Caring in the Dungeon

December 11, 2014

3 min read


Vayeshev (Genesis 37-40 )

Getting out of our self-absorption.

Poor old Joseph - sold into slavery by his brothers for no apparent reason other than he told them of his dreams; the target of seduction by the gorgeous wife of his Egyptian master. His reward for maintaining his values and integrity in the face of almost impossible temptation? Thrown into the deepest, darkest hole in Egypt and they threw away the key. If ever a person had a right to feel sorry for himself, it was Joseph.

Yet Joseph did not feel sorry for himself. Far from it. His primary concern was for others. In this week's Torah portion, he notices the pain of Pharaoh's baker and butler and reaches out to them.

The Talmud tells us: "Even with a sharp sword at your neck, don't give up on mercy." The standard explanation is that even when a situation looks as bleak as can be, don't give up hoping for God's mercy. Redemption can arrive in the blink of an eye.

There is another explanation of this phrase, though, which I heard from an Auschwitz survivor. She told me that she treasured this idea throughout her time in the camps. The Hebrew can be read to mean, "Even if a drawn sword is at your neck, don't give up on being merciful." Don't become so self-involved that you forget there are others around you in pain, too. When entrenched within one's problems, it's so easy to feel that you are the only person in the world with difficulties. It's easy to become so self-absorbed that you unwittingly become selfish and uncaring.

We all have problems, some of us more than others. It takes strength and courage to overcome them. But personal problems should not be an excuse to stop caring about others. Circumstances may rob you of many things, but when you stop caring about others, you voluntarily relinquish your humanity.

Joseph, even in the deepest pit in Egypt, cared about those who were with him. This special lady told me that even in Auschwitz, she made sure she cared about others, that she was merciful and loving. If there ever was a place where a sharp sword was at one's neck, it was Auschwitz. Yet she didn't forget that she was not the only one in pain.

We, who perhaps have much blunter swords at our necks, should learn from her example. Don't give up on caring. For there is nothing in this world that can take away our humanity other than our own decision.

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