What counts as a work of mercy?

Several years ago, I was in a group of parents, mostly mothers, talking about our lives. We circled around to a favorite topic: How to make sure we had an active spiritual life, when every bit of energy and every moment of the day was taken up with the most mundane obligations: wiping bottoms, fetching juice, cleaning up spills of said juice, wiping away tears related to said spilled juice, and wiping bottoms again.

One of the more experienced mothers suggested that, when we give one of our own children a drink, we are engaging actively in our spiritual lives, specifically, by giving drink to the thirsty, which is a corporal work of mercy.

One of the few fathers in the group scoffed at the idea. It doesn’t “count” to give your own child a drink, he argued. You have to do that; it’s your job. It’s the bare minimum, and you definitely don’t deserve any accolades for doing the bare minimum, especially when it’s something so easy and basic as handing a sippy cup to a kid.

I remember the conversation so well because I was a young mother with several small children at the time, and his response crushed me. I felt there was something wrong with his argument, but I wasn’t sure what, so I assumed he was right, and I just needed to try harder.

But I’ve had years to think about it, and I think I’ve teased out his errors. There are several, and they are common.

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3 thoughts on “What counts as a work of mercy?”

  1. I’ve got two little ones under 2 (so far). I’ve just extracted the crayons from between the couch cushions for the 20th time in 20 minutes. I’m not sure where that falls in the works of mercy, but she’ll thank me later?

  2. Different people are called to serve in different ways at different times. All works of mercy are important so I agree, Simcha, with your basic tenets. What troubles me is mentioning the liberals and the conservatives. I think I understand your point in doing so but I believe that it is time that we stopped labelling people as it is divisive.

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