The Genesis:3 Project
So ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to get grain rations in Egypt Genesis 42:3
There is an Aramaic exclamation, rachmana litzlan. Loosely, it means, “God help us.”
I happened to be in St. Louis on what was (I hope) the hottest weekend of the summer. At one point, an unrelenting sun pushed the temperature to 108 sticky degrees. The hotel I was staying at was more than 35 degrees cooler, but the heat from the outside was radiating through every outside wall and window.
There is a jailhouse in St. Louis called the Workhouse. In it, people who have been arrested are held for trial and sometimes returned to it to finish out their sentences. It may or may not surprise you to know that most of the people incarcerated there at any given time are African American.
The Workhouse has no air conditioning. It is a flat-roofed set of buildings surrounded by chain link, barbed wire and bright lights. Inmates are often crowded into cells and, as you can imagine, hot and crowded conditions make for some flammable circumstances. On the day in question, the temperature rose and held at over 115. Did I mention that there is no air conditioning?
St. Louis is a city with a conscience, and lots of people showed up in the street outside of the Workhouse to demand relief. Many of them had loved ones inside, and whatever the circumstances that landed them there, they feared for their well-being from both natural and human dangers. Police were restrained, even when some of the protestors climbed onto the chain link fence and tried (unsuccessfully) to pull it down.
City and state officials who, I learned, have been unable for years to find the resources to upgrade the Workhouse to humane conditions, promised action soon. “At great expense,” it was announced, portable commercial air conditioning trucks would be hooked up the following week, after the temperature was expected to drop.
I learned all of this from watching the local news. It was the lead story, even before tweets from the White House and protestations of innocence from Vladimir Putin.
And then, in the conversational tone that news anchors have perfected, I heard, “Well, it isn’t just the people of St. Louis who are sweltering in this heat. The animals at the local shelter were suffering, too – until the call went out to animal lovers all over the city. Within hours, fans and window air conditioning units were delivered by volunteers, and life is comfortable once again for our furry friends.” And there, on the screen, pushing my jaw lower and lower, was video of the giant electric fans and portable cooling units brought by concerned citizens.
You are going to read these words as reflecting on St. Louis. Don’t. I have no doubt that the scene could be replayed in Phoenix or Baton Rouge or Louisville or Casper, in excessively hot or cold, wet or dry, windy or flooding conditions. People were suffering and no relief was available. Abandoned pets were suffering and the hearts of their neighbors opened wide.
It is peculiar what moves us as human beings. The inmates in that jail did something – actually or allegedly – to put them there. Most of us are just fine with substandard conditions for people if we perceive them as somehow deserved. Then those conditions deteriorate to life-threatening and somehow humanity seeps back into the prison population. We are ashamed that they have to beg for dignity. Not ashamed enough to prioritize them over pets, but ashamed nonetheless.
Reuven tried to bed his father’s concubine. Simeon and Levi slaughtered an entire tribe. Judah anchored his daughter-in-law and then impregnated her. All the brothers conspired to do away with Joseph. The Workhouse would have been just fine for them.
But along comes famine, a threat to their lives, and suddenly they are a band of brothers. And we are rooting for them. The animals in Egypt were fattened, while back in Canaan, hot and dry meant undue suffering, maybe death, for our wayward family.