Image: Protestors in Denver hold up a sign: “Dreamers will be deported – What will YOU do?” Photo by Astrid Galvan, Associated Press.
One Hebrew word for mercy is rakhum (rah-KHUM.) It is closely related to the word for womb, richam (ree-KHAM.)
One of the oddest things about becoming a mother, for me, was finding out that even after someone has cut the umbilical cord, I remained connected to my children. There are very real ways in which the spiritual challenge of parenthood for me has been to accept that Aaron and Jim are no longer physically a part of me. When they were little, I took pride in everything good they did, and when they did something bad, I felt like I had done whatever it was.
That sense of connection to a parent keeps babies alive. Little babies would not survive if some adult did not put their needs first. One clever way our biology does that is by making mom a bit confused about where she leaves off and the new person begins. By the time she’s sorted it out, they are quite big and capable of foraging for themselves!
But back to rakhum: it is a quality that the Torah identifies as an attribute of the Holy One. During the High Holy Days, we repeat the words of Psalm 103 again and again in various forms:
.רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן יְהוָה; אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב-חָסֶד
Rachum v’chanun Adonai; erekh apa’im v’rov-chesed.
The LORD is full of compassion and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. – Psalms 103:8
Remembering the connection to womb, it makes sense: the Holy One created us, and a connection persists, like the connection between a mother and infant.
The opposite of compassion is indifference. Indifference says “You have no connection to me whatsoever.” Indifference does not care what happens to the other being.
The Shoah (Holocaust) brought us terrible lessons about the meaning of indifference. Survivor Elie Wiesel famously said:
The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.
Indifference is a fact of nature. People as diverse as Adlai Stevenson, Carl Sagan, and Galileo have all commented on the indifference of nature to human frailty.
Nature is indifferent to the survival of the human species, including Americans. – Adlai Stevenson
The storms, earthquakes, and heat wave we have recently seen in the Western Hemisphere are examples of the indifference of nature. Hurricane Harvey didn’t care who drowned or became homeless. Irma had no mercy on the people of Barbuda. The earthquake in Mexico killed dozens of people in a few moments.
I remember the wreck of my own home in the 1989 earthquake in California. Suddenly the things I counted on to be stable (the GROUND! my HOUSE!) were in motion, the china cabinet walking across the floor, the framing making a noise like a scream. Then the whole thing sagged off its foundation, and to this day I am grateful that none of us were badly hurt.
The earthquake didn’t care about us. It was a fact of nature.
This week we have also seen human indifference, something more horrifying than any storm or earthquake. The Trump Administration saw fit to put an abrupt end to DACA, Deferred Action to Childhood Arrivals. The President claimed to feel for the young people whose lives were suddenly thrown into chaos, but blamed the Congress. Like Pontius Pilate in the New Testament, he simply washed his hands. The Attorney General made it clear that he didn’t care about DACA youth (“Dreamers”) and didn’t want them here. “We cannot admit everyone who would like to come here,” he said, ignoring the fact that none of the DACA youth asked to come; they were brought here without their consent as minors. They know no other home.
The lies that other uncaring people told in the press and in social media were astonishing: that the DACA youth were criminals, that they were here to “get handouts.” No one was admitted to DACA without a careful vetting process. Their records had to be squeaky clean. They had to be pursuing education. They were not eligible for benefits like Social Security, even though they had to pay Social Security taxes. The people who repeated those lies did not care enough to fact-check them: they were indifferent.
This is how evil works. It may claim to be practical, or logical, or even to care, but when you look at its works, what you will see is indifference.
In Parashat Ki Tetzei, we read:
If you see the ox of your fellow citizen gone astray; do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow citizen. If your fellow citizen does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow citizen claims it; then shall you give it back to him… and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow citizen loses and you find; you can not remain indifferent. – Deuteronomy 22:1-3
Torah teaches us to care even about lost livestock. How much the moreso must we care about young people who have been put in a difficult situation by forces beyond their control?
Rakhum, mercy, is reckoned a virtue in Jewish tradition. We are human beings, not mindless forces of nature like earthquakes and hurricanes. As such, we have a duty in Torah to treat those we encounter with kindness. Maimonides teaches that even when we have nothing to give, we must speak kindly to the hungry person who asks us for food.
I hope and pray that the Congress will see fit to correct the evil that the executive branch has done. I have written to my Senators and representative; I will continue to write and call until this matter is resolved. I hope my readers will too.