Rabbis Without Borders
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I think we could all use a little more mercy and compassion. Day after day, the news is filled with fighting, chaos, and tragedy. It can be disheartening and dejecting. We may even find ourselves at odds with the people we love who may feel differently about politics or religion, or who simply interpret an event or action in a different way. It may be difficult to remain civil in the face of conflict, but this week’s Torah portion reminds us that we are capable of great mercy and understanding that can help us respond to trying situations.
We read, “Adonai, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin (Exodus 34:6-7),”and so begins a sort of renewal of the covenant between Moses, the people Israel and God. Moses speaks these words to God to incite compassion, and God responds to Moses’s call. In return for the people Israel adhering to God’s laws, God will grant them safety in the Land of Israel. In these two verses, our sages identified 13 attributes of mercy within God.
Who knew there were 13 ways to be merciful? These attributes are an example to us how we should live our lives and treat others. Judaism teaches we are created in God’s image, so if God has 13 attributes of mercy, then we must be filled with abundant mercy, too.
In stark contrast, there are fewer terms for anger in the Torah, fewer terms for punishment, and fewer terms for transgression. While some may think of the Jewish Bible’s God as wrathful, here we see that God is multifaceted, just as people are. While we read that God becomes angry and punishes the people when they go astray, we also read God is full of kindness and forgiveness. It is meaningful that our sages stress these forms of mercy over any of enmity or retribution.
So, instead of becoming angry with your co-worker, relative, or friend, find your mercy. With so many ways to be merciful, we may need to reflect inward to find the appropriate response. Ask yourself why this person feels as strongly as they do. Check yourself when you feel irritated or provoked. Recognize that while your feelings are legitimate, the person you’re upset with has legitimate feelings, too. Seek understanding. Find commonalities. While you don’t have to agree with a conflicting viewpoint and you should never silence your voice, the Torah gives us a roadmap for being in relationship with others. The challenge is to identify and follow that path.
Rabbi Melinda Mersack is the Director of jHUB, which provides new ways for interfaith couples and families to comfortably explore Jewish culture in the modern world, a program of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland and an InterfaithFamily affiliate. Rabbi Mersack is proud to be a Rabbis Without Borders Fellow and a Brickner Fellow of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Rabbi Mersack attends summer camp as visiting faculty every year, and is an advocate for interreligious dialogue and social justice. She holds a B.A. from Washington University in St. Louis, and a Masters of Hebrew Letters and ordination from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion.