A Letter to the Brave and Compassionate

Dear Officers Demeola and Achison:

On the eve of July 15, 2013, you responded to my call at the Orangetown Jewish Center. In the Jewish tradition, this evening (the 9th of Av) is observed as one of the saddest days on our calendar. At first, it seemed that the terrible losses we recall on this day would be increased by one more. When you arrived at our grounds, I led you to our entrance and pointed to the magnificent deer that was lying on its belly in our garden. Her head upright, her eyes shining through the flowering bushes, she did not move a muscle. I explained that she had been in the same place for at least four hours, that during that time 150 people had passed by her as they headed in and out of the building for prayer, and that she had not even twitched. (See the picture of her included here, taken earlier in the evening.) You were certain she was injured; otherwise, she would have moved. You told me, so sadly, that there was nothing either of you (or anyone, for that matter) could do for her. She would have to be “dispatched” and moved in the morning.

Officer Demeola, you called upon your fellow officer because you could not bring yourself to do such a thing; Officer Achison, you were called upon as the “hunter” who would best know what to do. Indeed, you took your shotgun from the trunk of the police car, you put on your ear muffs, and you approached the beautiful animal. Standing no more than six feet from her, you raised and pointed your weapon, and prepared to fire. And then it happened. Was it a voice from the heavens that said “Do not send your hand against the animal?” Or was it a voice from within that called to you? With all that adrenaline pumping through your veins, all that focus and steely determination to do what had to be done, how did you hear the voice that called you to stop? What made you lower your weapon, climb into the bushes, stand three feet away from the deer, and loudly clap three times? What gave you the sense that she would push herself to her legs, gingerly step out of the garden, and limp off into the woods?

I believe deeply that God has implanted within us the Divine quality of compassion. We don’t always hear that still, small voice that is calling out to us. So often it is drowned out by other noise. On this sad evening, however, you showed the power of compassion. You gave a living being the benefit of the doubt, a second chance, and in so doing you saved a life. If one could show such compassion for an animal, how can we not find the same compassion for each other. How often do we “pull the trigger” in word or in deed before giving our target the benefit of our compassion? Why can’t we offer our fellow man a chance to redeem themselves through a caring word of constructive criticism, or even an unearned and unrequested measure of forgiveness?

This week we celebrate the holiday of Sukkot. We trade in our homes for a week in a temporary shelter. We pray for clear skies, but we accept our vulnerability and we appreciate our connection to the natural world. We invite Ushpizin, honored guests, into our makeshift dwellings in an effort to show our purest and best selves. We connect to God, the world and our neighbors on the highest of spiritual planes. And we pray that the experience of these days will shape our conduct for the year ahead.

Officers Demeola and Achison, this week you are my Ushpizin, my honored guests. You honor us all with your service, your bravery, and your compassion. You have inspired me with your strength and your humility, and I am eternally grateful to you both.

Chag sameach,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Today is my birthday so I hope my readers don’t mind my taking the evening off.  Instead of writing myself, I bring to you the first posting of my brother’s synagogue’s new blog — reprinted here with his permission.  Happy Sukkot to one and all.  May this year bring more compassion and understanding to your life.