Rabbi Fern Feldman

Embodying Compassion at Rosh Hashanah and Beyond

family 5769 031Rosh Hashanah 5776 at Havurat Ee Shalom by Rabbi Fern Feldman

I want to talk to you today about rachamim—compassion. The tradition says there are 13 qualities of rachamim. We call on them repeatedly in the high holiday services. We sang them three times in front of the open ark about half an hour ago—they are on page 194 in the mahzor if you want to look at them.

The Torah tells us that when Moses was hidden in the cleft in the rock, and the divine presence passed by him, he heard these 13 qualities of compassion. And the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17b) teaches us that when we call out these words in prayer, we are promised that we won’t be turned away empty-handed. Rav Ezra Bick, proposes that the 13 qualities are not only a way of calling on divine attributes, but that these qualities as we chant them are actually a manifestation of holiness in the world. This means that our practice over these high holidays is part of actually bringing more compassion into the world.

And that is really why I want to talk to you today about compassion.

I feel a great, urgent need for compassion in the world right now. I am very worried about the state of the planet, and all its creatures—plant and animal. It terrifies me that we may be making this world literally unlivable for our own children, as well as for so many other life forms.

And for the humans of this planet in particular, I feel a very urgent need for rachamim, for compassion, as well right now. From the massive numbers of refugees from Syria and elsewhere, and the violence against people of color in this country, to the smaller scale—the great number of loved ones, and loved ones of loved ones, who are facing life-threatening illnesses and other serious challenges. And, also, truly, for my own self, I feel a deep need for compassion. Life is challenging, and I am pretty sure that, no matter how lucky, happy, good, successful, smart and beautiful you are, you can also think of ways in which you might want to ask to have more compassion coming to you, as well as through you. You, too, might feel a sense of urgency about drawing more compassion into the world in some way. So, I want to explore some of how we might imagine, and embody, a process of more compassion coming into the world?

Strangely, in the Jewish conception of things, the process of increasing the flow of compassion starts with contraction, and something I talked about last night–nesira, or splitting, which we can currently notice as the gap between one year and the next—when, according to some ways of thinking, the Holy One, and each of us, withdraws our energy a bit, as we let go of one year and make room for the next.

The nesira, or splitting, is a type of contraction, also called tzimtzum.[i] And, as we might suspect from the English word contraction, the contraction we call tzimtzum is part of a birthing process. As my teacher, R. David Wolfe-Blank z”l described it, “Every process which has gotten overinflated, lost, overly abundant, requires tzimtzum for its rebirth.” And, he explains, everything that happens is part of this pattern—the pattern of contraction, breaking, and repair. He says that these dynamics “are thought of as a) something that happened long ago; b) something that is happening now, part of the fabric of the energetic flow of the universe, as if, for example, the Big Bang was not an event but an ongoing process and c) A dynamic which is within every situation, interaction and process. If the pulsing of the universe is to breathe by shrinking and expanding, then the ongoing birthing of all things and events is in a constant state of labor, breaking (of the water and of the previous pregnant state) and of fixing the birthed one.”

So, we can understand, that any constriction, contraction, separation, or shattering that we experience is part of a bigger pattern of pulsing energy, part of a birthing process. And most especially now, at Rosh Hashanah, we can be aware of this process.

And now we can see a bit of how this fits together—the original nesira, the cutting of the dual primordial human, that was created back to back—being separated into two beings allowed them to face one another, encounter one another. This cut is also part of what allowed them to unify in a different way, and become co-creators in the process of bringing forth life. And similarly with a mother who is birthing a baby—the contractions, the breaking of the waters, the cutting of the cord—are all followed by the creation of a new being, who then turns and receives sustenance from the mother. The same process takes place within our understanding of the divine presence. [ii][iii]

So, we are engaged in a birthing process right now. And the root of the word rachamim, compassion, is resh khet mem, the same root as for the word rechem, womb. (Not all of us have one of these, and obviously, not all people with wombs bear children, but nonetheless, there is something to be learned from the experience of those who do have these experiences. My hope is that each of our embodied experiences can be something we could all learn from.) Part of what the connection between rachamim and rechem, compassion and womb, is about is that it tells us that compassion is not just something of the mind and heart– it is of the body. Compassion is, or can and should, be, materialized in the most tangible of ways.

When the mystical tradition maps qualities onto the body, it places compassion all along the central column—from the crown of our heads to the bottoms of our feet.

The tradition places compassion in the crown, the top of the head, which is seen as the seat of Will. Rosh Hashanah is said to be the crowning of the divine king—not an image most of us find it easy to relate to—but perhaps we can picture the royal crown as something we give, as we acknowledge that we are not the ones in charge here. As we recognize with humility that there is something bigger than we are individually. This awareness brings us to experience compassion. We are not the center of the universe. [iv]

And, the tradition places compassion in the center of the body–the heart, and the solar plexus. Sometimes we experience compassion here—when our hearts ache for the suffering of an Other, when we feel compassion flowing out of our hearts, and when we commit with the core of our strength to do something to help.

And, the tradition places rachamim in the generative centers of the body, the place of the rechem, the womb. This evokes the compassion we have for our children, and our intimates, those with whom we have intertwined our physical existence.

And finally, we find compassion in the base of the spine, and the bottoms of the feet, as we stand up to act in the world; as we, like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in Selma, feel we are praying with our feet, and bringing compassion into physical manifestation.

Every Hebrew letter has a numerical value, and words that share a value share elements of meaning. The root of the word rachamim, resh chet mem, equals 248. 248 is also the number our tradition says is how many body parts we have—limbs, sinews and bones.[v] So even the root of the word rachamim tells us that compassion is something we are to do with all our limbs, sinews and bones.

This embodied experience of rachamim is a universal human experience—perhaps an experience of all sentient beings. It is what the primordial human was feeling in first seeing another human, when Adam, the earthling, said—“this is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” When we feel compassion for another being, we can feel it in our bones– we can say “this is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” “Zot hapa’am etzem mei’atzamai uvasar mib’sari”

How would the world be if we felt that for everyone? What if every time we looked at anyone, especially anyone we tended to consider “other”, we said “this is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”? [vi]

Our liturgy is full of references to compassion, some easy to spot and others not.[vii] Anything mentioned 13 times is a calling forth of the flow of compassion.[viii] You can start to notice in the liturgy where all the 13s are. When we call on the name YHVH, when we make blessings, we are making a channel for compassion to come through, all along the central column of our bodies.

  1. David Wolfe-Blank z”l wrote that the 13 qualities of compassion “radiate throughout our universe from Rosh Khodesh Elul [that is, a month ago] until Simkhat Torah [that is, the end of Sukkot, a few weeks from now]…Because this happens every year around the High Holidays, every year is thought to be a further lurch of evolution based on the previous year’s energies, facilitated by the presence of these 13 fields of origination. These 13 qualities are therefore the mechanical or energic side of the Teshuvah process. We soften and stretch our hearts by doing Teshuvah, and God softens and stretches the fabric of the world by shining towards us the 13 qualities…” (Metasiddur p. 48.2)

Each one of the 13 qualities of compassion that we chant throughout this time period has their own nature. Compassion isn’t just one thing—it has subtle distinctions.[ix] When we chant them, we can consider how we can embody the different qualities, or aspects, of compassion. But before these 13 qualities, or part of them, depending on how you parse the sentence, we say “Adonai, Adonai”; we repeat the name twice. R. David Wolfe-Blank z”l taught that on the High Holidays we need a healing in which we go to a second level of the divine name. This second calling upon YHVH is called the “Shem ha-Etzem”, literally the Essence of the Name. We might imagine this as a transcendence, beyond the manifestation of the name that has been damaged over the preceding year by our wrongdoings. But I want to suggest an additional interpretation. Etzem, in addition to meaning essence, also means bone, as in the phrase “bone of my bone”—“etzem mei’atzamai”. When we look deeply enough, when we let ourselves become aware, we find that in essence, we are all of one substance—bone of my bone. Rabbi Wolfe-Blank z”l taught that “during the ten days of awe, each of us is in possession of a second, more creative part of our souls. Just as Abraham was called Abraham, Abraham, and Moses was called Moses, Moses, as seen by the higher level of Yod Hay Vav Hay, so is each of us reconnected with our twofold name, a creative, powerful energy which enables us to restructure our awareness of God and of ourselves.”

So, I would like to suggest, that at this time we are also more able to sense that level which we might call “bone of my bone”. Perhaps at this time we can see more clearly that we are all connected, all one flesh. When we call on the qualities of compassion, when we suffuse in the flow of rachamim, we are both feeling the compassion that surrounds and holds us, and we are also letting it pour through us into the world. So may we be strengthened at this time in receiving compassion, and in being channels for compassion coming into the world.

And right now is the time for that strengthening to begin. The splitting, the nesira, that is the space between one year and the next, which perhaps up to this point we have experienced as a separation of some kind, now shifts. R. Wolfe-Blank z”l wrote that “The Nesira begins to be reversed at the time of the blowing of the Shofar on the first day of Rosh Hashanah[x]” (R DWB p. 22.2)

So, as we prepare to hear the shofar, we can become aware of a shift. We can look around us and see that all beings are “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh”. The shofar builds a bridge of sound and energy [xi] to connect all beings. Any sense of separation we have been feeling is about to be washed away in a flood of presence. May we, in that moment, as we hear the shofar, become more fully channels for compassion to come through us, renewing us, and bringing blessing to the world.

[i] And this is also how the mystical tradition describes the process of creation—the mystical creation story goes that undifferentiated divinity, which was all there was, had a desire to give, but in order to give, there had to be something to give to. And so began the paradox of creation— although everything is part of G-d, nonetheless, there has to be an appearance of it not being so, in order for there to be giving and receiving.


[ii] Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank z”l explains that “On Rosh Hashanah, the inner energy of Malkhut [that is, the base of the tree of life], the earth and our home, leaves and moves into Keter [or crown], our Source and Essence. This departure, called Nesira, is somewhat frightening and ungrounding, hence, the “awesomeness” of the period of the Days of Awe, beginning erev Rosh Hashanah. Reversal of this process begins with the blowing of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah and ends with the blowing of the Shofar at the end of Yom Kippur. During these ten days, Malkhut [the manifestation of the holy in the world] is rebuilt, rewired, and refurbished.” (Meta-Siddur, p. 148.8)


[iii] I find it interesting that even the traditional terms for what is happening now have birthing overtones—the divine presence goes back to Keter, the Crown, and this is related to how the tradition says that Rosh Hashanah is the crowning of the divine King. And, of course, there is a moment in the birthing process when the baby crowns—and is crowned.


[iv] The 13 qualities of compassion are called a 13 spired crown, and the mystical tradition says this crown is made of lavender light, and it shines more and more brightly throughout the 10 days of awe, until it is so bright at the end of Yom Kippur, at Neilah, that we can barely see anything else.


[v] Also related is the fact that there are 248 positive mitzvot—the mitzvot are for the purpose of rachamim

[vi] So, too, when we pray for divine rachamim, we are praying for Hashem to sense that we, or those we are praying for, are of the same substance as G-d is. As my teacher R. Marcia Prager says, “the world is congealed G-d”.


[vii] In the prayer right before the sh’ma we repeat the root three times in a row. for example, Baruch She’Amar, which uses the word Baruch, blessed, 13 times, and Psalm 27, the psalm we say daily at this season, mentions the name YHVH 13 times. The expression of the divine name, and the quality of blessing, are both pathways for compassion to manifest in the world. Our most central prayer, the Amidah, on weekdays has 13 middle blessings, one for each quality of compassion.


[viii] for example, Baruch She’Amar, which uses the word Baruch, blessed, 13 times, and Psalm 27, the psalm we say daily at this season, mentions the name YHVH 13 times. The expression of the divine name, and the quality of blessing, are both pathways for compassion to manifest in the world. Our most central prayer, the Amidah, on weekdays has 13 middle blessings, one for each quality of compassion.


[ix] R. Wolfe-Blank interprets them thus: Ayl—expanding force of kindness; Rakhum—Merciful Womb; Khanun—Graceful Giver; Erekh—Long-Stretched Web; Apayim—Many Faceted Jewel; Rav Khesed—Maestro of Generosity; Ve’Emet—Dispatcher of Truth; Notzer Khesed—Funnel of Kindness; La’Alafim—Helper of Thousands; Nosay Avon—Tolerator of Distortion; Vafesha—Who Puts up with Intentional Error; V’Khata’ah—Shoulders Omission; V’Nakay—and Cleanses.


[x] “which, as promised, reverses the departure of the Holy One and draws back G-d’s interest and participation to be completed with the Shofar sounding at the end of Yom Kippur.”


[xi] A term from the writing of Yoel Glick

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