I have a most sad count going, and it’s not ending anytime soon. I know more young people who have died of substance abuse in the last few years than I can count on the fingers of both my hands. The news about the opioid epidemic highlights just one way that young people get hooked — an opioid legally prescribed after a sports-related injury, or after wisdom teeth extraction, both very common situations for our teens and young adults.
A late-20s young man described for me his addiction, saying that it began with alcohol in his middle school years, marijuana in his high school years, and by his college years, “harder drugs” added to the mix of substances he abused.
This young man’s parents battled mightily to help their son through medical, therapeutic and legal issues. Today, this young man is a college graduate, employed, and working every day to be “in recovery,” as he put it.
His parents described being torn by what we casually call “tough love.” For many years, they agonized — as parents, are we coddling him, being too sympathetic or protective, being too loving? What will we do if he checks himself out of rehab, lock the front door? What if he has no money for food, nowhere safe to live?
The mother’s next words struck me — “I was afraid of turning into a cruel person.” This broke my heart. A mother, afraid that the “tough love” she felt she had no choice but to dispense, might harden her heart, might change how she sees and treats her son and, everyone else. A mother, afraid that dispensing “tough love” over so many years might discolor her view of the world around her and, even render her immune to joy, happiness, and wonder. Unquestionably sad.
This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, provides an answer to the mother’s dilemma — how to do the unimaginable and yet still maintain a tender heart. Re’eh presents a situation of horrific proportion, of Israelites commanded to kill fellow Israelites who are worshipping alien gods. The idolators are to be put to the sword, and all that is in the town is to be burned by fire.
Idolatry, along with murder and sexual crimes, are the three “cardinal sins” which Torah states may not be transgressed ever… thus rendering the killing of idolators justifiable.
Such cruelty, especially amongst family, is indeed difficult to accept! Yet the Torah follows this commandment to kill family who are worshipping alien gods with this declaration —“The Eternal will show you compassion.”
Compassion following horror? One might expect from the Torah’s posture —just slay the idolators and be done with it, they’ve been forewarned! Still, it is words of compassion that follow the Torah’s harsh decree.
The Ohr HaHayim, (Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar, 1696-1743), examines why God is concerned with compassion at a time like this. He writes that mercy erodes when men get used to spilling blood, and to prove his point, he tells an ages-old story about a band of assassins who confess that killing creates an allure of its own.
As a counter to an attraction to violence, God promises that compassion and mercy will always be a part of the human psyche. The Torah says God will not lift this precious gift of mercy from the hearts of the Israelites who have the necessary, but abhorrent, job of rooting out idolatry from The Land.
As noted rabbi Shlomo Riskin observes, “Who and what we are as a people — the seed of Abraham, loving, kind, and compassionate — accompanies us not only in the best of circumstances, but even during the worst.”
Compassion is our antidote to the messier parts of life.
To all who struggle with unimaginable situations, to parents who struggle to balance unconditional love and “tough love” as they parent a child caught in the throes of addiction… the Torah guides us to see that we have within us an everlasting well of compassion. In times of struggle, as we do what is hard and sometimes abhorrent, we only have to reach inside for the gift of mercy that lies within.
“The Eternal will show you compassion,” Re’eh teaches. From God to man, mercy of the heart and soul is our eternal gift.