Human Compassion

Human Compassion

Some scholars asked why, when we take eggs from a nest, must we send away the mother bird? (Deut. 22:6-7) Some answered (e.g. Maimonides Guide 3, 48) that even though the mother bird cannot reason, she can feel. She has all of the tenderness of a human mother for her young. Thus, to spare her pain, we send her off so she does not see us taking her eggs.

Surely we have seen this with the animals in our own lives and what have seen in the work of naturalists displayed on our TV screens. We have witnessed the solicitude of a mother dog for her pups, the gentleness of a cat as she moves her kittens to a safer place, and the protectiveness of mother bears is a proverb. We have seen pictures of great, maned lions being swatted and chewed upon by their cubs. Parental love and patience, at least in some measure, sits within the hearts of our fellow creatures.

How then are we B’tzellem Ellohim, created in the image of G-D? It can’t be our capacity to love alone.

Is it in our reason? There are those in whom the years has dimmed the strength of their minds, yet would we consider them less than human? A child of a few weeks is thought to be created in the divine image and those with mental handicaps as holy as you or me.

Today, we read of Jacob, Jacob who is waiting for his estranged brother Esau, whose blessing he stole. He sent gifts and messengers. Now he learns that Esau is approaching with some four hundred men, certainly armed and trained in war. The text says of Jacob, “he was greatly frightened and was distressed.” (Gen. 32:8)

Rabbi Judah bar Ilai said: Are not fear and distress the same thing? The meaning, however, is that he was afraid he might be killed and he was distressed that he might kill. For he thought, “If he defeats me, will he not kill me? While if I win over him, will I not kill him? (Genesis Rabbah, Chapter 76, section 2)

Thus we see Jacob know that he might be killed if it came to a fight and being afraid. So it is with any animal fighting to save itself. The dumb creature may not be able to imagine its own death or have any conceptual ability, but it knows fear, fear for itself.

Here is the crux of the matter, Rabbi Judah teaches also that Jacob feared he would kill Esau. This is not a fear for himself, for his mortality, or that he might be hurt. Jacob fears hurting another. Besides being a bit of evidence in the moral development of Jacob as he aged, it is a clear marker of difference between animals and humans.

A bear protecting its cubs feels no regret or sorrow for striking down a threat. But Jacob felt compassion towards Esau. The Hebrew word that is translated as distress has the sense of narrowing in, being compressed. That is, Jacob knew he would defend himself if need be, but, by that necessity, he felt a claustrophobic contraction of his choice and freedom, a sick fear of hurting his brother.

Humans feel compassion. Humans feel regret when they take an action that will hurt another, even when they feel they have no choice. If one does not have compassion and does not feel regret, we say that he or she lacks humanity. That is, it is this empathy and compassion that distinguishes us from other creatures.

Rabbi Joshua Abraham Heschel speaks of divine pathos, the sorrow, sympathy, and compassion G-D feels for human suffering. It is, in the terms of Rabbi Harold Schulweis, when we actualize this divine predicate of feeling compassion and feeling empathy and regret, that we bring out the Holy in ourselves. It is in actualizing divine pathos that we are most human, most humane. It is, indeed, when we are most holy, most b’tzellem Elohiem. It is in our compassion that we are created in the likeness of G-D.

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