Before The Law: Creating Real Systems Of Justice

Parashat Vayeshev teaches us the importance of ensuring that we enact justice in light of the ease with which our systems of justice can be abused.

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Mrs. Potiphar's Act of Injustice

In the final vignette, Joseph, now in Egypt, is a loyal slave. When the wife of his master, Potiphar, tries to seduce him, he resists her advances. She is infuriated, falsely accuses him of rape, and has him thrown in prison. Mrs. Potiphar, who is wealthy, well-connected, and manipulative, is able to make the system work in her favor and deny Joseph a fair hearing. Though Joseph has done nothing wrong and has been an exemplary servant, he is convicted and punished.

These seemingly unrelated stories are linked by their focus on justice and injustice. In the first vignette, we are presented with the basic injustice of harsh punishment: Joseph and his father have behaved without sensitivity, but their punishment is wildly disproportionate to the offense--and the only thing that mediates the brothers' harsh judgment is their self-interest. Joseph and Jacob alone did not create this dynamic; it is the unconscious conspiracy of an entire family, demonstrating how easy it is to gravitate towards harsh and punitive responses and ignore the complexity and causes of apparent injustice.

The second vignette reminds us that systemic justice operates beyond the courtroom, in social systems intended to foster fairness and protect the vulnerable, with their own potential for incomplete justice. Judah ignores his obligations and nearly compounds tragedy by punishing the victim. Tamar is rewarded for her resourcefulness and perseverance, but she pays the price of her dignity.

Protecting the Vulnerable

In contemporary welfare systems, too, the vulnerable are often doubly punished by systems tangled in red tape, that so often place too much power in the hands of capricious bureaucrats and fail to protect the dignity of beneficiaries.

In the third vignette, the justice system is inherently unjust in its application. All who come before it are not on equal standing: the one with wealth and power holds undue influence, and the character and prior record of the accused is not considered. A system of true justice would strive to be impervious to corruption, and guard against the subversion of fairness by those with wealth and power.

Justice is complex. Human nature is flawed. Systems are vulnerable to abuse. Parshat Vayeshev urges us to be vigilant--to create systems of justice that take into account root causes, and do not punish victims or allow vengeance to prevail; to see that good systems are enforced and that vulnerable members of society are treated with dignity; and to ensure that power and wealth do not hold undue influence, and that all are equal before the law.

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Aliza Mazor

Aliza Mazor is an independent organizational consultant specializing in non-profit start-ups and the social change sector. She currently serves as Program Director for Bikkurim.