July 2016, Parshat Pinchas & Australian Detention Centres

Dear friends,

In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Pinchas, we have a gem of a little story with profound implications. The Parsha begins with a new census after the latest plague ravaged the community. God then instructs Moshe that the division of the Promised Land when they enter will be according to the present count; a tribe with more members will get a bigger portion than a smaller one so that each individual member will get an equal portion.

However, as the inheritance custom of the day was, this only included males. Enter the daughters of a guy called Tzlafchad. The five sisters defiantly approached Moshe, Aharon, the princes of the Tribes, and the entire congregation and put a case before them. ‘Why should the name of our father be omitted from among his family because he had no son? Give us a possession among our father’s brothers!’ And Moshe brought their claim before God.

And what was their claim? According to the Sifre their argument was one of gender equality before God. ‘The mercies of God are not like the mercies of people. People have more concern for males than females. But the One who said and brought forth the world is not like this. Rather, God’s concern is for both males and for females.’

God responds by saying ‘Tzlafchad’s daughters speak justly. You shall certainly give them a portion of inheritance along with their father’s brothers, and you shall transfer their father’s inheritance to them…This shall be for the Children of Israel as a decree of justice.’

This story is most remarkable for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it is an inspiring story of a courageous family of feminists making their case that the law in the Torah as it stood at the time was simply unjust and therefore wrong. And in pursuit of their claim they were unafraid to take on the whole male establishment and demand that this be rectified. And this took place over 3000 years ago!

Second, when they came before Moshe, though their argument explicitly amounted to God’s law being unjust, he did not sentence them to death for blasphemy, nor did he throw them out accusing them of being heretics. Rather, he acknowledged the justice of their cause by bringing their case to God.

Third, when it then came before God, God didn’t rampage against the stiff-necked who refuse to accept Its authority, a very common response to the array of challengers in the desert. God, in fact, sanctions their claim by saying they are right!

Finally, so that no one could interpret that the rule of female exclusion still holds firm with a deviant exception in this case due to extenuating circumstances, the Torah tells us that it is a ‘decree of justice’, which tells us two things. First, that the ruling is a decree and is therefore a permanent change to the laws of inheritance. Second, that the reason for the shift was as a result of moral consideration. Put simply, the Torah cannot be unjust. When the law does seem to reflect lack of fairness, even God is not shy to respond to the crisis by changing the law and naming it ‘the decree of justice’!

We used to think it was ok to exclude women, such has been the norm for us and all those around us from time immemorial. From here-on-in though, since we have heard the simple irrefutable argument of the sisters and been privy to their anguish, we have recalibrated our moral compass to include rather than exclude women. This is the process of moral and spiritual evolution.

Unfortunately, this week Australia learned of its great shame in the most troubling of documentaries. We learned of children as young as 10 being put into detention and from age 13 even being placed in solitary confinement. This included footage of boys in the Behavioural Management Unit in solitary confinement for 15 days – 23 hours a day, no direct sunlight, no running water, eating meals with their hands, while the smell of urine and excrement hangs heavily in the hot humid conditions of their tiny cells.

We were shown footage of officers using tear gas against those boys in solitary confinement; we hear the begging of a very distressed boy yelling out ‘how long have I been here’? The guards are heard laughing at the boys. After the tear gas was sprayed into the area the boys were taken outside in shackles and hosed off with water and hear one boy saying ‘not in my mouth’ because he couldn’t breathe.

One kid had been in Don Dale since the age of 10. He was told by a guard that he’d be put in a cell with a rapist if he didn’t keep in line.

We see images of a boy being stripped naked and held down in a detention facility in Alice Springs. Later there is more footage of him again in isolation and again being stripped naked; being held in a hog tie with the guard’s full weight on his back. The images are so disturbing especially seeing three powerful adults stripping naked a young boy while they hold him down. God knows what was going through his mind at that moment.

The guards would get other kids to throw hot water and spit at him. This same kid in yet another incident is seen literally thrown across the room in a most violent manner.

And the list of brutalities go on, not in Abu Ghraib or some other third-world country ages ago, but here in Australia right now.

What is the moral of the story? I think the words of Sue Oliver, the judge who spoke out, really encapsulates it. ‘Kids can do really bad things but the idea a young person is a bad person is a misplaced view. They are very damaged people.’

Since I’m not a judge I feel free to express myself slightly less respectfully. The idea that kids are bad and need to be tortured psychologically and physically to retrain them to behave ‘good’, is a most primitive, savage, and brutal, understanding of human beings in general and kids in particular.

Crime should never result in punishment for retribution’s sake. That is what backward societies do. It should be about rehabilitation always, and until that point is reached, simply removing the threat posed to society.
I recently heard a lawyer who had over 20 years’ experience with death row inmates in America saying, ‘show me a death row inmate and I will write his biography. In overwhelming majority I will be right on the money.’ The point is, kids, and later adults, turn to wayward destructive behaviours because of the dysfunction and lack of loving nurture they experience in their formative years.

With children especially, if the system took them in, and rather than abuse them thereby adding so much trauma to their already damaged souls, provided a safe, clean, violence-free, environment with education opportunities, there is no doubt that the results would be so much more positive.

But for that to happen there needs to be a spiritual growth on the part of the NT government and law enforcement community. Thankfully, we have already seen actions against the minister involved and Malcolm Turnbull has announced a Royal Commission into mistreatment of children in detention in the Northern Territory.

For the good decent folk of the Australian community let the documentary be our ‘daughters of Tzlafchad’ episode. Let this awaken our deepest feelings of disgust and revulsion at such primitive behaviour which causes so much anguish to defenceless kids. And let us grow through this by recalibrating our moral compasses to respond with profound empathy for troubled kids rather than letting loose our inner caveman with animal instincts.

May we speedily in our day see an absolute end to brutality of children. We can’t control everywhere, but in our communities, in our detention centres, we absolutely can. We can and we must!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shneur