Parashat Vayeshev

Dreamers in Prison

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

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In that sense, paradoxically, the prison--the place where punishment is exacted by restricting personal movement, self-determination, and agency--put him on the path toward playing a role in national redemption. 

But this redemption came at a terrible cost to humanity as a whole.

Prison in the Torah

Despite the Torah being a book of law filled with descriptions of crimes and punishments, this parashah features imprisonment far more than any other. In fact, imprisonment is not a Jewish response to crime. The Torah stipulates that crimes be remunerated financially or be addressed by physical or capital punishment--a person's freedom is almost never taken away as a penalty. 

This is because, as Joseph's story shows us, prison is not a place of rehabilitation. It is a tool of fear, an instrument that hardens the incarcerated. 

On the one hand, human society is ethically obligated to enforce justice and to provide safety and stability. On the other hand, miscarriages of justice and the imprisonment of dreamers create suffering and devastate society. 

As I stretch my legs, arch my back, and remove my carry-on bag from the overhead, jabbing my neighbor in the eye, I know that my self-determination, my sense of human dignity, and my lumbar region will soon be back to normal. What remains, however, is the question--Is there a way for our global society to fulfill a shared commitment to justice without stripping anyone of basic human dignity?

This question must guide our vision for a just world, for if we are not guided by such an image, then generation after generation, we will strip millions of their futures--and who will pay the price for what will become of their dreams?

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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.