Compassion in Judaism

There’s a story in the Jewish Talmud of the angels in heaven rejoicing after the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea and the Egyptian army was drowning. They wanted to sing their song of praise and rejoicing, but God instead commands them to be quiet.

“Be silent”, he tells them. “The work of my hands, my children, are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing a song?” (Megillah, 10b)

The Hebrew scriptures contain many references to the compassionate nature of God – a nature which, in time, is realised as being greater than any other of God’s attributes.  ‘In Jewish teaching compassion is among the highest of virtues, as its opposite, cruelty, is among the worst of vices. The prophet Jeremiah speaks of the people from the north country who ‘lay hold on bow and spear, they are cruel, and have no compassion’ (Jeremiah 6:21). The people of Amalek, in particular, are singled out in the Jewish tradition as perpetrators of wanton cruelty and an uncompassionate Jew is called an Amalekite. Compassion is to be extended to animals as well as to humans. It is strictly forbidden to cause unnecessary pain to animals. There is a Talmudic rule (Gittin 62a), still followed by pious Jews, that before sitting down to a meal one must first see that the domestic animals are fed. The Midrash remarks that Moses proved his fitness to be the shepherd of Israel by the tender care with which he treated the sheep when he tended the flock of his father-in-law.’  *

The way in which Israel begins to realise God’s compassion towards humanity can be seen in the story of Abraham pleading with God to spare the inhabitants of Sodom (Genesis 18:16-33).  After God threatened to destroy them because of their lack of hospitality to strangers Abraham successfully pleads with him to spare them.  The story of Abraham’s ‘binding’ of Isaac (Genesis 22: 1-19) also shows how Judaism began to realise that, unlike other middle-eastern religions of the time, ‘The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.’ (Ps. 145:8 & 103:8).  And God’s compassion is frequently attested to by the Psalms.

The Hebrew and Greek words translated “compassion” in the Bible means “to have mercy, to feel sympathy and to have pity.”  According to the Hebrew scriptures God is “a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Ps. 86:15)  Like all of God’s attributes, His compassion is infinite and eternal.  It never fail; it is new every morning (Lamentations 3: 22-23).

But it is clear that having a compassionate heart was not easy, and so the psalmist would pray: ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.’ (51:10)  Even when Israel becomes unfaithful in her relationship with God, the Prophet Hosea reflects on the way that whilst God was angry with them, nonetheless ‘My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.’ (11:8)  

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*  ‘Compassion and Tzedakah – My Jewish Learning’: Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacob