Right is Might

Parashat Vayeshev – Human Rights Shabbat 
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz 

Right is Might 

For all the timeless wisdom the Torah shares with us, I think the warning that the Torah gives us to beware of the idea that somehow ‘might makes right’ is one of the most powerful. In fact, one could argue that the entire Hebrew Bible (not just the Torah) resists this Machiavellian maxim. Kings are brought down low, the poor are risen up. Prophets speak truth to power and the foundational narratives of Genesis and Exodus tell us of how smallness – not power – makes great. It is not the firstborn, nor the great nations that impact the moral destiny of civilization. It is God’s covenant with our tiny nation that would echo across the ages. 

This resistance or perhaps even abhorrence of‘might is right’ extends into the rabbinic tradition as well. Many Talmudic cases of tort law protect the vulnerable: the slave, the labourer, the widow, the poor. And even our most boastful, tribal and nationalistic festival of Chanukkah where the will to power of Judah Maccabee – The Hammer – is diminished in favour of the narrative of light and gentleness. In a potent and meaningful move, the Rabbis chose the verse ‘Not by might, not by power but by My Spirit’ from Zachariah as their theme for Chanukkah, where our Jewish independence is celebrated but not idolized at all cost. Instead, the Torah choses an opposite narrative. The opposite of ‘might is right’ is ‘right is might’, in other words: the rule of law. 

Woven in the very fabric of Torah – and the Rabbinic tradition – is a great love of the rule of law. The Torah, if you will, is our constitution, our Declaration of Human Rights. Countless times the Torah asserts that there ‘shall be one law for the citizen and the stranger’. The foundational idea of classical ethical monotheism stakes the inalienable claim to human equality and dignity. 

And so two exact years after formulating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the United Nations established ‘Human Rights Day’, celebrated every December 10th since. There is an unexpected Jewish connection here: it was a Jewish lawyer, Rene Cassin, who co-drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And so, every December, ‘Rene Cassin’, a British-Jewish human rights charity organises an annual ‘human rights Shabbat’. We can all imagine obvious human rights: the right to vote, the right to conscience, the right to liberty and freedom from persecution. But the Declaration goes beyond that. Just like the Torah legislates social justice – how to support the economically and socially vulnerable in our community – so too does the Declaration. 

In these pressing economic times, this seems all the more important. Article 25:1 states: 

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” 

In these times, where many of us are fortunate enough to banish the dark December days with our festivals of light, lovingly prepared holiday dishes, thoughtfully purchased gifts while living in comfortably heated homes, the reality can be radically different even in Britain. Over the last few months there’s been an All Party Parliamentary Enquiry into food poverty (which is often related to fuel and housig poverty) in this country called ‘Feeding Britain’ and the outcome is shocking:

- According to the Trussell Trust: “foodbanks fed 128,697 people nationwide in the last financial year, compared to 61,468 in 2010-11: an increase of 109%. Many of those helped were families struggling as a result of rising food and fuel prices combined with static incomes, high unemployment and changes to benefits. 45,898 children have been fed in the last 12 months.” 
- 13 million Brits live below the poverty line. 
- Food inflation in the UK has gone up 47% in the last decade. By comparison, wage inflation over the same time period has only been 28%. 
- The Trussell Trust has seen their food bank network grow exponentially to 420 food banks across Britain and believes that there is the same number of food banks operating independently. This means that Britain has close to 1000 food banks currently in operation. 
- The report states that ‘hunger is here to stay’ and proposes a series of structural implementations to support those in need in a proposal called ‘Feeding Britain’: 

“We believe the establishment of Feeding Britain, alongside a higher National Minimum Wage and a fairer and more reliable benefits system, can help to rebuild our national minimum to ensure we live in a ‘Zero Hunger Britain’.” 

Each of these statistics has a face and a story. The power of Torah is that it too gives faces and stories to the lived human experience. The Joseph story, starting this week’s parashah, Vayeshev, is a prime example. We learn of an arrogant and vain young man who has a real will to power. We learn of his capricious and murderous brothers, of the scheming of Potiphar’s wife, the desperation of his prison experience and his rise to what we would call ‘Prime Minister’ in Pharaoh’s court. The story is marked by ‘might is right’. 

Meanwhile, there is also wisdom to be found in the Joseph cycle. Isn’t his establishing of granaries to help Egypt through the seven lean years similar to creating the ancient world’s equivalent of a food bank? What remains central to Joseph’s experience, despite his many character flaws, is his acceptance of a moral compass that defies capricious power and that challenges this doctrine of ‘might is right’. 

The turning point is a question of personal morality, when he is confronted by the seduction of Potiphar’s wife. Joseph responds: “V’eich e’eseh hara’ah hagedolah hazot v’chatati le’Elohim?” “How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?” (Gen. 39:9) 

It is through his God-consciousness that he grows from a vain boy into a moral man, that he establishes his dignity and a belief in human rights: the duty to protect life, offer security and ultimately offer food. 

Both Chanukkah and the Joseph story show us that the smallness of individual experience and the greatness of political process are intimately connected. A small act of resistance or kindness or strategy is a candle lit in the darkness, a vat of oil that burns longer than expected. These small acts sensitise us to the significance of human rights and it is true that the Torah’s message remains timeless: from the Egyptian storehouses of yore all the way to the food banks of today.

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