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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This week's Torah reading presents us with three stories of justice and injustice. In each, an individual or group is faced with circumstances they believe to be harsh and unjust, and--believing that there is no recourse except to take matters into their own hands--undertakes extra-judicial activity.

The outcome of each case sheds some light on the relativity of justice, the process by which justice is achieved, and the human factors that mediate absolute rules and inflexible systems. Each case also speaks to the failings of both human nature and our modern justice systems.

Jacob's Favortism & The Brothers Jealousy

In the first story, Joseph's brothers punish both their father and brother for perpetuating unfairness. Jacob shows favoritism towards Joseph, deploys him to report on his brothers, and gives him a special coat that is unlike anything his brothers own. The tension is exacerbated when Joseph dreams of his own superiority and eagerly shares the vision with his family.

Joseph's brothers find his presence to be a constant reminder of their inferior status, and their revenge is calculated and cruel. They force Joseph into a pit with no food or water and plot to kill him while they feast, then bloody Joseph's coat and inform their distraught father that his favorite son has met a cruel death.

Only two out of the eleven brothers show any mercy. Reuben plots to foil their plan, and Judah appeals to his brothers' self interest and offers a compromise: selling him into slavery. He appeals both to their sense of brotherly duty and their fear of judgment. The plea bargain is successful; Joseph's life is spared and he is sold into slavery. Interestingly, it is Judah's pragmatic approach (and not Reuben's pure motives) which calms the mob and mediates vengeance.

Tamar Takes Action

In the second story, Tamar's husband is killed and she is left without a means of support and capacity to reproduce, because her father-in-law does not fulfill his promises (and legal obligations). She carries out a deception (including posing as a prostitute and seducing her father-in-law) which, while clearly transgressive, ultimately achieves the goals of bringing her offspring and binding her to the house of Judah.

The system designed to protect Tamar failed her. The ancient practice of promising a younger sibling to the wife of a deceased brother was intended to secure the widow's socioeconomic status, and when Judah does not fulfill his obligations, Tamar deceives him to restore justice and take her due. She achieves an end that brings positive resolution to her plight and asserts her personal righteousness. Despite her methods, Tamar is rewarded for her resourcefulness with a child, with Judah's apology, and with the implicit approval of the Torah's narrative.

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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.