This week's portion: when we reveal ourselves
A short teaching from Reb Zalman on how prayer can change our minds

Making God present: protecting human rights

Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul for Human Rights Shabbat / parashat Vayigash, crossposted to my From the Rabbi blog.

Today we're observing Human Rights Shabbat. Human rights are woven into the fabric of our tradition. They've been there from the very beginning, the creation of humanity in the image and the likeness of God. Every human being bears God's DNA, as it were; each of us reflects a unique facet of divine infinity.

Because every human being is a reflection of God, containing a spark of divinity within, every human being has inalienable human rights regardless of race, gender, creed. The right to worship freely, without coercion. The right to pursue meaningful work. The right to earn a living wage. The right to choose the shape of one's family. The right to be treated as a whole and holy creation of God.

Over recent weeks our Torah portions have taken us into the Joseph novella. Joseph's story features several suspensions of his human rights: when his brothers throw him into the pit, when he's sold into slavery, and when he's cast into Pharaoh's jails.

In Joseph's story, of course, everything happens for a reason. Joseph himself is certain of this. When he reconnects with his brothers he assures them, "don't feel guilty for what you did -- even if you intended it for ill, God intended it for good." The Joseph story is a classic example of what our tradition calls "descent for the sake of ascent." In order to be lifted up, you have to recognize that you're someplace low.

Here's someplace low: our world is marred by human rights violations which ignore the innate wholeness and holiness of every human being.

Some of these happen far away, and we may feel we can safely ignore them: children mining mica in India to bring sparkle to American womens' makeup, or Chinese workers laboring 21-hour days in a soccer ball factory. [Source:] Others are closer to home: indefinite detention and torture at Guantanamo Bay; an American prison system disproportionately filled with young men of color; rampant prejudice against immigrants and against Muslims.

Later in our Torah story, a Pharaoh will come who does not remember Joseph, and he will be alarmed by the Hebrews resident in Egypt. Torah says "the Israelites were fruitful and they swarmed;" perhaps that word 'swarmed' is meant to suggest how that Pharaoh saw us. Pharaoh whips his people's anxieties into a lather, and -- spurred by those anxieties -- the Egyptian people become merciless taskmasters. They're capable of treating their recent neighbors inhumanely because they have come to see the Hebrews as subhuman.

After all, those Hebrews swarm like bugs. "You know those people, they're not like us, they dress funny, they eat strange foods, they have so many children, they're going to overrun our country, who let those people in, they're mooching off of our government's generosity, it's not our job to support them, they should be deported back where they came from..." People say those things today, too.

The International Declaration of Human Rights reminds us that "Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay." Rest and leisure: the gift of Shabbat, a day for nurturing and nourishing body, heart, mind, and soul. This is precisely what was denied to our ancestors in Mitzrayim.

This gift of rest -- built by God into the fabric of creation -- is also denied to those today who live in poverty. If you have to work several jobs just to get by, you can't be home to take care of your kids -- which in turn means that those kids grow up not only fiscally struggling but parentless, and therefore statistically likelier to wind up in trouble. It's our job to work to change that system.

Another article of that declaration says, "No one should be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." The ancient Egyptians, Torah tells us, made our ancestors' lives bitter with hard work. Then they systematically killed Israelite newborn boys. A number of midrashic sources tell even more horrible tales.

Equally dreadful things happen today in prisons around the world, including some for which our government is responsible. And there are other governments which receive US military assistance even though they routinely engage in torture. [Source: National Religious Coalition Against Torture.] It's our job to argue against this: to agitate for treating everyone humanely -- even enemies, even prisoners, even prisoners of war, here and everywhere.

In the Joseph story, every descent happens in order for the next ascent to be greater. It's our job to take every place where our world is low, and work to turn it around into an ascent.

This Shabbat we join the world in mourning the death of Nelson Mandela, who fought against the horrors of apartheid, was imprisoned for 27 years, and emerged to lead his beloved South Africa into a new era of reconciliation and justice. He was a champion of human rights and a beacon of hope. His life took him lower even than Joseph...and he emerged to extraordinary heights. His memory is a blessing. May it impel us to rededicate ourselves to seeking full rights for every human being on this earth.

Scholar Judy Klitsner notes that once we enter into the Biblical story of Egypt's dehumanization of the children of Israel, there are no mentions of God. When we dehumanize others, then God recedes; God disappears from our story, from our world, from our lives. And when we make the positive choice to remember that every person is made in the image of God, then God becomes present for us again. When we work for human rights, we make God more present in the world. Kein yehi ratzon: may it be so, speedily and soon.