Parashah (portion) Yitro – We Begin with the Tenth Commandment
Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

The month of January is dedicated to the practice of compassion. We often equate compassion with an emotion, with an open-hearted feeling of interconnectedness toward another sentient being. And that is true enough. The Hebrew word for compassion is rachamim, from the root which also gives us the word rechem, meaning womb. The Hebrew points to this feminine energy of compassion born of a motherly holding place of warmth and nurturing. Yet true compassion also includes masculine energies of firm guidance, the setting of rules and boundaries–together with the consequences for breaking them–that parental love also brings forth.

This week’s Torah portion tells of the theophany at Sinai and of the Ten Commandments, the Ten Utterances. In studying this passage, I saw in these Ten Divine Utterances powerful expressions of compassion. Sure, on the surface they may appear merely as more rules, laws, and obligations, but on another level they may be viewed as a gift of compassion from what can be understood as a heavenly Parent. Our rabbis never speak of the Sinaitic event as revelation; rather they refer to it as matan Torah, as a gift; the gift of Torah, the gift of the ten essential spiritual teachings. They divide these ten teachings into two groups: the first four are bein adam laMakom, between people and God; the last six are bein adam l’chavero, between persons. This last group of six–from the fifth “Honor your father and mother” to the tenth “You are not to desire… anything that is your neighbor’s”–is where we have to start, the beginning of a transformative spiritual practice: the practice of compassion.

In setting these rules and boundaries the Torah enjoins us to look at the other from a different perspective. Beginning with number ten, for example, we are asked to practice letting go of our desire to possess what the other has. We live in a society where, unfortunately, such desire is promoted. We are constantly bombarded with messages that tell us that we should want that illusory “perfect” lifestyle that “everyone else wants,” and which can only be achieved at the expense of the other in a highly competitive market. Our normal ego wants are pushed over the edge of pathological desires in a society which tends to hinder our overcoming our baser instincts. The practice of not wanting what the other has helps us, on one hand, know that there is nothing in us that is lacking, that we are exactly and perfectly who we are. We learn compassion for ourselves. On the other hand it helps us draw closer to the other, no longer seeing him as the enemy, no longer relating to him with envy.

In drawing closer we are able to move beyond the superficial and begin to resonate with the energy field of another. We feel into their pain, their suffering, their joy. Their challenges are our challenges, their success is ours too. We start realizing the common humanity that unites us and this realization leads to the newfound perception that we are not, in fact, separate from one another. Our isolating fences begin to crumble. By breaking down the barriers of separateness, tearing down the walls of the fortress we call self, we allow an awakening to the Oneness of Being alive in all beings. As we progress along the path of compassion we reach the understanding that “I am one with” all of humanity, all sentient beings, all of creation. And this level of identification is, indeed, the ultimate expression of compassion.

© 2011 Rabbi Olivier BenHaim, All rights reserved.