Sasso: Compassion pushes back against hatred

(Indianapolis Star, August 8, 2016)

It is easy to lose our faith in humanity. Just open up the morning newspaper or check the latest updates of world events. Every act of violence, racially motivated or “religiously” inspired, has us questioning whether the human heart is suffering from some incurable moral sclerosis. Have conflicts, ethnic, religious and racial divisions so hardened our arteries that nothing can reduce their deleterious effects?

We all know anger and hatred. But what allows resentment to turn into uncontrollable rage, directed not at a single person or group, but against a whole range of unknown people? What allows disgust to balloon into indiscriminate violence?

The news leaves us reeling, wondering whether humanity is at its core irredeemable. The ancient rabbis record a discussion about whether man and woman should have been created. Surprisingly, they answer that it might have been better had human beings not been created, but having been created, they should examine and mend their ways. They conclude that world always totters between good and evil, survival and extinction; only compassion and grace sustain its existence.

I was wondering whether grace had succumbed to an untimely death, when I recently discovered the face of compassion where I had least expected it.

One hot afternoon, I took an ill-fated a walk on the Monon. Dehydrated and without a hat, I passed out, fractured my wrist and sustained a number of abrasions. Two kind women stopped, sat with me, offered me water and waited until my husband arrived. Although I assured them that they did not need to stay, that I really was fine, they insisted. When I thanked them, they said, “It’s nothing, not a problem.

Some weeks later, I lost my cell phone. After arriving at my office, I checked the “find my phone” app on my iPad. This amazing technology indicated that my phone was lying on the ground in the lot I had just left. I immediately returned and looked near the cars where the GPS was indicating. A gracious woman, her arms filled with packages, noticed my darting in and out among the parked cars. To assure her that I had only good intentions, I informed her that I had lost my cell phone and it was somewhere nearby. The woman put down her purchases, called my phone number in hopes of hearing the ring and when nothing worked, she got on her hands and knees and looked under the cars with me. She stayed for 15 minutes! I kept saying, “You don’t have to do this. What can I do for you?” She responded, “It’s nothing, not a problem.”

In the end, another woman discovered the phone lying next to her car and kindly brought it over to me. I could not thank her enough. She said, “It’s nothing, not a problem.”

Women, whom I did not know and who did not know me, stopped from their busy schedules to help a stranger.

Here is what I believe: Grace and compassion don’t show up from out of nowhere, but come from the hands and hearts of human beings. It is like electricity. It is always flowing through the wires, but it doesn’t work unless someone turns on the switch. Kindheartedness exists; we just need more people flipping on the switch.

Sasso is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck and director of the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Initiative at Butler University.