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Compassion: One of the Five Pillars of Rabbinic Judaism
by Jim Myers

RACHAMANUT means compassion, the feeling of sharing another creature's suffering, together with the wish to help.  It is the norm governing the relationship between men and also regulating their behavior toward animals.

RACHAMANUT is one of the great principles of Judaism and a central part of Jesus' teachings.

RACHAMANUT is also translated as 'pity or mercy,' as well as 'compassion.' RACHAMANUT can also be thought of as a form of prayer.  The best kind of RACHAMANUT is shown when we don't seek credit for our actions.  Here is a story that will help you better understand this principle.

Rabbi Israel Salanter was about to eat a meal.  His students watched as he washed his hands.  They were surprised to see how little water he took from the full pail.  They remembered how important keeping clean was to Hillel and Rabbi Akiba.  So they asked him, "Rabbi, why are you using so little water?  The pail is full.  And if we need more water, the servant will bring another pail!"

The rabbi answered, "That servant has to fetch water from a distant well and carry the heavy pails all the way back to the house.  I know it is a Mitzvah (Commandment) to keep clean.  But my feelings of RACHAMANUT tell me it is not right to carry out a Mitzvah by making other people suffer."

This principle extends beyond one's fellow man to include the animals.  For example, if your friend is walking in the street with his ox and it topples over because its burden was too heavy. 

According to the principle of RACHAMANUT you are to run quickly, help the ox up, and lighten its load.  If one knows that the average ox can only carry half the load that was placed on this ox, he must help carry the other half of the load.  We are not to put one ounce more on this ox's back.  To do so would be a violation of RACHAMANUT (pity, mercy, or compassion).  The Torah teaches that we must be merciful to man, woman, child, and animal. 

A Midrash tells us that when Moses saw the Egyptian taskmaster strike a Jew he said, "Wicked man, why do you strike your neighbor?"  Notice that the first words that came out of his mouth were "wicked man."  How did Moses know that the Egyptian taskmaster was a wicked man?  He knew it because the man lifted up his hand toward his fellow man.  The principle of RACHAMANUT doesn't allow it. 

Suppose a father slapped his child across his fanny.  One of the first things he would probably say is, "It hurt me more than it hurt you."  Do you want to know the truth?  It didn't hurt the father; but the child more.

Why did he do it in the first place?  There could be many reasons, but one of the most common is that he didn't stop to consider what he was about to do.  There are a thousand ways to punish a child without taking a swing at him.  However, prior to any punishment the parent is obligated to teach the child.  The objective is to help the child not repeat the mistake by teaching God's will in this situation.  Pain will not solve any problem, as a matter of fact, it will probably make it worse! 

A rabbi told me a story one time that applies here.  He said that he never slapped his children or grandchildren.  He thought it was very unfortunate that people slapped their children out of anger, frustration, or misguided principles.  His story follows: 

I will tell you, in all honesty, that I have very good children.  So my wife would say to one of my children, "Do me a favor please.  The garbage is full in the kitchen, would you please take it out?"

"Oh sure mother, just a moment, after this inning," one of the children would answer.

"Please, I want you to take the garbage out now," she would say.

"I'll be right there mother, as soon as there is a commercial. I'll be there, I promise, don't worry, Mother, I will take it out.  Just give me a chance."

She wouldn't say a word after that.  All I would say to her is,  "Honey, don't worry about it, I'll take it out."

Then I would start to get up from my chair.  Once I got up from my chair "all hell would break loose."  Every child is running to take the garbage out.

Some would call that respect, but I don't.  I think it's the concept of RACHAMANUT being demonstrated by my children.  My getting up was the spark that suddenly kindled the flame in their system which is full of compassion.

Many people say that Jews are a very prejudiced people and don't give Jewish women their rights.  No one in the writings of Judaism portrays the essence of compassion more than a Jewish mother.  The greatest honor in the Talmudic writings is given to a woman when they call a Jewish mother "the mistress of compassion."  It is one of the most magnificent concepts of Judaism. 

RACHAMANUT must also be demonstrated between countries.  This is why a Jew can stand up and be angry when the army of Israel goes into Lebanon.  It is why a Jew can argue and say: "But the Palestinians are people too, so throw stones, shoot water on them, but don't shoot bullets.  They don't deserve bullets."  You still have to show RACHAMANUT. 

The level of morality given to the Jewish people is higher than the level that was presented to other people because they were given the Torah.  Because of his law and being chosen by God, the Jew has to be better. Is this fair?  No, it is terribly unfair.

The world has two standards -- one for the world and one for the Jewish people.  That's just the way it is and it has never changed.  My rabbi friend said, "It's terrible, but we are stuck with it, because we are `chosen people' and were given the Torah.  Since we have the Torah we have to live by it.  And since the Jew, and not the Gentile, is commanded to perfect himself, to be more godly, to be holy, then he has to live by a dual standard.  Again is this fair, oh no, and we have turned to God so many times and said to Him, don't do me any favor, God.  Don't choose me. Don't punish me. Take back the choosing.  Let me be like all the other people.  Why should I suffer by this dual standard?  Don't give me Israel, let me live in West Palm Beach."

He continued, "But we were chosen.  Like nooses around our necks we have to live to perfection, we have to strive.  For those who want to become Jewish it is very difficult and yet the easiest thing in the world.  It is the most moral, the most righteous, the most compassionate, most just concept of law ever possessed by man.

"For 3,400 years the Torah has been tried and tested on the fires of criticism.  People have questioned and criticized everything there is about Judaism.  But they have never succeeded in destroying it because it is still here.  It is still the highest moral lesson and standard by which man can live.  Unfortunately, in today's world, too many Jews don't live by it.  Those who do are saintly in the sight of God."

Suppose you haven't been very good in the past but now you want to become a good Jew or Christian.  What do you do?  First you must study and learn what God's will is and what you are supposed to do.  As you do, you learn to take one step at a time.  Do one little deed at a time.  You will see that once you perform the first deed, the second is easier than the first and the third is easier than the second.  Before you realize it, people will say: "Now, that's a righteous person."  You will probably say, "Me righteous? I am far from it." 

Do you know who prays the hardest for forgiveness on the Day of Atonement? the most righteous.  Those who are less righteous say: "I didn't do anything."  The very pious are the ones turning to God and crying: "I've done wrong, God, please forgive me."  We begin to see the weaknesses about which man is engulfed as we perfect ourselves and become holier. 

Why should a Christian be interested in these principles?

  • First, Jesus was a Jew.

  • Second, he was a rabbi.

  • Third, his movement was a Jewish movement and wasn't called 'Christianity' by its members.

  • Fourth, for Gentiles to become part of his movement they first had to become semi-proselytes to Judaism.

  • Fifth, the only way to understand the teachings of Jesus, or any of his disciples, is to reconnect the Jewish meanings to their teachings.

  • Sixth, Christ was not Jesus' last name.  It was a title that should be translated as 'Messiah' and understood from the Jewish perspective, not from Roman Catholic theology.

  • Seventh, the Roman Emperor Constantine made it illegal for 'Roman Christians' to have anything to do with the Jews or their practices.  The result of this decision was to sever Jesus' movement from the religion and beliefs of its founder.

Today Christianity is not a single religion but consists of a large number of different religions that just happen to all use the same name. Catholics are called Christians but their belief is that Protestants, who are also called Christians, are not saved.  Even within Protestantism, some Protestants teach that unless other Protestants are baptized according to their specific baptismal formula they are not 'saved.'

For some reason it seems that a vast majority of Christian theologians and leaders simply want to ignore this dangerous situation. 

What has resulted from looking the other way and hoping that things will get better?  'Christians' continue to divide and attack each other as they create one new sectarian movement after another.  Each new group identifies itself asChristian, even though in many cases it absolutely contradicts and conflicts with its mother group.

This situation is not hopeless and there is a solution to it.  Christians must return to the Jewish roots of their faith.  They must clearly understand the Jewish teachings of Jesus and his disciples.  The ancient teachings must become the standard by which every modern Christian organization tests the accuracy of its doctrines.  The teachings of Jesus are the foundation upon which every Christian organization bases its message of conversion and salvation.  Shouldn't every Christian strive to make sure his or her beliefs are in agreement with Jesus' ?

What kind of an impact would the 1,600,000,000+ Christians and Jews have on our world if they yoked themselves together and agreed to all push in the same direction?  What kind of impact would they have on the immoral, unethical, and drug-infested societies that dominate our world? 

Where does this journey begin?  It begins in your house with you.  The information web sites is not new.  It has been around for many years, in most cases.  People seem to be waiting for their church or synagogue to get hold of this information and make some changes.  This will probably not happen until people like you make it happen. 

What is the first step to take?  Make a decision to follow this principle:

My Beliefs Must Be Large Enough To Include All The Facts, Open Enough To Be Tested, Flexible Enough To Change.

After making this decision, begin to look for the facts.  It is a fact that Jesus was a Jew, not a Catholic or Protestant.  It is a fact that he was a rabbi.  It is a fact that we must understand the culture of a person if we are to accurately understand his message.  It is a fact that the culture of Jesus was Jewish. 

Shouldn't it be the goal of every Christian to be like Jesus?  When should you start this journey?

As we acquire an understanding of the five principles of Rabbinic Judaism we will understand much more clearly what the Bible is all about.  These principles are:

  1. HESED (kindness)

  2. Tzdakah (righteousness or charity)

  3. Kaddasah (holiness)

  4. Din (justice)

  5. Rachmonute (mercy or compassion)

"If not now...when?"


Encyclopedia Judaica (Keeter Publishing House, Jerusalem).

Basic Judaism For Young People (Behrman House Publishers).

Personal notes of R. Zucker lectures.

[Taken from DISCOVERING THE BIBLE - Volume 3, 1991, Number 5]

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Copyright 1999 [Jim Myers].
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All rights reserved. Revised: 07/16/03