean Hannity, a well-known FOX News pundit, she imagined he would be some kind of Neanderthal, for her beliefs differed drastically from his. After getting to know him, she changed her tune. “He spends his free time trying to fix up his staff on blind dates”, she reflected in a news story. “And I know that if I ever had a problem, he would do anything to help.”

To Sally Kohn, it was only through her interaction with the presumed enemy that she was able to find compassion in her heart for the person behind the beliefs.

She goes on:

To me, emotional correctness is about how to preserve political correctness while also scratching a layer deeper and trying to find real compassion and connection with each other. I think we’ve always needed that, but damn do we need it right now…We forget we’re actually all on the same team…The flip side is that you constantly have to renew your faith in humanity. And I guess I see emotional correctness as part of that searching for the good in each other. In spite of sometimes very overwhelming evidence otherwise, that connection is there.”[4]

So what prevents us from being emotionally correct? What precludes us from seeing the person behind the opinion?

There was a recent study at the Princeton Theological Seminary[5] that involved divinity students who were charged to deliver a sermon on The Good Samaritan text from Christian scripture. The study required students to walk from one end of the college campus to another to present their talk. Along the way, researchers stationed a person who pretended to have been mugged, with his head down, and groaning Now, granted, the students were in a hurry, but only 10% of them actually stopped to help the person in need. These same students who were about to preach on what it means to be an up-stander and reach out to others.

Remarkable! How is this possible? I believe it is because compassionate behavior requires more than empathy (a sharing of emotion[6]). It demands that we struggle with another’s hardship. In fact, the Latin origin of the word “compassion” means, “to suffer with”[7]. Yet we can’t suffer with someone until we have stopped long enough to see them[8], listen to them, put our own assumptions about them aside, tried to put ourselves in their shoes.

In reality, we are selective to whom we deploy compassion[9]. We choose based on who is close to us or most like us, and with whom our lives are interdependent. Therefore, if we see someone on TV who is killed by a grenade in Afghanistan we may comment that it is “terrible” and “horrible”, but because our lives do not directly intersect with them, we are unable to “suffer with” them. There is nothing in our self-interest that will move us to feel a greater sense of their struggle.

It’s admittedly hard to have compassion for people we cannot see, touch, or speak with face-to-face. We can’t exchange ideas and stories. And this problem has become even more acute because of our fascination with our electronic devices. Social media can be a wonderful tool for positive change. Think about the money that is being funneled to Baton Rouge after the horrible flooding[10], or the funds raised to support research for ALS, as demonstrated through the Ice Bucket Challenge[11].

However, social media can also be an obstacle to compassion in actual relationships. We can hide behind a computer or phone screen without having to acknowledge or understand the reasons for another’s opinions. We don’t have to experience the pain in their eyes as we dismiss the feelings behind their views. Instead of living in our shared humanity, we default to the binary—I’m right and you’re wrong. As a matter of fact, you are SO wrong that I am going to lob a verbal grenade at you and not have to stick around to pick up the pieces.

Aaron Burr recognized his mistake because he had to look Hamilton in the eye and watch him die. He saw the real repercussions of his inability to compromise, his outrageous hubris – and it broke him. Too often, we no longer experience the true repercussions of our lack of compassion.

The God of our forefathers and foremothers had compassion.

Sarah, our biblical ancestor, was bitter over her barrenness. And even though it was her idea for her husband, Abraham, to conceive a child with his maidservant, Hagar, so that the Abrahamic line could be furthered, Sarah was jealous. It was not long after Ishmael’s birth that the mere sight of that boy enraged her. But God saw to it that Sarah got pregnant, and soon gave birth to the long-awaited child, Isaac. Now that her own biological son was in the picture, Sarah mistreated Hagar so terribly (the Hebrew says that she “afflicts” her) that Hagar was eventually forced to leave and to take her child with her. Hagar and Ishmael are discarded, exposed to the heat of the desert.[12]

Sarah’s behavior represents the basest instincts of the human condition: jealousy, resentment, and worst of all…vengefulness. And one thing’s for sure, there is no emotional correctness in Sarah’s behavior. No compassion for Hagar and Ishmael’s plight.

Hagar and Ishmael are starved and dying of thirst in the hot desert sun when God visits upon them. The text says:

God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the cry of the boy where he is. Help the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him a great nation…”[13]

In the text, God models Compassion for us when he “heard the boy crying” (it’s important to first hear the other). He asks, “What troubles you, Hagar” (before we jump to conclusions, we should ask compassionate questions). And he “Heard the cry of the boy where he is” (God inhabits the vulnerable space of the boy’s pain). In these ways, God is wholly compassionate – God “suffers with” by not simply issuing a directive to Hagar, but by walking with her in her pain. And in delivering them from the desert and sending them back to life, God sends a message that even though Sarah and Isaac may be the ones favored by God, Hagar and Ishmael count as human beings. The world is wide enough for them, too.

This is a critical element of these High Holy Days; to have compassion for the other, even when we don’t understand them, agree with them, or see them as part of our familiar circle. Even when they don’t speak our language, share our ideals, or identify with our sensibilities. These holy days require us to dig in and to find our hubris, our tendency towards the binary, and jettison it. We have to figure out how to see the world as “us and us”, rather than “us and them”.

It is not so easy to do this in the extremely tense political climate we are living in right now. Dr. James Doty, the director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education details how one can handle a fraught situation with compassion[14]. I believe it is crucial for us as individuals and as members of society to heed his suggestions:

We can:

  1. Take a moment. Doty explains that the first thing is to get a handle on your own emotions — anger, frustration, or whatever the case may be. “You have to take a step back and control your own emotional response because if you act out of emotional engagement, you are not thoughtful about your approach to the problem. By stepping back and taking a period of time to reflect, you enter a mental state that allows for a more thoughtful, reasonable and discerned response.”
  2. Put yourself in the other’s shoes.  Taking a step back will help give you the ability to empathize with the other person. The ability to get perspective is a valuable one. Studies have shown that it helps you see aspects of the situation you may not have noticedand leads to better results in interactions and negotiations.
  3. Forgive.Empathy, of course, helps you forgive. Whereas carrying a grudge is bad for your heart (blood pressure and heart rate both go up), forgiveness lowers both your blood pressure andthat of the person you’re forgiving. Other studies show that forgiveness makes you happier and more satisfied with life, significantly reducing stress and negative emotions.

Well, that was easy for me to say. Now, HOW do we do this?

Author, philosopher and theologian, Karen Armstrong suggests that compassion is actually at the core of the western religions. Indeed, every faith has its own version of the Golden Rule (“Treat others as you’d want to be treated”). Armstrong says that to practice compassion one must “dethrone (oneself) from the center of the world, and put another there”. That compassion is “deeply embedded” within us, and that we must not confine our compassion only to those with whom we most identify– we must also project it outward. This, she says, is a “project for a lifetime”.[15]

We have our lifetimes to work at it. We have the length of our days to become truly compassionate people. The Hebrew word for Compassion is “Rachamim”. The root of the word alludes to the Hebrew word for womb, “Rachum”[16]. This suggests that our compassion comes from a deep place that is core to us. Deeply embedded within. I believe it IS in all of us.

We MUST value a legacy of compassion more than a legacy of being “right.” We MUST strive for “emotional correctness” in all our interactions, even when we don’t agree with the “other.” We MUST look up from our screens to truly see the people in front of us, and be willing to hear their cry. We MUST have respectful conversations with those outside our comfort zone, mindful of our shared humanity. We MUST see the world as “us and us” instead of as “us and them.” We MUST finally realize that the world is wide enough for all.

A story…

A Rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun.

“Could it be,” asked one of the students, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?”

“No,” answered the rabbi.

Another asked, “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?”

“No,” answered the rabbi.

“Then when is it?” the pupils demanded.

“It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and see that it is your brother or sister. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.”[17]

In this New Year, may we not give in to the darkness of contempt for our fellow human beings, but allow compassion to light our way.
























[12] Genesis 21

[13] Genesis 21:17-18




[17] Source unknown.