Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 28 December 2019 / 30 Kislev 5780

Parshat Miketz

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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One of the three hallmark characteristics of the Jew is compassion, rachamim. (Yevamot 79a) The term first appears in the Torah in this week’s Torah portion, when Yaakov sends his sons back into the hands of the ominous Egyptian viceroy (whom he does not know is Yosef). When he could no longer delay, he agreed that the brothers must return to Egypt with his precious son Binyamin, to purchase food, come what may. His farewell blessing to them: May G-d grant you rachamim before the man.

Rachamim denotes the attribute of G-d’s love for His creatures, which can never be lost. This attribute is also the guiding principle in human relationship, the glue of deep connection. The term derives from the root rechem, which means a mother’s womb. Rachamim, then, is the love of family, the love of parents for their children, the love of children for one another because of the one rechem from which they came forth. Compassion is the expression of our essential connection — of G-d’s connection to us as fragments of His being, and of our connection to each other as brothers, sharing a single Source of existence.

Rachamim is often confused with the popular expression rachmanut, which is taken to mean pity. Pity, however, is a much lower expression of feeling for another. Pity is easy to muster — for any stranger, stray animal, and can even appear without much effort for an enemy. Sharing in another’s pain is almost natural to the human condition. True compassion — which extends to sharing of joy — is far more rare and noble. Not all those who today share in a poor man’s pain will rejoice to the same degree if overnight he becomes rich.

The rechem, womb, is defined by a self-sacrificing investment of energy for the completion of another. True rachamim reflects this devotion to our fellow — not only does it suffer when the other suffers, but it knows no rest until it sees him happy.

How appropriate then was this request for rachamim! As if to say, may this man act on the compassion deriving from his incognito brotherhood, and spare nothing to see you return complete — with Shimon, Binyamin and provisions for your families.

  • Source: Commentary, Genesis 43:14

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