this a text of my Shabbat sermon from 12/13 –
The Bible is intimately familiar with the human capacity for violence. It is concerned with both psychological and physical violence, and that record begins with the very first human beings, Adam and Eve, who betray and blame each other when God accuses them of eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Things get worse in the next generation, when psychological violence turns physical as the Torah tells us about the first murder in human history, Cain’s killing of Abel.
I’ve always felt that one of the most striking verses in the entire Bible is Cain’s response when God asks him where his brother Abel has gone – השומר אחי אנוכי he says – am I my brother’s keeper? And in a way the Torah is a record of how hard it is for human beings to answer that question. Think of the violence throughout Genesis, from one generation to the next. In Noah’s time the entire earth is described as being filled up with human violence. In the cycle of Abraham stories there is kidnapping, war, and rape, let alone the story of the binding of Isaac where Abraham raises a knife against his own son. In the Jacob cycle the rape of Dinah, Jacob’s sons killing the residents of Schechem, and then in this morning’s Torah portion the brother against brother violence perpetrated against Joseph.
You remember the story well, one of the best known in the Torah, of the coat of many colors. It is given as a gift by Jacob to Joseph, his second youngest son, and his older brothers become jealous and angry enough to actually conceive of taking their brother Joseph’s life. When Joseph goes to track them down in the wilderness they have their opportunity, and although most of the brothers want to actually kill Joseph, in the end he is saved because Reuben and Judah argue that he should be spared. Even so, they sell him into slavery for 20 pieces of silver, and he is taken away. When they go back to their father Jacob to tell him his beloved son Joseph has been killed, the rhetorical question that Cain asked of God generations earlier still hangs in the air – ‘are we’ Joseph’s brothers might just as well have said – ‘our brother’s keeper?’ And of course the unsaid answer is ‘we are not.’
Am I my brother’s keeper? Even today it is amazing how difficult it often is for us to answer that question in the affirmative. I wonder if that question ever crossed the minds of the CIA operatives and government officials who were involved with interrogations of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, or in other American holding stations around the world. When the administration officials were signing off on the program, did they ever ask that question – am I my brother’s keeper? When the interrogators were keeping a prisoner awake for 100 straight hours, or water boarding a prisoner until he needed to be revived as this week’s Senate report details, did they ask themselves the question ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’
I’ve always felt the cruelest moment in this morning’s Torah portion is not the selling of Joseph into slavery, but instead when his brother’s cast him into a pit in the dessert. The Torah makes a point to tell us there was no water that pit. If you’ve been on a trip to Israel you know how dry it is in the midbar, in the wilderness, how important it is to drink, to keep water with you at all times. Here is Joseph in the pit, in the wilderness, in the heat of the day, suffering. What do his brothers do? וישבו לאכול לחם – they sat down, just near by, where he could hear them, and they ate and drank, enjoying a meal. Did the CIA interrogators work on a prisoner for 2 or 3 hours, and then take a break and sit in the next room and eat lunch? Am I my brother’s keeper?
I heard on the radio during the week a man being interviewed who had served on the CIA’s legal team during the time when the interrogation program was put into operation. He was using the term EITs, and he said it over and over and over again. I realized after a moment or two that it was an acronym for enhanced interrogation techniques, the euphemism the CIA used for torture. And this fellow didn’t even want to say ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ he didn’t even want to use the euphemism, so he was using a euphemism for the euphemism. And that is how it gets easy to say I am NOT my brother’s keeper. That is how it gets easy to create a systematic program for dehumanizing others. If the folks on the CIA legal team were walking around saying ‘we have a torture program’ someone might have said ‘what is going on around here?’ But instead they were walking around saying we are using ‘EIT techniques.’ Well that doesn’t sound so bad – EIT – how bad could it be?
Well now we know how bad it was. We know that there was a systematic program run by the CIA to dehumanize other people though the use of techniques that can only be described as torture. That is what we know now. What we need to remember – and what we hopefully will be able to use this as an opportunity to remember, or re-learn, or de-discover – is that when you dehumanize someone else, you yourself become less human. It doesn’t matter if the person is a prisoner. It doesn’t even matter if the person is a terrorist. When you torture your own moral code begins to break down. Your own values begin to fail. Your own judgement begins to waiver. Your own character begins to break. And I would say that applies to the individual who does the torturing, the organization that creates the program, and also to the society that condones it.
John McCain said it best in the powerful speech he gave from the Senate floor in response to the report – “the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights.”
When Jacob’s sons bring him the torn and bloodied coat of many colors, Jacob cries out a חיה רעה has eaten my son! An evil beast. Some commentators suggest that Jacob knew what his sons had done to Joseph, and what he was really saying was the evil beast inside of you devoured your brother. The CIA report shows us how easy it is for the evil beast to raise its ugly head. The challenge now is to look it directly in the eye, to know it and name it, even to own it – because then and only then can we move forward, and make sure that that beast has no space to dwell in our country, in our men and women, in our institutions.
This is a task not just for the government, not just for a Senate committee, not just for one organization. It is a task for all of us, something we all have a stake in, and something we should all feel a sense of responsibility for. Here are the words of John F Kennedy in the speech he gave following the desegregation of the University of Alabama in 1963, a moment in American history that he called a ‘moral crisis:’ “I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents. This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”
Let us remember those words in the months and years ahead, and let our great nation use them as a beacon of light during dark times, as a source of moral clarity and vision for all times –