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Imperfect Victories: Parashat Va'era and the First Step Act

Imperfect Victories: Parashat Va'era and the First Step Act

This post is adapted from Rabbi Juliana Karol's sermon at Congregation Rodeph Sholom on January 4, 2019. 

I remember learning about the concept of “strange bedfellows” in my early twenties.  I was in my first days of training as a legislative assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and our boss was explaining the peculiar alchemy of Washington, D.C. where Monday’s allies could be Tuesday’s foes. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was a perfect example: we worked together in close alignment on immigration reform, but when women’s rights was our focus, let’s just say we did not attend the same strategy meetings. 

I’ve thought a lot about strange bedfellows in recent weeks since President Donald Trump signed into legislation the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill that attempts to shorten some unduly lengthy prison sentences and reduce recidivism.  In a political atmosphere as deeply polarized as our own, I was shocked to learn that a truly bipartisan effort – the bill passed the Senate 87 – 12 and the House of Representatives 358 – 36 – had produced a law addressing profound injustice in our federal prison system.  

So, what does the First Step Act, this surprisingly non-divisive legislation, accomplish? Admittedly, not very much.  Incarceration rates in the United States have exploded due to longstanding and unfair criminal justice policies like mandatory minimum sentences which create a pipeline to prisons for vulnerable communities.  The World Prison Brief ranks the US as the highest imprisoner of all; for every 100,000 in our population, 655 are incarcerated. And today, more black men serve time in our correctional system than were held in slavery in 1850.

Of the 2.2 million inmates in our country, only 181,000 are held in the federal prison system.  The First Step Act does not legislate any improvements for the two million people held in state and local facilities.  This bill, which became law on December 21, 2018 reduces some mandatory minimum sentences and funds drug treatment, vocational training, mentoring and other programs aimed at reducing recidivism.  In addition, important humanitarian provisions end solitary confinement for juvenile inmates, prohibit the shackling of pregnant prisoners, provide feminine hygiene products, and expand compassionate release for the terminally ill.

The First Step Act is aptly named. It falls far short of the improvements we need to create a fair and humane criminal justice system; however, it does move us forward. Our own Reform Movement, which celebrated the passage of this legislation, offered important criticisms like the bill’s failure to address systemic racism, the preservation of juvenile life sentences without parole, and the many unfounded exclusions that preclude prisoners from earning earlier release.  In all, this tiptoe forward will benefit around five thousand prisoners, two-tenths of a percent of our national prison population, who can petition or be eligible for shorter sentences.

It’s tempting to write off the First Step Act as insufficient, merely a nod toward progress without any real substance.  How can we possibly celebrate when so many are left out, when millions of lives remain derailed by injustice and racism?  Jewish tradition recognizes the ongoing labor of redemption. We sit at the seder table year after year ritualizing the incomplete project of crossing the sea.  Ha lachma anya, we declare, “This is the bread of our affliction.  Today we are slaves and next year we will know freedom.”  Passover affirms our obligation to those who remain enslaved, to the pursuit of their freedom, and our Torah lifts up, in particular, those who are vilified.

In parashat Va’era God insists that Moses and Aaron deliver the Israelites from Egypt.  Worth our attention is the list of who constitutes Israel at the beginning of the Torah portion: “These are the heads of the respective clans” (Exodus 6:14), the text instructs.  But only three tribes are named: Reuben, Simeon and Levi. The other nine are left out of this accounting.  Most commentators believe that the purpose of this list is to substantiate Moses’ genealogy. The text connects him all the way back to Levi to prove his genetic qualifications as the redeemer of Israel. Since Levi was Jacob’s third son, it is only appropriate, say the rabbis, that older brothers Reuben and Simeon be listed first. But why not then acknowledge the other tribes as part of Israel?  Were only three clans targeted for Moses’ redemptive errand?

Of course not. All the Israelites were included in God’s plan, but eleventh century commentator, Rashi adds a critical dimension to our understanding.  He reminds us that Jacob reproached his sons Reuben, Simeon and Levi at the hour of his death.

Reuben…you are my first born…Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer; For when you mounted your father’s bed, You brought disgrace…Simeon and Levi are a pair; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness…Cursed be their anger so fierce, And their wrath so relentless. I will divide them in Jacob, Scatter them in Israel (Gen 49:3-7).

Rashi argues that Reuben, Simeon and Levi, the only sons that Jacob curses, are listed in Shemot as proof that despite their father’s censure, they are still men of worth. In case these tribes are not counted, or thought of as less deserving, the Torah makes sure to record them for Moses and Aaron.  We must not forget those who are scorned; no Israelite is excluded from salvation. 

Reuben, Simeon and Levi represent those easily forgotten and shut behind bars. We cannot ignore that in our own country, where communities of color comprise 37% of our population, they constitute 67% of our prisons. Might we consider how being born as a minority might, like the tribes of Reuben, Simeon and Levi, be a disadvantage where criminal justice is concerned?  Not being born white comes with incontrovertible risks, but as our Torah insists, despite an unfair condition in society, these are human beings of tremendous worth.  They must not be left behind.

Parashat Va’era lists Reuben, Simeon and Levi to remind us to account for every soul, even those who have been condemned, as we fight for justice.  As Moses and Aaron venture toward Egypt, God insists that they rescue all of Jacob’s children, even those he cursed.

Our earliest legal compilation, the Mishna, famously teaches that saving a life is akin to saving the entire world (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5).  If five thousand prisoners benefit from the First Step Act, then that is five thousand worlds that will receive the manifold blessings of deliverance.  And even more importantly, those are five thousand individuals who will know that the stains of their past do not disqualify their chances for a future. We rejoice with these individuals, their families, and their communities who can find new hope in this firsthand experience of progress.

Not everyone makes it across the sea, and our Jewish tradition insists that we strive for the freedom of every soul regardless of their blessings and curses.  Even the smallest victories contain incalculable good.  So, we embrace our imperfect triumphs and our unlikely allies, allowing our resulting joy and hopefulness to fuel us as we trudge, one step at a time, toward perfect justice.

Photo: Ye Jinghan on Unsplash

Rabbi Juliana S. Karol serves as Assistant Rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York, NY.

Rabbi Juliana Karol

Published: 1/09/2019