William Hamilton

Your Compass Can Do Wonders for Your Compassion

A story from the Talmud. Reports came of a devastating shipwreck. Rabbi Akiba had been on board. R. Gamliel began to grieve. A short time later, Akiba appeared ashore, approached Gamliel, and sat down to join him in study. Elated and relieved, Gamliel asked who had “raised him” from the water. Akiva calmly responded, “A plank from the boat came to me, and I bent my head before each and every wave that came toward me” (Yevamot 121a).

Would that we could remain so calm. Would that we could stay afloat with such agility. Still, there is something compelling and timely for us in Akiba’s tale. The word used for the plank from the boat is daf. It’s also the word for a page of Talmud. The point? When swallowed by ominous forces, take hold of parcels of Torah to weather each and every threatening wave. 

So let’s consider one. The word that grabs my attention this year is gather (asaf). It recurs often in the second half of this week’s portion of Torah. Most curiously, although it restores and helps regroup (Num. 11:16, 12:14) it also stokes and upends (11:4). Perhaps the same act, in this case gathering, can harm when administered in bad-faith or heal when applied with good-faith.  

We live in times when those whose hearts gather grievances like bees gather honey aren’t hard to notice. Hardly an hour goes by when we don’t face menacing gatherings bent on mortal peril and moral inversion. 

Yet gathering strength from the settings where your ancestors have gathered it for millenia, is precisely what can help you ventilate suffocating stress. Parcels of Torah can pour fresh firmness into the fortitude of your purpose. Even more, they remind you how you can be your best you. 

May such ingathering bring you to a new appreciation for how a compass can do wonders for your compassion. 

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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