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Learning from Joseph About Criminal Justice Reform

Learning from Joseph About Criminal Justice Reform

Prisoner's hands and arms coming through jail cell bars

At the start of this week’s Torah portion, Miketz, Joseph is sitting in an Egyptian jail, wrongfully imprisoned by Pharaoh for refusing the advances of his wife. It is one of the Torah’s first examples of unjust incarceration.

After learning about Joseph’s dream-interpreting abilities, Pharaoh demands that Joseph interpret his dreams. Astounded by Joseph’s explanations, Pharaoh sets Joseph free from jail and appoints him to be his chief lieutenant.

Suddenly, Joseph the prisoner – who had been Joseph the slave – becomes Joseph the royal prince, illustrating an important lesson: all prisoners, no matter their alleged crime, are capable of redemption and renewal.

Although the rule of law in the United States is more just than the arbitrary ancient Egyptian legal system, hundreds of thousands of people continue to be deprived of their basic rights by our criminal justice system.

One of the most egregious drivers of wrongful imprisonment is the practice of money bail. Following arrest, judges have the power to arbitrarily set amounts of money, known as bail, which defendants must post to be released. If they cannot find the necessary funds to do so, they must await their trial date in jail.

Today, more than 450,000 Americans are in jail because they are too poor to afford bail. Although these people are presumed innocent until proven guilty, some will spend months in jail awaiting their day in court. What’s more, according to the New York Times, “Black and Latino defendants are far more likely to be detained before trial and less likely to be able to post bail compared with…white defendants. In fact, black and Latino men respectively pay 35 percent and 19 percent higher bail than white men.”

Where is their justice? Where is their redemption?

As Miketz continues, a great famine afflicts the region. Joseph’s 10 brothers, the same men who sold him into slavery just years before, traveled from Canaan to Egypt in search of grain, for Egypt was the only kingdom with a surplus.

Joseph immediately recognizes his brothers, yet he, fully dressed in royal garb, is unrecognizable to them. Remembering the pain he suffered at the hands of his own kin, some would not judge Joseph had he rejected his brothers’ plea for help.

However, Joseph does not turn his brothers away; instead, he offers them an opportunity for t’shuvah, repentance.

Joseph demands his brothers return with Jacob’s youngest son, Benjamin. Recognizing how much Benjamin’s safety meant to their father Jacob, Judah personally guaranteed Benjamin’s safety to their father. Recalling that Judah was the brother who convinced his siblings to sell Joseph into slavery, here we witness Judah’s transformation: he is now pledging himself to be the ultimate protector of his kin.

Together with Benjamin, the brothers return to Egypt. After seeing Benjamin, we read that Joseph’s “mercy was stirred…and he wanted to weep; so he went into the room and wept there” (Genesis 43:30).

Although the portion ends before Joseph reveals himself and rejoices with his siblings, the ending sets the stage for a fraternal reunion and reconciliation.

Joseph’s exercise provides a lesson for us all about forgiveness and second chances. In Miketz, we learn about a man who was nearly killed by his own brothers, yet who was willing, nonetheless, to offer them a second chance.

The ways in which our criminal justice system operates should be informed by Joseph’s example. On all levels, governments must act to open doorways for t’shuvah, by eliminating harsh mandatory minimum sentences for low level drug offenders, reforming prison systems to rehabilitate inmates, and funding grant programs that help formerly incarcerated people successfully re-enter society.

As a formerly incarcerated person, Joseph was willing to extend an opportunity for his brothers to do t’shuvah for their sins. Our prison system should too.

Please consider taking one or more of the following actions to reform our criminal justice system:

Using lessons from our forefather Joseph, we can help ensure the justice and redemption to which many of today’s incarcerated individuals are entitled. 

Matt Fidel is an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Through his work, he helps lead the Reform Movement's criminal justice reform efforts. Matt is originally from Pittsburgh, PA, and is a graduate of the University of Michigan. 

Matt Fidel
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