At our Shabbat gatherings at synagogue, we read from the Torah about the adventures of our ancestors in the wilderness, 3500 years ago. We read and retell these stories so often, they shape our own life stories.
In this past Shabbat’s story, Moses says to God. “You told me you would help me lead these people through the wilderness. I need to know who is on my team. Show me who you really are.”
God says, “You cannot see my presence. But I will transfer my goodness into your presence, and you will see my after-effects.”
God comes into Moses’ presence and Moses calls out: “God, God, compassionate, gracious, patient, full of kindness and truth, shaping loving acts that last a thousand generations, forgiving mistakes and misdeeds – even while recognizing these acts can affect one’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren” (Ex. 33-34).
One of the morals of this story: A spiritually aware human being is realistic about how badly we humans can harm our fellow creatures – and still reaches out with compassion, grace, kindness and truth, because the effects of love are greater than the effects of sin.
Love sits at the very center of our Torah. Literally! The middle sentence, around which all our stories and teachings circle, is “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). Who is our neighbor? Our spouse, children, extended family, and community. The foreigner, the stranger, the person in need. They may seem “Other” to us, but they are not. Because each of us, at some time, is displaced, lost, or needy. Ideally, an intentional community of love supports us. Ideally.
Our ancestral stories also recognize the reality: compassion, kindness, love and peace are messy. We cannot always control the human heart. We take risks without understanding the consequences. When things go wrong, that’s where the hard work begins.
King Saul has compassion upon an enemy leader and his animals in war. His advisors condemn him; he loses his kingdom. But in his heart of hearts he prefers love to power.
The wealthy newcomer Abraham and the indigenous chief Avimelekh make a treaty. But greedy members of their clans violate the treaty. The two leaders take responsibility, coming together for reconciliation, swearing an oath of everlasting kindness.
Parents Isaac and Rebecca love their twin children. But each parent has a favorite, leading to sibling rivalry so intense that the brothers have 20 years of no contact before they can reconcile. And they do reconcile with a hug, a kiss, many tears, and an exchange of gifts.
The general Joshua who has been instructed to wage total war is so eager to make peace, that he doesn’t realize he is negotiating with tricksters. When he finds out, he still insists on honouring the agreement.
The erotic lovers in the Song of Songs make passionate love, become estranged, and later re-unite.
Our stories teach that, like our ancestors, all of us are imperfect human beings. We aim for love, thinking it will be simple. But it never is, and that’s when the real challenge begins. Can we reach through our own confusion, to love our neighbors as ourselves? Can we let the presence of God speak through us with compassion, grace, patience, kindness and truth?
We pray for this every day.
Prepared for a conference on “Love and Compassion,” celebrating the launch of the 31st edition of the Multifaith Calendar by the Multifaith Action Society in Vancouver. There, I was privileged to learn from colleagues of Bahai, Indigenous, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Scientology, Sikh, and Zoroastrian traditions.