Vayigash: Closure, but not at any cost

Vayigash: Closure, but not at any cost

Our secular year, 2014, is ending. We look to tie up the loose ends. Sometimes putting the year to bed involves something simple, like paying off the last bill. But sometimes it is more complex.

It is so fitting, therefore, to read our parashah, in which Joseph is finally reconciled with his brothers and his father. Joseph’s brothers had sold him down to Egypt, telling Joseph’s father that he was dead. After a long, convoluted series of tests and demands, Judah makes a passionate speech in which he atones for the brother’s sin in selling Joseph and appeals to his mercy. Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, and they embrace in tears. The brothers return to Canaan to bring Jacob down to see his favorite son. The father and son embrace in tears. All is forgiven, the loose ends of the story are tied together.

Yet the story contains a perplexing detail. As Jacob travels down to Egypt to re-unite with his beloved son, the Torah describes a night encounter. When Jacob reaches Beersheba, he has a Divine vision, in which he is reassured not to be afraid. Here is Jacob, on his way to meet his favorite son whom he had long given up for dead. What can he possibly be afraid of? Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin suggested that Jacob is afraid that his descendants would become assimilated among the Egyptians and take on their culture and values.

We seek closure also after traumatic events such as 9/11. I was reminded of the possibility of assimilation when I read some of the Jewish responses to the report of the CIA torture program that followed in the wake of 9/11. Officially known as the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, the report was written by the bipartisan United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence after five years of review. The report lays out in excruciating detail the cruel and inhumane ways our government treated prisoners. The report further states that many of those tortured were innocent of any connection to terrorists and that no actionable information was gained through the torture program, and concludes that those who participated broke both American law and the Geneva Convention.

Judaism, which so deeply stresses the infinite worth of every human being, could never accept torture as a justified tool of interrogation, whether or not it is “effective.” So I was startled to read that a prominent rabbi has publicly endorsed torture as an acceptable government procedure. I was more surprised to read that 51 percent of Americans in a recent Pew Research Poll felt that torture was “justified.” It made me wonder if the acceptance of torture in some Jewish circles is influenced by the fact that half of all Americans are comfortable with the CIA torture program. Were Jacob’s fears accurate? Are Jews assimilating our values to American values?

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper teaches that “endorsing torture fundamentally desecrates God’s Name. The role of Judaism is to raise moral standards in the world, not to legitimate a lowest moral common denominator. The brutalities and savage inhumanities of our enemies must not blind us to the impressive and genuine moral commitments to human dignity, or to use the Rabbinic term, kavod habriyot.” Torture, Rabbi Klapper reminds us, can never be a Jewish value. We can only find a sense of closure after 9/11 if we return to our Jewish understanding of the infinite worth of every human being.

We seek closure on our year of 2014 as Joseph found reconciliation with his family. And we remember that our desires for closure cannot trump our Jewish value of the inherent worth of every human being.