Feeling Deep Compassion for the Oppressed

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A particularly moving paragraph that is recited by the entire congregation of pray-ers as part of the Shacharit (morning) services on Mondays and Thursdays, before the Tora is returned to the Ark, describes our collective concern for members of the Jewish people who presently find themselves in difficult conditions and situations:
Our brethren, the entire Jewish People, who are delivered into confinement and/or captivity, whether they be on the sea or dry land, May the Omnipresent have mercy on them and remove them from distress to relief, and from darkness to light, and from subjugation to redemption, now, speedily, and close at hand.
(This particular  prayer has become so popular that it has been put to music in “stand-alone” form, e.g., And while the text appears to describe Jews who are the subjects of persecution and various forms of physical oppression, one of the popular video versions features Lt. Col. Shai Abramson, the official cantor of the Israel Defense Forces, accompanied by the Choir of Israeli Army Rabbinate, and depicts israeli soldiers in action while the song is sung in the background-- implying that a Jew fulfilling army service also qualifies as someone for whose safety we ought to be concerned.)
Despite the prayer’s seeming to be limited to God’s Intervention to Relieve suffering and difficulties, I have always taken very seriously the Talmud’s call, as in Shabbat 10a, for human beings to serve as “partners with God in ‘completing’ the Creation of the world.” In other words, the theological concept underlying this idea is that the world in which we find ourselves, is lacking in many different respects, and therefore requires people who think, plan, and carry out such thoughts and plans, to attempt to proactively address the shortcomings which they encounter. Obviously, if an individual is excessively self-absorbed, he will only notice his own desires and aspirations. The truly empathic individual, by contrast, will concern himself with those in need and attempting to improve their situations to whatever degree that he can.
It seems to me that regularly reminding people of their own responsibilities by addressing such a plea to God within the context of regular and consistent prayer, should serve to fuel their resolve to assist others, rather than simply awaiting Divine Intervention from above.  The two poles represented down through the ages in the ongoing debate regarding either exclusive reliance on God or on oneself, are referred to respectively as “Hishtadlut” (personal striving and the exertion of effort) vs. “Bitachon” (faith, trust.) I would argue that the “partnership” concept strikes a balance between these two extremes, whereby an individual can never attribute all that he accomplishes to his own efforts yet realizes that sitting back passively and waiting for redemption of himself and/or others is not appropriate either.
Finally, an accusation might be leveled against prayers such as this one, that it focuses upon the Jewish people, rather than all of humanity. If one has empathy exclusively for members of his own group, doesn’t that itself constitute a shortcoming and imperfection? Concerning such a claim, another Talmudic principle comes to mind:
Rosh HaShana 4b
If you grasp a lot you cannot hold it, if you grasp a little you can hold it.
It is possible that if you define the parameters of your task in excessively broad terms, you will become frustrated and stop striving for any sort of achievement due to a perception that it’s just “too much.” Hopefully, when one sees that he has successfully addressed a more modest initial goal, he will continue to move over the course of his life in an upward direction where he will progressively address the problems of a wider and wider circle of individuals. Naturally this depends upon his general perception that his interventions are welcome by other communities and groups; if he senses a general hostility to his and his people’s efforts, he will have difficulty justifying his own expenditures of time and effort on behalf of those not open to his assistance. Just as there ideally ought to be a partnership between God and human beings, so too there must be one amongst all of humanity if we are to attempt to “fix the world” in terms of at least some of its ills.
Rabbi Jack Bieler was ordained at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University in 1974. He has been an administrator and faculty member of Orthodox Jewish day schools for over thirty years. He is a Jerusalem Fellow and has published and lectured widely on the philosophy of Modern Orthodox Jewish education. He has served as Rabbi of KMS since 1993.
Rabbi Bieler has been a Panelist for Jewish Values Online for several years, responding to questions. You can find his answers by visiting Jewish Values Online, selecting the ‘View all panelists’ link, and clicking his name. A link will appear with his bio to show all answers he has submitted.
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