Parashat Vayeshev

Dreamers in Prison

Incarceration can be a tool of fear--not a place of rehabilitation.

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Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

A long airplane flight is a mixed bag. On the one hand, you have three or four hours of uninterrupted time: to read a novel, to write in a journal, to chat with the person next to you, to daydream--if that's your pleasure. Leisure time of such abundance is hard to come by.

american jewish world serviceOn the other hand, there's the guffaw of the passenger across the aisle, the turbulence, the kid kicking the back of your seat and, worst of all, the restriction of movement: you're told when you can stand up and when you can use the toilet. After climbing over your neighbor's lap to get to the aisle, you're blocked by a drink cart. It's infantilizing. It's draining. Imprisoned, you check your watch again. Seconds pass…  

In this week's parashah, Joseph is twice confined--in the pit and the dungeon. The first time, his brothers collude against him and his nocturnal visions of grandeur. "Let us see what becomes of his dreams (Genesis 37:20)," they say, before they cast him in the pit. The second time, he offends his master's wife by refusing her advances and again finds himself imprisoned when this powerful woman twists the truth. In both cases, he receives a punishment at the hands of those who find fault with his behavior. The imprisonment is (apparently) an attempt to put Joseph where he belongs. 

But Joseph's arrogance is not cured by his time in the well or the dungeon. He interprets the dreams of his fellow inmates--foretelling both promotion and grisly death--without a single display of compassion. Following the same pattern after his final release, he orchestrates a national plan that saves the stomachs of the Egyptian population by selling the entire nation into servitude to his master, Pharaoh. 

It seems that if anything, Joseph has learned a bitter lesson--there is no better way to show your power than to take away someone else's.

Regimes of Fear

The European Union's Annual Report on Human Rights lists, nation by nation, those with offending records: Burma, Iran, China, Libya, Cuba. The report documents the names of prisoners-of-conscience whose dreams, whose voices, whose freedom, and whose lives are behind bars. Yet this is only the beginning. Each imprisonment affects not only the prisoner, but also spreads the regime of fear outward from family to community to nation. It drives a kind of national collective imprisonment. 

Joseph was, himself, blessed. Both of his imprisonments served as steps in his personal journey. The first brought him out of his father's home and down to Egypt where he began his rise to power. The second established him as an indispensable, invaluable resource to Pharaoh, the highest power in the land.

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Evan Wolkenstein is the Director of Experiential Education and a Tanach teacher at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco.