The Natural Impulse for Compassion

Mi-ma’a-makim K’ratikha Adonai — from the depths I called out to You God

Min HaMetzar karati Yah — from the difficult and narrow place I called out to You

These phrases, borrowed from the psalms are often used in peak emotional moments. We chant them as part of the liturgy on Rosh Hashanah. We recited the first line at the beginning of the morning service and recited the second when we sounded the shofar.

Without a doubt, one of the deepest, most narrow places in my life occurred two years ago while Nadav underwent his open heart surgery.

I concede, he had the worst of it. But Shayna and I suffered as well.

For me, the words we recite at the end of Shabbat took on a new and deeper meaning:

טו יִקְרָאֵנִי, וְאֶעֱנֵהוּ–עִמּוֹ-אָנֹכִי בְצָרָה; אֲחַלְּצֵהוּ, וַאֲכַבְּדֵהוּ.

As I looked at my son, only 8 days old, I thought to myself: [You] can call upon me and I will answer; I will be with [you] in [your] troubles, and I will rescue [you], and I will restore [you].

Rescuing Nadav was not easy.

Shayna and I took turns sleeping in the ICU and the Cardiac Care Unit.

The most advanced, pristine, compassion-filled rooms I have ever entered.

A place where the overhead lights and the computer monitors are never fully dim.

A place where the cacophony of beeps and hisses from machines never comes to a stop.

A place where at any moment, a parent or loved one must be ready to rise from their sleep, in order to hear what doctors or nurses are discussing.

During that week at Boston Children’s Hospital,

We ate all our meals quickly.

We didn’t shower as often as we would have liked.

It was not the bliss that is supposed to accompany the birth of a new child.

It was by far the saddest, darkest, most confusing, and most unfair time of my life.

Poo, Poo, Poo. Today Nadavi is almost two years old, doesn’t stop moving and thinks he is fluent in English, Spanish, and Hebrew. God willing, he will become a big brother towards the end of January.

Min HaMetzar karati Yah — from the difficult and narrow place I called out to You

Mi-ma’a-makim K’ratikha Adonai — from the the depths I called out to You.

And the answer to all that despair, all that confusion, all that darkness, came from You.

Shayna and I received more than 600 emails wanting to know how people could be helpful, offering a shoulder on which to cry, and the majority simply letting us know that people were thinking about us.

All those letters were like points of light, beacons of hope, in a very dark and chaotic landscape.

Those 600+ letters have been formatted, placed in chronological order, and now make up this beautiful book that is in our living room. It is called Letters for Nadav. From time to time, I read the text, and like now, get a little emotional.

Not because I feel the despair I felt in the ICU, although I carry that feeling with me. Not because I remember the confusion and sense of bewilderment, although I still don’t understand everything that transpired during those two weeks. And, not because I imagine what could have been, because that is simply too scary.

I get emotional because I think about how lucky we were, how lucky we are, to be part of a community like Temple Emunah.

When we returned home after the surgery, the community’s care continued as we received meals for nearly two months.

People ordered food from kosher and vegetarian restaurants. Some put extra chicken or noodles in their family dinner and then brought it to our home. One person even brought, I kid you not, an entire turkey. A beautiful hand carved turkey, neck and all!

Hundreds of people, who interrupted their regularly scheduled lives, to take on some of my family’s pain.

In English, we might refer to these interruptions as acts of kindness, examples of generosity, or maybe even good will.

In Hebrew, we might call it rahmanut — an act of compassion. Coming from the word rehem, which means womb. These actions are the actions that are emblematic of the love between a parent and a child.

Or, we might call it a mitzvah — simply a good deed, something nice someone does for someone else.

Or, we might call it an act of Hesed — a complicated word to translate, but it is a combination of kindness and undeserving, totally consuming, love.

Whatever we call it, I can’t adequately explain why we do it.

What causes us to get involved in the suffering of someone else?

What moves us to rise from the place of our comfort, and enter the place of someone else’s sadness.

Why open that door, which lets sadness, tragedy, and pain into our lives?

For some, the countless biblical mandates, serves as the catalyst for that action.

Deuteronomy 16:20: “צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף” Justice, Justice you shall pursue.”

Actively work to reduce the suffering and misfortune of others.

Exodus 23:9: “ט וְגֵר, לֹא תִלְחָץ; וְאַתֶּם, יְדַעְתֶּם אֶת-נֶפֶשׁ הַגֵּר–כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. You shall not oppress the other, for you know what it is to be an outsider.”

You have been in their shoes, you know how challenging it can be. Relieve that pain.

Deuteronomy 15:11: יא כִּי לֹא-יֶחְדַּל אֶבְיוֹן, מִקֶּרֶב הָאָרֶץ; עַל-כֵּן אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ, לֵאמֹר, פָּתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת-יָדְךָ לְאָחִיךָ לַעֲנִיֶּךָ וּלְאֶבְיֹנְךָ, בְּאַרְצֶךָ. For there will never cease to be the needy in the land. You shall surely open your hand you the poor and your needy neighbor. Do not ignore the ubiquitous suffering of your neighbor.

But as my mother once taught me, “You don’t need a commandment to know that you have to do the right thing…”

So again, why do we get involved in other people’s suffering, in other people’s tsuris?

The act of getting involved, in some ways, is counter to how we think people make most of their decisions.

According to one theory, people are programmed to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. In other words, we go through life trying to maximize the moments of joy while avoiding the unpleasantness of life. And yet, being in the presence of someone else’s suffering is not joyful. And yet, many of us are pulled to be there with our friends, in that pain.

Alternatively, some hold that before engaging in an act, we perform a cost-benefit analysis and only do that which, in the long run, is beneficial to us. In other words, compassion is the result of a conscious, careful, calculation. But this approach doesn’t work either. If it held true, we probably wouldn’t eat that extra slice of cake at kiddush. If you know what I mean.

Alternatively, a few years ago, an Israeli philosopher named Khen Lampert, developed a theory known as radical compassion. He states:

“I have noted that compassion, especially in its radical form, manifests itself as an impulse. This manifestation stands in stark opposition to the underlying premises of the Darwinist theories, which regard the survival instinct as determining human behavior, as well to the Freudian logic of the Pleasure Principle, which refutes any supposedly natural tendency on the part of human beings to act against their own interests…”

In other words, the desire to share in someone else’s suffering, being compassionate, which literally means, to suffer together, is a natural impulse. It is a part of who we are. It is what we are hardwired to do.

Study after study has demonstrated that we are not born immune to the suffering of others but rather, want to help.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Germany have found that infants and chimpanzees spontaneously engage in helpful behavior and will even overcome obstacles to do so, without assuming they will receive a reward.

Other studies have shown that children as little as two years old experience more joy when giving something than when receiving. What is more, their joy was not lessened, even if the giving came at a personal cost.

Other studies show that this instinct to help others actually helps us. We are, biochemically, wired to derive benefit from helping others.

Research in positive psychology suggests that connecting with others in a meaningful way helps us enjoy better physical health and speeds up recovery from disease; it may even lengthen our lifespan.

What we have in us are two competing values.

On the one hand, our natural, impulsive sense of wanting to help others, known in rabbinic literature as our Yetzer HaTov.

And on the other, the calculating, risk averse, somewhat cynical, self interested part, called the Yetzer HaRa.

Both are necessary to keep our lives balanced.

Both have their strengths and challenges

Both are in constant battle.

This tension is most highly demonstrated in something known as the Public Goods Game.

Basically, four people are seated at a table and are given the same amount of money. Individually, they can choose to pool their money in the hopes of generating a profit or choose to keep what they have. The catch is, that any money in the pool is doubled and then redistributed to the group equally. So if everyone originally has 10 dollars and then donates the full amount to the pot, the 40 collected dollars gets doubled to 80, and everyone walks away with 20. 10 more than they would have had originally. However, if everyone doesn’t donate, than those who do, end up losing money.

According to the University of California, Berkeley Study:

Running the Public Goods Game with more than 1,000 people, both online and in laboratory settings, the researchers showed that cooperative behaviors happen faster. “Although the cold logic of self-interest is seductive, our first impulse is to cooperate,” they concluded.

In a first analysis, data showed that people who took less than ten seconds to decide how much to give gave approximately fifteen percent more to the common pool than people who took longer than ten seconds.

In a second study, the experimenters instructed half of the people to decide how much to contribute in less than ten seconds, and half to think about their decision for at least ten seconds, and then decide how much to give. Again, those who gave quickly, contributed more to the communal pool.

The more we think about doing something nice for someone, the more likely we are to not follow through.

I will say it again: the more we think about doing something nice for someone, the more likely we are to not follow through.

Think about it: when we see a homeless person, how many of us initially feel bad and want to help. Only to then rationalize not giving. He might buy alcohol. He might purchase drugs. I already support the poor through another organization.

Just how powerful is the impulse to want to help? I am sure many of you have heard of the incident about a high speed train a few weeks ago. On a train heading to Paris, five passengers, tackled and disarmed a suspected Islamist militant who packed two guns, a knife, and nine clips of ammunition into his rucksack. The men, regular passengers, bravely defended all the passengers on the train and were awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government. When asked, to describe the situation, one man said: I was in the middle of a deep sleep, and all of a sudden, I felt my friend hit me on the shoulder and say, “Go.” So, I went. Another individual said, “We just kind of acted. There wasn’t much thinking going on. At least on my end.”

If indeed, we are hardwired to be compassionate, then we must continue to cultivate and strengthen that muscle when the chance arrives, whenever it arrives.

Here at Temple Emunah, there are dozens, if not hundreds of opportunities to engage in acts of compassion and care.

Did you know, that right here in this room, are members of our community who regularly make meals for other members? Regularly, accompany others to doctors visits or to the grocery store? Call members of the community just to say hello? And while we have many people who volunteer, we need more help.

The Hineni Connecting Team led by Linda Skolnik is always looking for volunteers looking to make deeper connections with other members in the community.

The larger Hineini Committee, led by Jane Aronson, is always looking for individuals to take members of our community to medical appointments or run errands.

The Hineieni Committee also provides meals to individuals who are temporarily unable to cook for themselves.

And these acts of compassion are not just difficult moments. Outside of the committee structure, Temple Emunah has set the bar high for taking care of growing families. When a new child enters the community, our shul has for the past two years, sent out a link with the birth announcement so other members can provide meals for the growing family.

Providing someone with a meal in a time of stress is among the easiest and most powerful way to help and connect with others.

Finally, attending Shiva minyanim. What greater act of compassion, then being there for someone in their moment of grief.

Just last week, I went to a shiva minyan, and I saw someone who I hadn’t expected I would see. And so I asked, “Do you know the family well?” To which he responded, “Not really. But I always see the announcements and for some reason or another I usually can’t make it. But I know I should. This is important. So I found a way to make it work.”

I found a way to make it work.

The reality is that we are all busy. We all have prior commitments that don’t really allow for someone else’s problems to interfere.

However, saying, “it is not a good time” is not a valid excuse. Because while the timing might not be right for you – it is perfect for the person who is in need.

Whether done on impulse or through careful calculation, the end result is always the same.

Being in the presence of others during their times of difficulty is healing and beneficial. To everyone involved.

It is good for you, it is good for them.

As we begin 5776, let us resolve to respond to the calls of our friends and family.

Let us strengthen and unleash the full potential of our capacity to be compassionate.

Let us sign up for meals, shiva minyanim, and get involved with the work the Hineini committee when they arise.

Let us resolve to follow our inclination and not to fight it.

Two years ago, I felt the love and care of this community when I needed it most. You helped bring me from darkness to light. You enabled me to overcome that which alone I would not have been able to endure.

Mi-ma’a-makim K’ratikha Adonai — from the depths I called out to You God

Min HaMetzar karati Yah — from the difficult and narrow place I called out to You

Let us all answer the call in the New Year.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Mauricio Fel is proud to serve as the Rabbi of Temple Emunah. Originally from Miami, Florida, Rabbi Fel is fluent in Spanish, loves woodworking, and hiking.