Never Give Up on MercyNovember 21, 2013 - 5:00 am
“When Joseph came to them the next morning, he saw that they were dejected. So he asked Pharaoh’s officials who were in custody with him in his master’s house, ‘Why do you look so sad today?’”—Genesis 40:6-7
The Torah portion for this week, Vayeishev, which means “and he lived,” is from Genesis 37:1—40:23, and the Haftorah is from Amos 2:6–3:8.
When I was a young rabbinical student, lunch was always a challenge. The seminary where I studied provided a good meal, but there was always “just enough.” We were young men who were ready to eat far more than “just enough.” It took much restraint not to push or take more than our share even though we had all eaten a good breakfast just hours earlier!
I can hardly imagine what it must have been like to have been in a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust, waiting in line for one piece of moldy bread and watered-down soup that served as the day’s main meal. The food the Nazis provided wasn’t really enough to survive on, and many died from starvation. And yet, we hear stories of unthinkable kindness, such as how one prisoner would share his meagre amount of food with a sick friend.
These small acts of kindness were hugely heroic. It’s one thing to share when we are satisfied; it’s another to give something away when we ourselves are so desperately lacking.
There is a saying in Judaism: “Even with a sharp sword on your neck, don’t give up on mercy.” Generally, we understand this to mean that even if a situation seems hopeless, never give up on God’s mercy — you can be saved at any moment. However, a Holocaust survivor once offered an alternative explanation for the original Hebrew: “Even with a sharp sword on your neck, don’t give up on being merciful.” In other words, even when your own situation looks grim, don’t stop being kind to others. This, said the survivor, are the words that she lived by in the camps. Literally. They not only guided her, but gave her “life” by infusing her meagre existence with meaning and purpose.
In this week’s Torah reading, we find Joseph in the depths of an Egyptian prison. It’s not hard to imagine that the dungeon conditions were horrid and Joseph’s future seemed bleak. However, we don’t find Joseph deeply immersed in his own pain and uncertainty. On the contrary, we read that he reached out to others in pain — to Pharaoh’s officials who had also been unfairly imprisoned. Even in his despair, Joseph was sensitive to the pain of others. He made his focus helping other people instead of concentrating on the help that he so desperately needed.
It’s so easy to get caught up in our own difficulties that we fail to see the challenges of the people around us. We need to learn from Joseph and “never give up on being merciful.” And when we are merciful to others, in spite of our circumstances, God will have mercy on us.