Vayeshev: The Darkness of our Dungeon

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Vayeshev
When Yosef came up to his brothers, they stripped Yosef of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he was wearing, and took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. (Bereshit/ Genesis 37:23-24)
This week’s Torah portion begins the story of Yosef and his descent down into Egypt. When we first meet him, Yosef is an arrogant young man, seemingly unaware that his dreams of dominance strike his brothers as arrogant and aggressive. Yosef’s famous striped (or colored) coat, given by their father Yakov, is a source of friction and jealousy, so when the brothers enact their plan to kill Yosef- later reduced to merely selling him into slavery- they first strip his coat, the symbol of their father’s unequal love and Yosef’s unique status among the brothers. Taking Yosef’s coat was a way to humiliate him, to take his sense of identity and confidence, to break his spirit and force him to recognize that he is no longer the master of his own fate. 
Lest we think that such humiliation and determination to break a prisoner’s spirit is a harsh relic of the ancient past, this past week Americans were reminded that we, too, have blood on our hands- both the blood of innocents and the metaphorical guilt associated with extraordinarily cruel attempts to break prisoners with torture. The Senate Intelligence Committee released part of a report (only a small part, really- most of it was classified) in which we learned in great detail how the CIA tortured prisoners captured in the aftermath of 9/11 and during the course of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Key finding and quotes here.) 
Let’s be very clear about three things: first, this was physical and psychological torture. Not “enhanced interrogation techniques,” but torture, meant to inflict extraordinary suffering. Torture like beatings, forced standing on broken limbs, simulated drowning (aka “waterboarding”), freezing people to death, stripping them naked and chaining them to the wall, forcing fluids into the anus as a way of “rehydrating” prisoners on a hunger strike, threatening prisoners or their families with sexual abuse, religious humiliation and so on. See here and here for more details, and remember, this information were from the CIA’s own documents. 
Second, the Senate report shows clearly that torture never worked. There was never a “ticking time bomb” scenario, never a time when torturing one person could be shown to have saved others. All claims to the contrary are undercut by the CIA’s own documentation. John McCain, of all people who should know, points out the obvious: people will say anything to get the torture to stop. 
Finally, please remember: even if you believe (and I hope you don’t) that accused terrorists deserve no due process, no mercy and no protections of the Geneva Conventions, the CIA admits that at least 26 people we tortured were completely innocent- just the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time. (See the last item on this list of findings.) We tortured innocent people, again and again. 
This week’s Torah portion twice portrays Yosef doing down into a dark place of imprisonment- first the pit his brothers prepared, and then later, Pharoah’s dungeon, where Yosef was sent after the false accusations of Potiphar’s wife. God was with Yosef in Pharoah’s dungeon, but the baker imprisoned with him wasn’t so lucky, and died at his captor’s whim. When we think about the abuse of power that results in arbitrary suffering, confinement, and death, we cannot, after the release of the Senate report, think of other places, other times, other countries other Pharaoh. We must instead reflect on our own duties as citizens to say, loudly and clearly: not in my name, because this is not the America I love, and I will never again support those in power who abuse their power so cruelly.
This week’s Torah portion isn’t only about Yosef and his brothers. It’s also about us, right now, and the moral imperative to call our country to account for terrible crimes committed in dark and secret dungeons where men like Yosef suffered unimaginably, sometimes for no reason at all. 
We can do better. Please don’t look away, but click the links, learn more, and think hard. 
Shabbat Shalom, 
The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest. 

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