I Am Third

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein  |  December 4, 2015

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This is what the LORD says:

“For three sins of Israel,
even for four, I will not relent.
They sell the innocent for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.”
Amos 2:6

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.

One of the most powerful movie scenes in Hollywood history comes from Schindler’s List, the 1993 Academy Award-winning film about the Holocaust that tells the story of Oskar Schindler, an entrepreneur-turned-hero who saved 1,200 Jews from the Nazis by employing them in his factory. At the end of the war, the employees presented Schindler with a ring forged out of the gold from a worker’s teeth, with the following inscription from the Talmud: “He who saves one life, saves an entire world.”

This is an emotional moment. Yet, instead of feeling satisfied with his heroic role in saving lives, Schindler bemoaned the fact that he could have saved even more Jews. He wished he would have sold his car, his watch, anything in order to buy just one more life. At that powerful moment, Schindler discovered the value of one human being, and he would have paid anything to save another one.

Conversely, this week’s Haftorah points out quite an opposite perspective. The prophet Amos criticized Israel for her wrongdoings, and in the very first verse of the selection, he cited this specific example: “They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.” This was a reference to the brothers who sold Joseph in this week’s Torah reading.

The Jewish sages teach that the money the brothers received in payment for selling Joseph into slavery was used to buy new shoes for them all. However, in a broader sense, this refers to anyone who is willing to “sell out” another person for personal gain. While Oskar Schindler was willing to give away all his possessions to save another person, some people will sell out another person in order to gain some measly possessions.

Selling out another person means advancing one’s own personal agenda at the expense of another. This could be as elaborate as orchestrating a Ponzi scheme that enriches the organizer while impoverishing unknowing investors, or it could be as simple as spreading gossip about one person in order to ingratiate one’s self with another. Any time we gain at the expense of another human being, we are selling out. That, says God, is intolerable.

In his popular book I Am Third, former professional football player Gale Sayers explains the book’s title as part of his motto for life which is: “The Lord is first, my friends are second, I am third.” With this attitude, no one would sell out another person for his or her own gain.

Imagine the kind of world we could build if everyone would put God and others before themselves instead of the opposite! This week, let’s make Gale’s motto our motto.

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