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The Quality of Mercy

Or, with great power comes great responsibility

Liel Leibovitz
January 02, 2009

Dear Reader,

As you read this column, 2009 will have dawned in all its glory. Quite likely, it is already Friday or Saturday, and you, I hope, have had the chance to tear off the last of your hangover’s thin webs, to write down those new year’s resolutions, to bid adieu to the holiday season, and to prepare for the somber and serious times ahead.

Serious and somber: If you’ve been a regular reader of this column, you surely know that such are not usually its prevailing moods; this space is generally reserved for lighthearted meditations on the week’s Torah portion, preferably with a lacing of profanity or a dab of debauchery. But as the year ends and a new one begins, I’d like to offer a very short meditation of a very different nature.

This week’s parasha is an uplifting one. It is about a family coming together: After finally revealing his true identity to his estranged brothers, Joseph happily reunites with his aged father, moves the entire clan down to Egypt, and facilitates their prosperity and happiness. The rest is history: The brothers begat multitudes, the whole Hebrew nation, the ancestors of us all. And none of this, we are told, would have been possible without one man’s mercy: Had Joseph not taken pity on his sinful siblings, the sons of Israel would have most likely perished in a starved and stricken Canaan.

Let us now, however, think not only of Joseph and his brothers, but of Tahir Balousha and four of her sisters, who died in their sleep this week after a bomb caused the corrugated asbestos roof of their Gaza home to collapse on them.

There is an excellent chance, dear reader, that as you read the previous paragraph, you found yourself armed with a ready response. Perhaps you rolled your eyes and wondered aloud why I failed to mention the terrorized children of southern Israel, living in the dark shadow of Hamas’s rockets. Or maybe you summoned a healthy dose of outrage and muttered something about peace, justice, and the need for restraint. It is even possible that you lost all interest at the mention of anything so overtly and flagrantly political.

If you can, though, put all of these emotions aside for a moment. The deaths of the Balousha girls—Tahir, 17; Ikram, 15; Samer, 13; Dina, 8; and 4-year-old Jawahar—have nothing do with your convictions. You may consider Israel’s recent strikes on Gaza blessed and essential or vengeful and futile, but please let’s not think about any of that right now. For just one more minute, stay with me while I ponder the fate of the Baloushas, and what it has to do with this week’s parasha.

As the bomb went off, another sibling, 16-year-old Imam, was sleeping next to her sisters in their tiny, crowded bedroom. Imam didn’t hear the explosion, she later told the press; she simply woke up when the ceiling started collapsing. “I just woke when the bricks fell on me,” she said. “I saw all my sisters around me and I couldn’t move.” In the next room, the family’s two babies—one-year-old Muhammad and Bara’a, a baby girl just 12 days old—suffered a few injuries but survived. Anwar, the father, was also wounded in the explosion. When he finally made it to the hospital for treatment, he was turned away; it was too crowded.

I suspect you may be fighting an urge to resort to whatever set of political talking points to which you subscribe. I know I would. But that would be missing the point, ignoring the very lesson that the brave and noble Joseph so eloquently teaches us this week: Grace is independent of context. Forgiveness is free of facts. Compassion has its own way of shaping reality. And if we want to be good and thrive, we must possess all three in abundance.

And so, as 2009 rolls in, let us continue our political arguments. Let us bring up facts and figures in support of our beliefs. Let us be rational and dedicated and engaged. But let us also remember that on the other end of every policy, of every persuasion, of every idea, there are people whose lives and whose well-being we must take into consideration. We may not end up changing our minds, but we would at least know that our decisions are informed by that greatest of all qualities: the quality of mercy.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is Editor at Large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.