Monday, September 23, 2013

Sukkot, a Holiday of Compassion

As a Jew, I am proud of the fact that as part of every major holiday, we are encouraged to invite "ushpizin" or "orchim" (guests) to celebrate the holidays with us. Sukkot (the holiday) is no exception of course as it is a mitzvah (good deed commanded by God) to invite others to eat with us in our sukkot (temporary structures.) I am excited to see one of my best friends from my childhood this Thursday and to sit in her sukkah with her and her new husband.

Arba'at Ha'Minim

But aside from being commanded to invite others into our sukkot, we shake the "arba'at ha'minim" (the four species) as part of the ritual as well. There are two popular explanations for why we have the four species, and both highlight our need to have compassion and kindness for others.
Shaking the Arba'at Ha'Minim in the sukkah.

Four Species Represent All Jews

The aromas and flavors of the four species represent the four different kinds of Jews. Of course, today, if you were to say "there are four kinds of Jews", you'd probably either get a laugh or people would assume that's the start of a joke. It feels like there are more kinds of Jews than ever before. But the story is that there are four kinds of Jews and they each have value, especially when brought together.

The Four Kinds of Jews

The four kinds of Jews are those who study Torah and perform good deeds (represented by the "etrog" (citron), which is flavorful and aromatic), those who study Torah but do not perform good deeds (represented by the "lulav", which are palm leaves from a tree that produces fruit but has no aroma), those who perform good deeds but do not study the Torah (represented by "hadas" (myrtle), which has aroma but no flavor) and those who neither study Torah nor perform good deeds (represented by "arava" (willow) which is neither flavorful nor aromatic.)

Arba'at Ha'Minim
From these descriptions, it seems that there is a hierarchy regarding the species. So if we are not careful, we can look at this symbolical categorization as a separation of people, where etrog is "the best" and arava is by far "the worst". However, we need to remember that we are commanded to bring all four together and shake them in celebration of Hashem (God). It is not enough to have an etrog in your hand; this does not fulfill the commandment to shake the arba'at ha'minim.

Anything to Save a Life

For one, all four species are God's creations as all Jews are God's creations. Perhaps the most important "middah" (value) in all of Judaism (at least it is the most important to me) is "anything to save a life." This middah teaches us that one life is not more valuable than another; rather, all human life is valuable whether or not you study Torah or perform good deeds. Personally, I like to extend this middah to all creatures to the extent that this is possible without compromising human life.

Plus, all four species along with all four types of Jews contribute to society in different ways. The etrog may sustain us in moments of hunger, but it cannot be used to build houses; Arava (willow) is one of the building blocks of civilization as it gives us shelter, furniture, and more.

If arava represents individuals who do not study Torah and do not do good deeds, we may then decide to judge them. What are they contributing to the greater good, if they neither study Torah, nor do good deeds? But this is where we must remind ourselves to be compassionate towards others. We do not know why these individuals do not study Torah and do not do good deeds. Perhaps their lot in life does not afford them the luxury of taking time to study Torah. Maybe life is so hard for them that all they can do is just get through the day... perhaps their good deed is trying their best not to spread negativity upon others when they do not have the strength or energy to spread goodness, joy or love.

What I think we often don't realize is that we are each the four species at one time or another. Even if we are typically the etrog, studying Torah and doing good deeds all the time, we have our days, weeks, and even months or years when we are not able to put in 100% to either of these tasks. We all have good reasons when this happens:

"I was a college student and didn't have the time to study Torah since it was hard enough keeping up with my courses."

"I was in a tough place trying to make enough money to support my own family. How was I supposed to go out and help someone else?"

"I was depressed after the loss of a loved one and could barely keep my job, no less do anything for anyone else."

Life happens to us all, and as long as we are always trying to do our best, we should not judge ourselves or others for what we didn't do at given times of our lives. We should always strive to do better, but we also need to acknowledge when we are doing all that we can. Sometimes our best has to be enough.

Of course, we need to be careful not to come up with excuses. If we realize we are arava but are not doing our best, we need to carefully evaluate what we are doing and why. What is keeping us from studying Torah and doing good deeds? Is there something in our lives that needs to change because we are neither moving our lives forward nor helping others with theirs?

Using Our Powers for Good or for Evil
"Speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil."

The other popular interpretation for the four species is that they each represent a part of the body that can be used for either good or evil. It's almost like the Jewish version of those three monkeys with their hands on their eyes, mouth and ears. In our case, each specie kind of resembles a body part: the etrog is the heart, the lulav is the backbone (which has the greater association with the reactive body), the hadas are the eyes, and the arava is the mouth.We can look at these as physical parts of ourselves that can spread kindness or pain, or we can see them as symbols of our actions: being careless with our love and expressions of love, acting or reacting with/without forethought and consideration for others, choosing to see or ignore injustice, and deciding when to speak up and when to stay silent. Either way, we are faced with the choice to use our powers for good or evil.

Compassion and Self-Reflection this Sukkot

So while Sukkot is a harvest festival and offers much in the way of history, culture and storytelling, it is also a great opportunity to teach our children about spreading compassion and kindness.

Are we an etrog right now, or are we arava? If we are arava, are we doing something productive with our lives that is moving us forward so that we can eventually be an etrog? If we someone who is an arava, do we judge the fact that they are not studying Torah nor doing good deeds, or do we have compassion for her and her situation? Perhaps there is something we can do to reach out and help her so that she eventually feels like she is capable of becoming an etrog. One beautiful thing about aroma is that it rubs off on anything it touches; if we do good deeds for others who are incapable of doing good deeds themselves, eventually our aroma will rub off on them and they will have aroma themselves; they will have the ability and inspiration to "pay it forward" and probably will do so!

Are we using our powers - our heart, bodies, eyes and mouths - for good or evil? What can we do to make sure that we are always pointing our powers towards Hashem (God) as we do with the Arba'at Ha'Minim?

Monday, September 16, 2013

My New Year Resolution: Reactivate Compassion In Judaism

Stephanie and Rabbi Margaret. Photo taken by Herb Gross.
After an almost 1-year hiatus, I am excited to report that I will be blogging again for this Compassion In Judaism blog site. After leading High Holiday services at Congregation Kneseth Israel as the cantorial soloist with Rabbi Margaret Frisch-Klein, I am rejuvinated, recharged, and ready to reactivate this blog. I hope you find meaning in the posts and discussions we will have hear, and I hope that you will add your own voice to the dialogue.


Stephanie Burak Fehlenberg

In lieu of a post today, I will share with you an excerpt from a guest post I wrote for Rabbi Margaret's blog, The Energizer Rabbi:

Digging deep into Avinu Malkeinu and finding our role in the mix

Just this evening (Wednesday September 11, 2013, less than 48 hours from Kol Nidre service), as I was waiting for the Rabbi so we could practice for Kol Nidre services, I was asked to fill in at a moment’s notice and teach Avinu Malkeinu to a group of Beit Sefer students. As a teacher and someone who is always in pursuit of “kavanah” (“meaning”), I like to make sure that my students don’t just practice how to pray but also learn the meaning of the prayers. As I was explaining the meaning of Avinu Malkeinu word for word, I discovered something I hadn’t noticed before; we say “Asei imanu tzedakah v’chesed” which I translate to “create with us justice and kindness”. This is a literal translation, and I think most people would translate it to “grant us justice and kindness.” However, I like to emphasize the “Asei imanu” which literally means “make with us” or “create with us”, indicating that we are not just passively hoping God will bring justice and goodness into our lives. Rather, God will serve as our facilitator or guide, as we play an active role in creating justice and kindness for ourselves and others.

Sometimes, I think that when we as Jews get caught up in the traditions and rules, we can forget the heart of what it means to be God’s People. God created us and all humankind “b’tselem elohim” (“in His image”). As such, we were created to be like God.

Read the complete blog entry entitled, "Tishri 9: Three Good Deeds, Compassion, A Cantorial Soloist and Her Dad."

Thursday, October 4, 2012

What is autism? What are the signs? What can I do to be sensitive to people with autism?

From the Have Dreams website:

What is autism?

Autism is a complex neurological disorder that typically appears during the first two years of life and affects the functioning of the brain and interferes with normal development of verbal and nonverbal communication, social interaction and sensory development. Autism is a spectrum disorder meaning it affects each person in different ways and can range from very mild to severe and is often referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Autism occurs in all racial, social and socioeconomic groups but are four times more likely to occur in boys than in girls. Autism is a national crisis affecting between 500,000 to 1,500,000 families. According to recent studies as many as 1 in every 88 children born today will be on the autism spectrum. This disorder is the third most common developmental disorder, more common than Down Syndrome.

What are the signs?

Below is a general overview of tendencies shown by individuals with autism from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every individual with autism is different and may show some of these signs: Not responding to their name by 12 months Not pointing at objects to show interest by 14 months Not playing "pretend" games by 18 months Avoiding eye contact Preferring to be alone Trouble understanding other people's feelings or talking about their own feelings Delayed speech and language skills Repeating words or phrases over and over Giving unrelated answers to questions Getting upset by minor change Obsessive interests Flapping hands, rocking body, or spinning in circles Unusual reactions to the way things around sound, smell, taste, look or feel

Help David Murray raise money for autism by contributing to his Chicago marathon donor's page.

About being sensitive to children with autism:


Autistic Children Benefit from Sensitive Moms

By Rick Nauert PhDSenior News Editor Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on February 26, 2010

A new study suggests maternal sensitivity may influence language development among children who go on to develop autism.

Although parenting styles are not considered as a cause for autism, this report examines how early parenting can promote resiliency in this population.

The study entitled, “A Pilot Study of Maternal Sensitivity in the Context of Emergent Autism,” is published online this month and will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

“Language problems are among the most important areas to address for children with autism, because they represent a significant impairment in daily living and communication,” says Daniel Messinger, associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of Miami.

Maternal sensitivity is defined in the study as a combination of warmth, responsiveness to the child’s needs, respect for his or her emerging independence, positive regard for the child, and maternal structuring, which refers to the way in which a mother engages and teaches her child in a sensitive manner.

For example, if a child is playing with colored rings, the mother might say, “This is the green ring,” thus teaching the child about his environment, says Messinger.

In this study, maternal sensitivity (and primarily, sensitive structuring) was more predictive of language growth among toddlers developing autism than among children who did not go on to an autism diagnosis. One possible explanation is that children with autism may be more dependent on their environment to learn certain skills that seem to come more naturally to other children.

“Parenting may matter even more for children with developmental problems such as autism because certain things that tend to develop easily in children with typical neurological development, like social communication, don’t come as naturally for kids with autism, so these skills need to be taught,” says Jason K. Baker, a postdoctoral fellow at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, who conducted the study with Messinger while at UM.

For the study, 33 children were assessed in the lab at 18, 24, 30 and 36 months of age. Some of the children had an older sibling diagnosed with autism and were considered high risk for autism.

At the 18-month assessment, the researchers videotaped a five-minute period of mother and child free play in which the mothers were asked to play as they would at home. Aspects of maternal sensitivity were scored on seven-point scales ranging from absence of sensitive behavior to extremely sensitive behavior.

Children’s language was assessed at 2 and 3 years. At the 3-year visit, when the children were old enough to be evaluated, 12 children from the high-risk group received an autism-spectrum diagnosis.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health. Its findings parallel previous treatment research indicating that when children with autism increase their connection to the environment they do much better, Baker says.

Understanding the benefits of sensitive structuring in the development of language among young children with emergent autism provides scientific support for early intervention programs that focus on parent-child interactions.

“We know that parenting doesn’t cause autism. The message here is that parents can make a difference in helping their children fight against autism,” Baker says.

Source: University of Miami

Monday, May 14, 2012

Inspirational Stories of Chesed

Share Your Stories of Chesed

Chesed is the Hebrew word for "kindness." Have you witnessed an act of chesed that you found to be moving or inspiring? Please share it. Here is a touching story of a homeless woman who bought a girl coffee:

Monday, March 5, 2012

Definition of Compassion

Here is my definition of compassion:

com·pas·sion (n.) - Genuine sympathy for and desire to help others who are suffering.

I'd like to add that compassion extends not just to those who are suffering in ways that we understand, but also to those who suffer in ways that we do not know. For example, someone can speak harshly towards me with unkind words and insults, which is a wrongful and hurtful action. It can be easy to retaliate with my own harsh words and judgment. But that is when I try to give "the benefit of the doubt." Perhaps that person is suffering in ways that I cannot see and cannot know; maybe her unkind words are a reaction to the pain or sorrow she is experiencing. It is not right for her to take her struggles out on me, but she is human and makes mistakes. When I think about it, I realize that I make similar mistakes, so rather than judge and insult her back, I should offer compassion and understanding. Sometimes a compassionate response is all a person needs to start being more patient and kind herself.

What does compassion mean to you? Share your ideas here.
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