Compassion & Tzedakah

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There is, in this connection, a revealing tale in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 85a). A calf, being led to the slaughter, ran for protection to Rabbi Judah the Prince, but the Rabbi said to the calf: 'Go! For this you were created', whereupon the rabbi was visited with great suffering. Some time later, Rabbi Judah noticed his servant sweeping out a nest of weasels from the corner of his palace. 'Let them be,' he ordered, 'it is written [Psalms 145: 9] "His tender mercies are over all His works"', whereupon the suffering departed from him. The point of the story seems to be that cold calculation, even when justified, is no substitute for compassion.

The story is not told in support of vegetarianism. There is no suggestion that the calf should not be killed to provide humans with food. But the compassionate man, even when he can do nothing to prevent suffering, will still have pity for those that suffer, even if they are dumb animals. The rabbi's response was unfeeling, as he came to realize when his suffering departed after he showed compassion to the weasels, even though here, too, he had no actual obligation to spare them.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.