Rabbi Avi Weinstein

The Metaphysics of Compassion

In Uncategorized on February 1, 2010 at 2:36 pm

The Maharal of Prague seems not to be a fan of the temporal and material.  He opens Netivot Olam with very profound essays on the nature of Torah. Torah is synonymous with the supernal intellect. It has no beginning or end, and when one connects with Torah, he is connected to the Divine, and is transformed from the material to the ethereal.  The practitioner of Torah, the Talmid Chacham or one should say a real Talmid Chacham, is one who is of the world but not in it.  He observes others, he is aware of them, but he is not influenced by them.  He is in another place even when he is of this one.

The Maharal even uses mitzvot as an example of temporal activities that cannot compare with Torah study because they are so immersed with worldly activity.  One might assume that acts of lovingkindness would suffer the same fate, but one would be wrong.

The Maharal makes the case for the classic combination of Torah study combined with acts of lovingkindness.  He first defines an act of lovingkindness as going beyond what the law requires, the purpose of which is to benefit someone else at the expense of your time.  It is a non-material act because the performer does not consider himself when s/he is helping another.  The basest behavior is that which only benefits one’s self, and has no impact on others.  The highest behavior is the opposite, where self is the least consideration.  The Maharal says that such behavior actually accomplishes something that Torah study can’t. It purifies the body through the purity of the action.  Moreover, and more importantly, it is the only value where we can perfectly emulate God’s behavior.  We are not capable of emulating God when it comes to justice, because with the best intentions we are prone to error.  We are entirely capable, however, of performing perfect acts of lovingkindness, and so, therefore, acts of compassion are certainly the most Godly.

“And after the Lord your God you should walk.” (Deuteronomy 13:4)  Is it possible to cleave to God? Doesn’t it say, “Behold, I”m a consuming fire!” Rather it means that we should cleave to His example! Just as He clothed the naked, so should we…  Just as He visited the sick, so should we… (Sota 14a)

The Maharal has pointed out something extraordinary when he quotes this Talmudic passage.  He says that the quality of compassion is unique in that a human being is capable of doing it as perfectly as God would.  Everything else we try is but a shadow, a pale reflection of Divine activity. This is why it is comparable to Torah study because we are not only imitating the Divine, we are actually acting Divinely in the way that He would.  Torah study, according to the Maharal allows us to leave the world for a Divine reality.  Acts of compassion have Divine impact on the material world and through them, the individual is transformed Divinely.

I really think that’s cool! We learn the Maharal on Tuesday’s with webyeshiva.org.

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  1. A very nice summary of last shiur. Thanks.

    Tehila Leah

  2. That IS cool. Too many of us would try and impose our own justice on others and call it God’s. This kind of self righteous severity is a drug within many religious traditions. The Maharal has identified the antidote.

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