Despite the High Holidays arriving late this year, many Jews are still scrambling to prepare. The practical and spiritual work is demanding: cooking, traveling, repenting, forgiving -- it all takes time and energy.
In anticipation of the Day of Judgment, Jews judge themselves this month, conducting a cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul). Some people resist this not just because it is daunting, but because the process seems negative. They don't want to be mired in self-criticism.
But accounting means looking at both sides of the ledger -- deposits and withdrawals, mitzvot and sins. One way to balance the ledger is to reduce withdrawals; the other is to increase deposits. The latter method may be even more effective, because our assets (good deeds) can be leveraged to eliminate bad debt (sins that seem so enticing at the time, for which we pay later).
This week's Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, offers many laws that can increase rachamim (compassion, mercy). Rachamim is a particularly valuable asset, because it offsets anger and augments patience. We can deliberately grow midat harachamim in ourselves. The goal is to make compassion greater and more important than being right. Thus, we imitate God, who is said to pray: "May My mercy overcome My anger" (Berachot 7a).
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav imagines hunting for our good points as if they were literally small points or dots. When we "connect the dots," we both notice and create patterns of right action. We don't so much fight sin as crowd it out.
Like the image of adding to an asset column, gathering good points focuses and capitalizes on the positive. Below are questions based on laws in Ki Teitzei to help us find, connect and expand the points of compassion within:
"Do not show favoritism among your children" (21:15). The Torah talks about favoring the children of one wife over another -- an idea that is not so foreign in an age of blended families. Recall times during the past year when you related to each of your family members as special and beloved. How can you be even more compassionate to them?
Return lost objects (22:1). The Hebrew warns, lo tuchal lehitalem, meaning "you must not remain indifferent," "you must not disappear," or "you cannot hide yourself." When you are really connected with others, you cannot separate yourself from their woes. To increase rachamim ask: What can I do this year to strengthen my connections with others?
"If, along the road, you chance upon a bird's nest ... do not take the mother together with her young" (22:6). Thus, a mother bird is not subjected to witnessing the removal of her children. This "small kindness" has the explicit reward of a good and long life. How have you been compassionate to the helpless this year in chance encounters and "small matters"? How have you been merciful, even when your mercy wouldn't change the end result?
"[Make] a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring blood guilt on your house if anyone should fall from it" (22:8). Rachamim doesn't expect perfection. It anticipates the fallibility, and occasionally even the foolishness, of others. Around what issues and what vulnerabilities (in yourself or others) do you need to build a protective parapet?
"When you enter another's vineyard, eat ... until you are satisfied, but you must not put any in your [bag]" (23:25). Compassion asks us to honor the needs of both self and others. How have you managed that balance this year, and how might you do even better?
"When you make a loan of any sort to your neighbor, you must not enter his house to seize his pledge" (24:10). Compassion seeks to protect dignity, as well as provide help. How have you protected the dignity of others, regardless of what you might rightfully demand? Can the help you offer be more compassionate?
"You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether an Israelite brother or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets" (24:15). It is relatively easy to be compassionate for those with whom we feel kinship. How can you expand the mercy you practice to include people and behaviors that are alien to you? How can you be more just and compassionate to people who work on your behalf?
"When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not pick it over again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were a stranger in the land of Egypt" (24:21-22). It's not enough to feel empathy for those without means or power. The Torah asks us to show it concretely, respectfully and ongoingly. One way to increase compassion in ourselves is to do the same thing we have been doing, but more regularly. Make it a rule; make it a habit.
Reb Nachman taught that a person must be patient -- even with himself. Ki Teitzei can inspire us to have compassion on ourselves as we attempt to extend compassion to others. This year, may rachamim grow in you and through you.
Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana, which provides daily meditations on repentance and shofar during Elul at www.makom.org. She is also editor of "Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life."