The inestimable Karen Armstrong was a guest speaker at my synagogue’s Sabbath service this past week. She drew from different religions’ references to the central idea of kindness and acceptance of others. In the case of the Old Testament or Torah, she referenced the story of Abraham welcoming, for no apparent reason, three strangers into his camp on a hot and dusty desert day. The absence of this impulse and inclination to be kind to others, to show compassion towards others who suffer or struggle, obviously leads to cruelty and compounds conflicts, problems and suffering in the world.
The question is how to make compassion more prevalent and powerful in the world. As I understood her, she seemed to be saying that this comes about through moral suasion, by convincing people of the correctness and benefits of a compassionate approach towards others, and especially towards those who are different from us. Nobody would disagree with this educational approach. But it makes me wonder about the significance of the part of the Abraham story that immediately precedes his kind and welcoming gesture towards the approaching strangers, since one of the ways that the Torah is interpreted and understood is by examining the links between juxtaposed but seemingly unrelated episodes and incidents. When Abraham invites the
strangers into his camp, he has just circumcised himself and is in a state of acute and intense pain and suffering himself – there were no anesthetics and analgesics in those days. The circumcision represented the monotheistic covenant he made with God, essentially to have only one god. So what’s the link between his covenant, his pain and his generosity towards and acceptance of strangers?
If you look beyond the seemingly self-destructive nature of his auto-circumcision, you can appreciate that his covenant with God represents his realization that there are forces and interests beyond his own, painful and inconvenient as this recognition may sometimes be. It is his very suffering that makes him sensitive to the needs of others, and that without his own pain, he may be unlikely to recognize the pain of others. In his own suffering he comes to appreciate his true worth, and so can see the value inherent in others, including and especially strangers. Without his own pain, he was unlikely to have extended his hospitality to the three strangers as he did.
Translating this into our lives, what this suggests is that we become sensitized to the worth of others by appreciating our own worth; and that it is only through our own pain and suffering that we are able to learn to appreciate our own worth, and thus the worth, needs and rights of others. Unlike Abraham we do not need to inflict pain and suffering on ourselves, since we live in a world where frustration, disappointment and pain surround and affect us constantly.
And since we all, without exception suffer, since every single one of us knows pain personally and intimately, we are all in a position to learn how to value ourselves, and so by extension, can learn how to value and be compassionate towards the strangers in our midst.