Parashat Vayeshev/Hanukah (5780 – 2019)
Genesis 37:1 – 40:23
In this Torah portion we follow Joseph along the ups and downs in his roller-coaster life. Favored by his father and once so hopeful about his shining future, he has been thrown into the pit by his brothers to be sold into slavery. But then he succeeded in gaining respected standing in the house of a high Egyptian official. But, then he is been betrayed by his master’s wife and brought to his lowest point.
“And Joseph’s master took him and put him in the prison, the place where the imprisoned of the king were imprisoned, and he stayed there in the prison.” (Gen. 39:20) This verse repeatedly mentions a prison and imprisonment. This is the punishment that Joseph suffered at the hands of his Egyptian master after the master’s wife falsely accused Joseph of trying to harass her sexually.
We learn that the Egyptians ran a prison as a place of punishment for crimes against the Pharaoh. It is here that Joseph, who has not committed a crime against Pharaoh, meets two other “criminals”, two princes in Pharaoh’s court “who sinned … against their master, the king of Egypt.” (Gen. 40:1) We also learn that criminals in this prison could look forward to indefinite incarceration, only to be ended either by royal pardon or by execution. These two fates befall Pharaoh’s Chief Baker and Chief Butler, respectively. But Joseph languishes in prison, forgotten.
To appreciate the dismal state that Joseph is in we must recognize that the Torah utterly rejects the use of prison as a form of punishment. (It is only in the Middle Ages, under the influence of surrounding cultures, that Jewish law finally accepted the possibility of using prison as a means punishment, rather than as a means of temporary detention.) Paradoxically, while we may shudder at the Torah’s readiness to apply corporal and capital punishment in various circumstances, we should see that the Torah has chosen only those punishments that could be rendered as one-time punishments. Of course the death penalty is a one-time punishment! But it is reserved for only the most grievous crimes. Corporal punishment was more common. But, although it was painful, it was of short duration. The person is punished, by the Torah, in the course of minutes. He then walks away exonerated and restored to his life, as before.
The essence of imprisonment is its control over a person for an extended period of time. But, as the legal scholar Menachem Elon has argued (see his articles on “Imprisonment” in the Encyclopedia Judaica), the Torah avoids imprisonment because it would mean the deprivation of a person’s freedom. Such deprivation was rejected as a form of punishment.
It is precisely this moral scandal of incarceration as punishment that we are to contemplate as we watch Joseph’s humiliation and degradation. In our society we need to reexamine our moral calculations. We have adopted an overwhelmingly punitive approach to crimes, whether they are major or minor, real or imagined. Tragically, alternatives that are so much more socially effective and humanly worthwhile are dismissed and ignored.
We are meant to contemplate Joseph’s incarceration with broken hearts. Yet this country is the greatest force of punitive incarceration in the entire world! How can we stubbornly prefer to turn away from the moral outrages we daily perpetrate, like Pharaohs, in our gluttonous appetite for throwing people into jails and cages? If we imagine that we ourselves are free, how can we forget, like the Chief Baker, all those unjustly imprisoned? Will we dare to let our reading of the Torah awaken us and set us free? Or will we remain imprisoned by our prejudices and fears?
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukah
Rabbi David Greenstein
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Thank you to John Lasiter for suggesting the title and selecting an image for this Torah Sparks – Rabbi Greenstein.
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