This Week In Torah

By any means necessary?

The eighth amendment to the U.S. constitution reads that “. . .cruel and unusual punishments [shall not] be inflicted,” which was ratified as part of the Bill of Rights in 1791. The exact same wording was used in the English Bill of Rights in 1689, and has been reworded multiple times over the centuries as a core belief for governments across the world.[1] However, I believe this central principle is currently being eroded.

In Mikeitz, the previous parshah, Pharaoh’s prophetic dreams had come to pass, just as Joseph had foretold. Rumor spread that in the midst of a terrible (and numerogically significant) famine, Egypt was the only nearby area that had any food for sale. As such, Joseph’s brothers journeyed to Egypt to procure food for themselves and most importantly, for their ailing father Jacob. Upon their arrival, Joseph immediately recognized them, but instead of revealing himself, Joseph first treated his brothers harshly, in order to get information from them. His cruel actions spanned the gambit, from imprisonment, to threatening to enslave Benjamin based on Joseph’s planted evidence.  Finally, this week in parshat Vayigash we read the culmination of Joseph’s tale, in which he reveals himself to his brothers and all animosity between them is dissolved once and for all. In the end, Jacob and all of his children live happily ever after in the land of Goshen.

Never once in our Torah do we hear Joseph’s brother ask him why they were treated so, nor does Joseph get reprimanded for his actions. According to our editors, Joseph’s ends, which in this case were acquiring information, justified the means he used to do so. Conversely, I think our eighth amendment disagrees with this notion, implying that not all means should be used to fulfill our end goals. We saw our city, along with others across the nation, erupt with righteous protests over the unwarranted deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice. I among others viewed these killings as the results of police officers using excessive means in the name of self-defense or subduing the subject, and fueled by our society’s underlying current of racial hatred. Many people, including myself, were outraged when grand juries did not indict Brown’s or Garner’s killers. Since the Department of Justice has publicly stated that the Cleveland police must enact reforms due to its long history of excessive force[2], let us hope that Rice’s killer can be brought to justice.

In the midst of these bouts of police brutality, a California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB) police officer was fired for talking down a suicidal student rather than using his taser. After calming down the student, the CSUMB officer went to get a glass of water for the student, giving local police offers a chance to find the student and use their tasers, since according to Marina Police Chief Edmundo Rodriguez the student, “was clearly a danger to himself and he was in crisis… We were trying to keep him from accessing the weapons or leave, to get him medical attention.”[3] Here, we are reminded that no good deed ever goes unpunished.

On December 9th, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a highly redacted report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, including their use of a variety of forms of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (A.K.A. torture) on detainees from 2001-2006. The 525 page redaction from the original 6,000 pages, gave the American public a gruesome and horrifying insight on the atrocities committed by our government. If interested, the document can be found here. The report revealed that the CIA intentionally lied to Department of Justice, impeded or avoided oversight from the White House and congress, marginalized or ignored internal critiques of the program. To make matters worse, the report concluded that in the end the enhanced interrogation techniques weren’t even effective in gathering intelligence or cooperation from detainees.[4] Health professionals from Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) stated that since the CIA’s health professionals oversaw these interrogations, they violated the basic tenants of healing professions and should be charged for war crimes.  One would think that this information would make the American public cry out for justice, but a recent Pew study showed that most Americans thought the CIA’s actions were justified.[5]

We as Jews know how it feels to be the target of overwhelming force. The unethical treatment we received overseas was the impetus for many of our ancestors to immigrate to America, in the hopes that they would be treated with the dignity and respect that all people deserve. We are taught in our Torah that God wants us to “…do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”[6] If we pursue justice at every opportunity and temper our justice with mercy, then our inner light will shine, illuminating a clear path for us to walk humbly with our God.

לא עליך המלאכה לגמור‫, ולא אתה בן חורין לבטל ממנה

lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, v’lo atah ven chorin libatel mimena

“It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to abstain from it.”

Rabbi Tarfon, Avot 2:16

Happy Chanukkah!

Cantor Rick Lawrence



[1] Cruel and Unusual Punishment. (2014, December 16). Retrieved December 18, 2014, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cruel_and_unusual_punishment

[2] DOJ Cleveland police findings -- a need for changed leadership and accountability. (2014, December 10). Retrieved December 18, 2014, from Cleveland.com http://www.cleveland.com/opinion/index.ssf/2014/12/doj_cleveland_police_findings.html

[3] McAuliffe, Z. (2014, December 8). A California police officer has been fired for not using violence. Retrieved December 18, 2014, from http://benswann.com/a-california-police-officer-has-been-fired-for-not-using-violence/

[4] Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture. (2014, December 19). Retrieved December 19, 2014, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Senate_Intelligence_Committee_report_on_CIA_torture

[5] Blake, A. (2014, December 15). That big CIA ‘torture’ report? Americans just shrugged.Washington Post. Retrieved December 18, 2014, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2014/12/15/that-big-cia-torture-report-americans-just-shrugged/

[6] Micah 6:8