How I Am Learning Compassion This High Holiday Season

How often do we drive around in circles, ignoring Waze or our GPS because we’re sure that we know a better way? These days, it seems that we’ve become so stuck in our familiar operating modes that we are unable to hear, let alone accept, a perspective or viewpoint out of synch with our own fixed, preconceived ideas. So we plow ahead as always and refuse to budge from our self-righteous, uncompromising, and inflexible path, even when we may potentially hurt others.

This issue has been on my mind lately because it’s the time of year when Jews around the world are preparing for the High Holidays, the season of teshuva or repentance. The Hebrew month of Elul is a period of intense spiritual preparation, heshbon ha-nefesh or self-examination, and text study. We strive to change and do better in the coming year, and ask each other for forgiveness.

This year I am including Yehuda Amichai’s poem, “The Place Where We Are Right” in my spiritual preparations for the New Year. It’s a poem that has always aroused deep emotions for me, even though I have read it dozens of times. When I have visited the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, I have always stopped to read the verse on the wall, “From the place we are right, flowers will never grow in the spring,” as I dream for peace in the Middle East.

Recently, though, in re-reading “The Place Where We Are Right,” I was struck how the poem is a metaphor for human relationships and connections. As I reread the poem both in English and the original Hebrew, I reflected how the Hebrew word for “the place,” “Ha-Makom,” is also a name for God. It’s the name used when we recite the traditional words of comfort to mourners as an act of compassion.

Indeed, Elul is about love, compassion, and forgiveness. According to the rabbis, Elul is an acronym spelled out in the first letters of the verse, Ani l’dodi v’dodi Li, I am my beloved and my beloved is mine (Song of Songs 6:3).

If we are serious about asking for forgiveness and achieving a hopeful future, I wonder how to find a way to move from that hard place where we seem perpetually stuck. It means repairing those cracks in our relationships with friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, and acquaintances. And yes, that often means re-imagining how we view others.

How can we challenge ourselves to move from that rigid place and let go of distorted, preconceived images? Can we learn to give others the benefit of the doubt — or perhaps even admit a little uncertainty instead of tenaciously holding onto our own assumptions about another’s beliefs or intentions? I, for one, regret jumping to conclusions about someone’s motivations without trying to understand his or her needs and personal situation.

To move from that rigid place requires genuine empathy and compassion. For example, rather than assuming that my elderly friend is calling just to bother me, I wonder whether it is possible to stop and think how hurt she will feel when I don’t call back? And can I try to forgive her for showing her love and desire for a connection by leaving voice messages?

It takes tremendous courage to refrain from prejudging others and second-guessing their intent. For example, when my spouse says he doesn’t have time to attend that out-of-town family wedding, do I immediately take it personally and pressure him unnecessarily, or instead consider the reasons for his decision?

Yet in today’s polarized America, we seem to shy away from meaningful discussions with friends, family, and acquaintances, and rarely take the time to really understand their needs. If we do talk, when the temperature gets too high, we just cut off conversation. Tolerance, forget it.  Talk out our differences, no way. Agree to disagree, don’t waste my time. After all, I’m right, you’re wrong. Don’t start a fight. End of story.

If we truly want to connect, we need to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, rather than trivialize what may seem an unfair reaction to something we feel is apparently a simple request. That means questioning the “truth” with which we judge others, and taking the risk to see them through a different, more benign lens. That means learning to listen compassionately to our friends, family, and acquaintances rather than shutting off conversation. Finally, if we are serious about genuine connection, we need to take the time to develop empathy, understanding, and compassion by engaging in meaningful personal dialogue and face-to-face conversation.

The place where we are right is hard and trampled like a yard,” writes Amichai, the late poet laureate of Israel. Changing our perspective is easier said than done, and requires tremendous courage. After all, it’s no easy feat to dig up that rocky soil and make it fertile enough to absorb new growth. I firmly believe though, that we have the opportunity to break through that hard ground and plant the seeds of change, but only if we so choose.

Amichai continues, “But doubts and loves dig up the world…And a whisper will be heard in the place where the ruined house once stood.”

During this High Holiday period of serious reflection and soul searching, I hope we can find the courage to listen, hear other viewpoints, and give each other the benefit of the doubt. Then we can find a place in our hearts for the love and compassion that will make our relationships flower and bloom.


The Place Where We Are Right*
by Yehuda Amichai

From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the spring.

The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.

But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.   


*The Place Where We Are Right” by Yehuda Amichai, The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell, © University of California Press, 2013.

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