The Passion in Compassion

From the Rabbi’s Study


The Passion in Compassion

As a member of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, Cantor Isaac Goodfriend[1] joined his colleagues in a tour of a number of concentration camps and other sites. During the tour he visited the Polish farmer who had hidden him and some members of his family in a room on his farm during the Shoah (Holocaust).


The farmer was practically illiterate, but he had felt it was his responsibility to save as many people as he could. The farmer set a table with bottles of beer and slices of ham.

The members of the Commission joked with the cantor and asked him how the farmer could serve ham to a Jew. The cantor replied that perhaps the farmer did not, and maybe even could not, understand Jews or Judaism, but that he certainly knew how to define decency.

This is a remarkable insight which reminds us that decency is not a function of education or talent but simply of character. Character can be nurtured, certainly, but it is not elevated merely by reading a book or graduating from a school. It emerges from the experience of life itself. It comes from the world of human relationships. It comes from sensitivity to the pain and sufferings of people.

This anecdote also reminds us that decency and character are not the monopoly of any creed or faith. One finds compassionate persons in every religion, in every society. They emerge as they live up to the highest teachings of their respective faith cultures and their respective environments. The potential for compassion is all around us and, more importantly, within us.

We only need to muster the courage to express it.

Rabbi J.B. Sacks


[1] Born into a Chassidic family, Cantor Goodfriend was interned in a labor camp in Piotrkow, Poland while just 16-years old. Escaping in 1944, he was then hid by the Polish farmer who is the hero of this piece. Cantor Goodfriend was the only member of his family to survive the Shoah.