With Liberty and Justice for All

As we read Parashat Vayeshev on this Shabbat of Thanksgiving weekend, we enter into the Joseph narrative that will take us through the end of the Book of Genesis.After Joseph is cast into a pit by his brothers, transported and sold into slavery, we encounter Egyptian society. This isn’t the first time we’ve had a glimpse of ancient Egypt in Bereishit (after all, Abraham and Sarah traveled there once during a famine in Gen. 12:20-20, and Hagar was identified as an Egyptian/mitzrit in Gen. 21:9). However, this is by far the deepest look yet we’ve had into a society that will soon serve as a counterpoint and the nest from which the fledgling Israelite nation will emerge.

As we read Parashat Vayeshev on this Shabbat of Thanksgiving weekend, we enter into the Joseph narrative that will take us through the end of the Book of Genesis.

After Joseph is cast into a pit by his brothers, transported and sold into slavery, we encounter Egyptian society. This isn’t the first time we’ve had a glimpse of ancient Egypt in Bereishit (after all, Abraham and Sarah traveled there once during a famine in Gen. 12:20-20, and Hagar was identified as an Egyptian/mitzrit in Gen. 21:9). However, this is by far the deepest look yet we’ve had into a society that will soon serve as a counterpoint and the nest from which the fledgling Israelite nation will emerge.

Egypt, we quickly learn in Vayeshev, is both a wonderful and a terrible place! There’s a kind of administrative genius at play in this powerful bread-basket of a land, which makes Egypt the premier destination for inhabitants of surrounding lands in famine times. And yet, through Joseph’s tale, we begin to see a clear picture of this capricious and cruel place. Egypt certainly does not feature "liberty and justice for all."

When Joseph first arrives in Egypt, he is sold into servitude in the home of Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s courtiers. As Gen. 39 begins, the text emphasizes how blessed Joseph is... Potiphar likes and trusts him, and Joseph capably and successfully manages all the affairs of the household. However, Egypt is beset by an underlying corruptive force: a tremendous power differential between various members of society. Compared to his master, no matter how successful he may be, Joseph will always be poor, a member of a servant class, and a foreigner. It’s no wonder that when he is falsely accused of assault by Potiphar’s wife and it’s his word against hers, he doesn’t stand a chance and is imprisoned.

Soon, we meet other prisoners of Pharaoh, including his chief cupbearer and baker (see Gen. 40). In prison, Joseph befriends them and interprets each of their dreams. Eventually, one is restored to service in Pharaoh’s palace while the other killed. Nothing in the text indicates that there’s a rhyme or reason, that one of these men is actually innocent and the other guilty; no court proceedings whatsoever are mentioned. Instead, the reader is left with the impression that Egypt’s justice system is mercurial and arbitrary, decided by the whim of the powerful.

Once our Israelite ancestors emerge from Egypt in the Book of Exodus, one of their most radical and audacious aims -- informed by Torah and in sharp contrast to Egypt's model -- will be to build a society in which justice can be carried out impartially. Fast forwarding to Parashat Mishpatim (which we'll arrive at in late January in our Torah reading cycle), we will read about what this looks like in a courtroom: "You must not carry false rumors; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness. You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty—nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute" (Exodus 23:1-3). Falsehood and malice, partiality and bias have no place in a system of justice!

Here in the United States, as we mark the national Thanksgiving holiday this week, we are also struggling mightily with the question of how to build a truly just society. We may aspire towards the Israelites' ideal, but there are constant reminders that this country has not fully emerged from the paradigm of Egypt that Joseph encountered, with its bias and caprice. Our American justice system reaches towards lofty principles, but is built upon a foundation of faulty beams, a historically white supremacist framework. These opposing forces enabled two high-profile trials -- one in Wisconsin and one in Georgia -- to have returned contrasting verdicts within a single week. We might wonder: is our society currently doubling down on injustice, or moving towards justice?

Last month, we screened the film Since I Been Down, made closer to home right here in Washington State. Kimonti Carter's personal story as told by filmmaker Gilda Sheppard demonstrates some of the many ways that inequality are baked into our criminal justice system: for example, that America's incarceration system is inherently discriminatory, and that black youth are overly prosecuted. Since we showed the film, a multi-faith coalition (of which Kavana is a part) has been turning attention towards criminal justice reform in our state. As the 2022 legislative session approaches, we will be advocating for multiple pieces of pending legislation that will help move this state from punitive abuse towards restorative justice. The highest-level objective is to build an impartial system of justice, one that features equal application of law to all members of society, regardless of race, creed, or socioeconomic status.

This Thanksgiving, I invite you to join me in reflecting on the theme of justice, and how it plays out in our American society. We have our work cut out for us, as we begin to right historical wrongs. Seattle's Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) is working to strengthen intergroup partnerships, including the Jewish community's relationship with local Native American communities. They have put together this resource list for Thanksgiving, highlighting Native American perspectives about Thanksgiving, how the Thanksgiving holiday came about, and the histories and cultures of indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest.

In addition, on a national holiday such as this, we would do well to recall the final words of the Pledge of Allegiance: “with liberty and justice for all.” This Thanksgiving weekend -- as we read about Joseph's time in Egypt and also reflect on what justice can and should mean in our American context -- it is my prayer that we fully embrace these words and commit ourselves to bringing them to fruition.

Wishing you a meaningful Thanksgiving holiday,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum