Written by Kerry Chaplin, rabbinic intern at Hillel at UCLA.
My wife and I adopted an almost entirely black puppy recently. His name is Charlie (our last name is Chaplin). When we adopted Charlie, we steeled ourselves for the house training and the shoe eating and the general running amok. We weren’t prepared for Charlie’s diagnosis of megaesophagus. As much as I wish megaesophagus were the name of a Transformer, it’s the name of a congenital condition marked by an abnormally large esophagus that lacks normal motility. Charlie vomits between 5-20 times per day. He has to eat pureed food. He’s on three medications. And he eats in a chair that holds him in a vertical position during and for twenty minutes after feeding. Charlie requires much of what my wife and I are capable of giving — in attention, in cost, and in patience.
These necessities — attention, cost, and patience — are finite. They are limited by physical dimensionality and physiology. But there’s something else we must give Charlie — a compassion limited only by our capacity to give it.
In this week’s parsha, Toledot, Isaac gives Jacob, his second eldest son, the blessing reserved for the eldest son, Esau. When he learns that his father has given his rightful blessing to Jacob, Esau pleas with his father:
הַבֲרָכָה אַחַת הִוא לְךָ אָבִי בָּרֲכֵנִי גַם אָנִי אָבִי . . .
“Have you only one blessing my father? Bless me, me too, my father . . . ” (Bereshit/Genesis 27:38).
Isaac doesn’t reject his son’s pleas. Instead, he responds: “Behold, your dwelling place will be the fat places of the earth and the dew of heaven from above. And you will live by your sword, and you will serve your brother, and it will be, when you become restless, that you will break his yoke off your neck” (Genesis 27:39-40).
The beginning of Isaac’s words reads like a blessing, and the end reads like a prophecy of pain and then triumph. Isaac does offer Esau a kind of blessing — a mixed blessing. Unlike his blessing for Jacob, he doesn’t prophesy that “nations shall serve you” or that “you shall be a master over your brothers,” and Isaac doesn’t offer the blessing in the name of God. He can’t. In his world, one must be dominant and the other subservient. One must walk with God’s presence, the other must walk in God’s shadow. To Esau, these are finite resources.
However, the words of blessings are infinite. The eighteenth century commentator, the Or HaHayyim, understands Isaac’s words to Esau as a father’s compassion upon seeing the tears of his son. When he can no longer offer the finite blessings of tribal dominance and God’s presence, Isaac seeks to offer compassion. Having suffered at the hand of his own father, he is profoundly aware of the necessity to offer compassion, especially the compassion that a parent can offer to a child.
We learn from Isaac, and even from Charlie, that our compassion is limited only by the needs of those whom we care for. When our children, our pets, when those we care for need our compassion, our capacity to give compassion expands beyond what we knew we were capable of.
When Charlie came into our lives, we didn’t know we were capable of compassion for a dog who, without our compassion and intervention, would likely have been killed. We’re not save-the-animals people. We are compassionate people — and because of Charlie, we’re more compassionate than we even knew.
This article is part of Ha’Am’s new Friday Taste of Torah column. Each week, a different UCLA community member will contribute some words of Jewish wisdom in preparation for Shabbat.