One of the classic examples in the Bible of why one should never give up hope comes in the depiction of Joseph, a man elevated from abject weakness to greatness when he was plucked from the depths of an Egyptian prison and appointed right-hand man to Pharaoh, the most powerful ruler in the land.
So it was quite the surprise to volunteers from an educational group working to salvage Jewish artifacts in Poland when they found remnants of a Torah scroll including this part of the Joseph story in a most unusual place.
In the former home of a man who had been a member of the Nazi Hitler Youth movement during World War II, they found part of a scroll that had been fitted as the covering of a drum. After the man died, the organization From the Depths got a call to check out the garage sale where the man’s belongings — which included all sorts of Nazi paraphernalia — were being sold.
“From the outside, it looked like a regular old drum,” said Jonny Daniels, founder and executive director of From the Depths, which for the past year has been working to salvage Jewish ritual items and gravestones, which since the near-destruction of Poland's Jewish community during the Holocaust have been used in a variety of degrading and unholy ways, including as stepping stones, sharpening tools and in home construction.
“From the outside it looked like a regular old drum,” said Jonny Daniels, founder of From the Depths, which salvages Jewish ritual items and gravestones plundered during World War II. (Photo courtesy From the Depths)
The organization works with Christian Polish volunteers who are dedicated to making amends for the actions of the preceding generations that stood by as their Jewish neighbors were shipped off to concentration camps or massacred outside their own towns, at times with the help of Poles.
The Nazi objective was not only to exterminate the Jewish people but also to mock their faith. The drum found in the former Nazi’s home was constructed in such a way that those playing the instrument would be beating on the Torah scroll.
“I had a suspicion even from the pictures that it was parchment from a Torah scroll,” Daniels told TheBlaze by phone from his Warsaw office. Once they were able to pry open the drum, he and his colleagues saw what the skin of the instrument was made from.
“I was brought to tears,” Daniels said, because the significance of the Torah is so great for the Jewish people. “If a Jew sees a Torah scroll lying on the floor we have to fast for 24 hours. When a Torah scroll has been destroyed or run past its life, it has to be buried.”
“It’s so shocking to see one being used for such a benign use and especially in the period of the Holocaust, they were used purposely to belittle and to make fun of the Jewish people,” Daniels said. He does not know which synagogue or community originally used the scroll.
When Daniels and his colleagues opened the drum, they discovered that the fragment came from Genesis chapter 41. In this part of the biblical narrative, Joseph sits in an Egyptian dungeon after having been unfairly accused of attempting rape. After 14 years of imprisonment, Pharaoh calls for him, having heard the Jewish prisoner has a talent for interpreting dreams. With God’s help, Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and warns the Egyptian leader to prepare for seven years of famine. Recognizing the prisoner’s God-given wisdom, Pharaoh swiftly elevates Joseph to his right-hand man, placing his ring on Joseph’s finger, clothing him in fine garments and jewelry, and appointing the son of Israel to oversee the entire land of Egypt.
Rabbi Benzion “Benny” Hershcovich, an emissary of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement who directs the Cabo Jewish Center, said Joseph’s meteoric rise from depths to greatness is unique to the Torah.
“Joseph is the only guy in the Torah in prison and within a day he shoots up as second in command to one of the most powerful people in the world, maybe the most powerful person in the world,” Hershcovich said.
The biblical figure’s experience could also be compared to that of the Nazis’ victims.
“He was innocent and was thrown into a pit [by his brothers] and sold into slavery. Then he was falsely accused [by Potiphar’s wife] and thrown into prison. He had a lot of suffering for no reason,” Hershcovich explained. “That’s the story of the Holocaust: The innocent suffered for no reason.”
“It’s a very sad thing that the Torah was used for a drum,” Hershcovich said. Conversely, “you could look at it that the Torah survives everything. The Jewish people are compared to the moon. We fall and we suffer and then we grow again, we grow to greatness.”
Rabbi Avi Berman, executive director of the Orthodox Union’s Israel office, offered another insight into the biblical excerpt.
“It’s a constant reminder that the Jewish people have gone through tremendous suffering whether in Egypt with Joseph and the Pharaoh or whether it’s the Holocaust,” Berman told TheBlaze. “The pogroms, the Spanish Inquisition, it’s hard to find a generation that didn’t suffer from anti-Semitism.”
At the same time, Berman said, the Joseph story is a “constant reminder we shouldn’t give up hope.”
“We are a nation that keeps on getting hit from the left and right. We are God’s nation, and we will continue prevailing and growing and will grow stronger in Israel,” Berman said.
Part of that growth, he said, includes Israel’s vast contributions to science and technology – from the development of medications to cellphone apps to stents and exoskeletons. But Berman warned, “The more that … Israel does good in the world and represents the light of God in the world, the more many in the world and individuals in the world will try to come out against that light.”
Daniels, who founded From the Depths — which has been supported by Glenn Beck’s charity Mercury One — said the drum will be part of a traveling exhibition in Europe and the U.S. aimed at educating young people about the Holocaust.