Divine Compassion

The_Peaceable_Kingdom_Edward_HicksActs of violence fill this week’s news. All have complex political, social and psychological causes. Amidst the complexity, can an individual who yearns for nonviolence make a difference?

Kabbalistic teacher Rabbi Moses Cordovero (1522-1570) believed that individuals can make a profound difference, simply through their personal ethical and spiritual practice.

Cordovero’s book Tomer Devorah (The Palm Tree of Deborah) was named in honour of the Biblical judge and prophetess Deborah who kept the peace for forty years. In it, Cordovero offered a thirteen-point program for living with compassion in a flawed world. He hoped that every person — no matter how cynical or scarred — might find one point worth practicing. Through that practice, they might influence a situation close to them, and prevent a chain of events leading to violence.

Cordovero began with a Biblical prooftext presenting God’s thirteen attributes of compassion. Although he personally did not hold an anthropomorphic view of God, he did use that view as a teaching tool. He spoke of Divine emotions in human terms, so he could explain how human emotion might become elevated.

Who is God like You, who pardons iniquity and forgives the transgression of the remnant of God’s heritage? God does not maintain anger forever, for God delights in kindness. God will again show us compassion, God will vanquish our iniquities, and You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea. Show faithfulness to Jacob, kindness to Abraham, which you have sworn to our fathers from days of old. (Micah 7:18-20)

Who is God like you? God has power to do violence, even to end life, in response to an insult. But God is tolerant beyond human imagination and does not lash out. We should bear insults in the same way.

Who pardons iniquity. God sustains the world, including the evil creatures within it, waiting patiently for them to repent. We should also bear the burden of sin and tolerate sinners; we should truly believe that others will repent.

And forgives…transgression. God directly washes away sin, without making use of messengers to do the job. We too should not shirk the duty of rectifying the sins of others. We should teach what is right through word and example.

Of the remnant of God’s heritage. Because of God’s close connection with humanity, God is upset when we sin. We need to recognize that all souls are connected. We should always desire the well being of others — even if they have sinned.

God does not stay angry forever. Although evil angers God, God does not stay angry forever even when evil persists. Likewise, we should certainly rebuke our friends and our children when they do wrong, but we should not hold on to our anger for too long.

For God delights in kindness. God shows mercy to people when they are kind to one another, even if they have sinned in other ways. We too should express kindness by recognizing the good in others. We should credit each person for their acts of kindness to others.

God will again show compassion. God loves people even more after they repent of sin. However, when we human beings are hurt by someone we love, we find it hard to love that person as fully as before. Nonetheless, when such a person reaches out, we should accept gestures of reconciliation.  

God will vanquish our iniquities. God allows good deeds to ascend to heaven and join with the heavenly presence, but does not allow transgressions to ascend. Rather than focus on the transgressions of other people, we should emphasize each person’s good qualities.

And You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea. After God punishes evildoers, he draws them close again. Even if a person’s own sins have led to their problems, we should reach out to help them when they suffer.

Show faithfulness to Jacob. The name Jacob refers to the Biblical figure before his spiritual transformation, and thus represents an individual of only average spiritual stature. God is faithful to those of only average spiritual stature and actively helps perfect them. Even if our friends are far from perfect, we should be faithful to our friends.

Kindness to Abraham. Some individuals, like Abraham, pursue kindness beyond the letter of the moral law. God responds to those spiritually elevated human beings by kindly bending the rules of justice in their favour. We should show kindness beyond the requirements of law.

Which You have sworn to our fathers. God shows compassion to the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob even if they do not merit it. We should show compassion to those who do not merit it.

From days of old. When people are unworthy, God recalls God’s love for them. We should remind ourselves that all people were innocent at some point in their lives. Thus, all people are worthy of our kindness.

Which attribute will you choose to cultivate? extend in new directions? make habitual? draw on in times of crisis? invoke as you bring more peace to the world?

Photo credit: Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom, Wikimedia Commons

  1. Thank you for making references in what is believed to be God’s desires. I think my knowing of these behaviors was instilled not directly from the Torah, but from family who knew the Torah and lived it. I know that somehow I am guided by a connection with the Creator and by the ethics I was taught and do my best to be an example of kindness.

  2. Thank you for reminding me of the “Golden Rules” of behavior that my mother raised me with–lately they have been “tested” (Oy!).

  3. I am working my way through the Book of Jeremiah. He perceived God’s inner pathos for His people quite deeply. He prophesizes repeatedly that God’s patience and compassion are wearing thin due to the community’s idolatrous behavior. God decrees extreme calamity and exile for Judah, the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and over time, the surrounding nations. There was to be a period of purification and return, but it proved to be painful and full of terror! Notwithstanding Cordovero’s teaching on compassion which is a message worth spreading near and far, humanity also needs to wake up to Jeremiah’s message and voice that channels The Divine’s call for obedience. Our failure to hear that pleading call and to respond forcefully for justice (a term that leads to a variety of interpretations depending on the identity of the seeker and judge) may cause the people of many nations in our own time to experience a similar terror (God forbid!) where deep purification is decreed with another “corrective” returning back to “the still small voice.”

  4. If I could change one only one of these to people in my past it would be to accept gestures of reconciliation. I was raised by a mother who did not know how to do this and spent many years nurturing the skill in my own life. Thank you for the reminder of its importance. It is something I don’t want to forget.

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