JCA Summit on Mass Incarceration (December 4, 2016)
Rabbi Alexander Davis, Beth El Synagogue
On behalf of the MRA, I welcome you. The MRA is proud to partner with JCA action in the mitzvah of rodef tzedek pursuing justice and rodef shalom pursuing peace.
We have entered the Hebrew month of Kislev and it couldn’t have come soon enough. We need the lights of Kislev to illumine the darkness in our world. For, this is a time of darkness as winter sets in. In addition, recent events have brought a gloom to our nation. And so we turn to the Torah, herself a light to shed light on our topic of mass incarceration.
The Torah’s first case of incarceration is the story of Josef who is thrown into an Egyptian prison. You remember the story. Joseph is set up by Potifar’s wife. We don’t know anything about a trial only that the conviction was a false one. So Joseph is left there, forgotten and forlorn until eventually he is finds favor before Pharoah and is freed.
We usually associate the story of Josef with Chanukah because it is always read during Chanukah and because the story of Joseph’s powerlessness transformed into power parallels that of the story of the Maccabees. But the rabbis have a different association. They say that Joseph was released from prison on Rosh Hashana.
That association is learned from Psalm 85 that mentions Joseph in the same breath as the shofar. But more than how the rabbis derived that connection, it is the message that is powerful.
RH is a time of judgment. We say that on it, the world is judged. But it is also a time when we are called upon to judge ourselves and do a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our judgements. Have we acted fairly? Are our systems just? Have we wrong accused? Have we condemned for too long? We are here today not just to learn answers to those questions but to organize a response to them.
In our case, it will take insight, determination and hard work to correct and improve our sometimes flawed justice system. But we need something else, something else that we as Jews can bring. Indeed, we are commanded to bring.
At first glance, it might seem that Joseph is freed from jail based purely on luck: the chief cupbearer happened to remember that Joseph could interpret dreams and by chance, Pharoah had dreams needing interpreting. Well, look again and you’ll see something more.
Vayahi Adonai et Yosef v’yayt eilav chased God was with Joseph and God extended to Yosef chesed, love, compassion, kindness. The commentaries explain that the warden realized Joseph was innocent. He gave Joseph a nicer cell and lightened his load until eventually his true freedom came. It is not that God sprinkled magic potion of chesed on the jail door. Rather, God implanted chesed, loving-kindness into the jailer. Vayiten chino b’einei sar beit hasohar, God gave the warden compassion, opened his eyes to see Joseph’s suffering and his innocence. SO God acted through the jailer. The warden was God’s agent in bring about freedom.
The same must be true for us. We must be God’s agent of chesed. We must open our eyes to see with chein, grace and compassion. We must be the moral conscious for a justice system in need of greater justice. We must be warden full of love and kindness to free the wrongly accused and those unjustly sentenced. We must free ourselves from always being the jailer to reveal the chen v’chesed implanted without us. And just as God was with Joseph in the prison, we must be the hands and heart of God with those who need us to lift them out of the pit of their despair.
Joseph was able to begin again, to rise to prominence, to unlock his great potential that brought blessings and salvation to Egypt. And it all began with an infusion of chesed. We need the same.
This work can be frustrating and exhausting and depressing. But we cannot allow ourselves to despair. We need strengthening, to fortify ourselves with our community and with our faith. And we find both in this gathering. Today, inspires us to fulfill the words of the Psalm, “olam chesed yibaneh, we will build this world from love” (89:3).