A version of this sermon was delivered by Hanan Isaacs at the Princeton Jewish Center on August 16, 2008.
"Va-etchanan". The word has no ready translation into English. It is a verb, and it includes the word "chanan", which means "gracious" or "benevolent". The best translation I could deduce, given the context and content of today's Parsha, is "I implore you, O Lord, without right or expectation. Graciously grant my earnest request." Or, in shorter words, "Oh Lord, I beg you, I beseech you. Hear my prayer and grant it from grace."
In today's Parsha, Moshe Rabbenu seeks God's reconsideration. God has forbidden physical entry into The Promised Land, based on Moshe's earlier acts of disobedience - listed elsewhere but not here. Moshe pleads with God, but God does not relent. The law is the law, the decree stands. Moshe may peer into The Promised Land from the heights, but he shall never enter, even after death. A Torah haiku, by Ron Kaplan: "Even dead, Moshe cannot enter Israel. Sad fate for a great man."
Moshe is thus in a perfect position to advise the Children of Israel about the importance of following God's fundamental laws. He tells them, "For you to abide in the Promised Land, something I shall never do, remember: You must follow God's laws faithfully. You must observe them. Do not forget the things that you have seen with your own eyes, especially Israel's deliverance from Egypt. Make these things known to your children, and your children's children."
In effect, he tells them, "Do not repeat my mistakes. If you violate God's laws, even though you get to enter The Promised Land, you shall soon perish from the earth. You shall be utterly wiped out."
A recapitulation of The Ten Commandments follows, then the Sh'ma, and then the Ve'Ahafta. This Parsha is packed with gems and drama.
We come to understand that God is an impassioned and zealous Commander in Chief. The consequences of disobedience are severe and possibly fatal.
On the other hand, faithful execution of God's laws will produce God's rewards - for 1,000 generations. The beneficial effects, says Moshe, far outweigh and outlast the detrimental ones.
And so I come to my purpose today, to discuss in this context an 11th Commandment that I have discerned in today's Parsha, one that is implied by and derives from the first 10. And this is what it says: "Thou shalt not commit human rights violations upon thy fellow and sister human beings."
It is fundamental. It admits of no exceptions. Like the 10 Commandments that precede it, those who violate the 11th Commandment will inevitably violate the others.
This is not a matter of politics, but rather of the most basic morality. The morality of Mahatma Ghandi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela.
In American history, it is said that General George Washington forbade the use of torture against British soldiers, even though the British practiced it regularly upon his troops. It was a point of pride for General Washington that his troops were civilized and would stop short of human torture. That policy, that moral compass, came from the very top of the command.
In all wars since then, right up until September 11, 2001, American service people were forbidden to commit acts of torture, acts of human rights violations, upon enemy combatants or upon civilians whose loyalties were suspect - no matter what. When such acts occurred, and they always do in wartime, the High Command disavowed them, and the perpetrators, when caught, were tried and punished.
These fundamental precepts are codified in international and United States laws: The Geneva Accords, the War Crimes Act, the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the U.N.'s Convention Against Torture, and elsewhere.
Unfortunately, tragically, in reaction to 9/11, The White House and its Department of Defense secretly broke faith with the 11th Commandment: "Thou shalt not commit human rights violations upon thy fellow and sister human beings." In the name of the War Against Terror, the White House and the Department of Defense directed American military and non-military operatives to use harsh and illegal methods of torture and interrogation against THOUSANDS UPON THOUSANDS of enemy combatants and civilians whose loyalties were suspect. The sad truth is, we do not even know how many, and we may never know.
Techniques such as kicking; slapping; forced nudity; painful shackling into "stress positions" for agonizing lengths of time; encounters with vicious dogs; hooding and isolation; sensory bombardment of lights and sounds for extended time periods; food, water, and sleep deprivations; threats to detainees and their families; electric shocks to the body; and the oft-mentioned technique of choice, water-boarding - a form of near suffocation that produces a sensation in the interrogee that he or she is about to drown.
Acts of sexual humiliation have been reported throughout America's various theaters of operation in the War Against Terror, from the notorious forced masturbation and naked human pyramids of Iraq's Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Cuba's use of female interrogators who rub their bare bodies against detainees and smear detainees' faces with feigned menstrual blood. These acts are denigrating for anyone, but especially for those of the Moslem faith - which is precisely why our military and civilian interrogators use them.
The U.S. Military also has followed a secret policy called "extraordinary rendition", seizing citizens of foreign countries while abroad and transporting them to other countries where they are tortured with even more extreme measures. Foreign military allies are thus violating the 11th Commandment on our behalf and at our direction.
These are not the acts of a few bad apples. Rather, they represent the direct and predictable results of secret policies created at the highest levels of our Government, for the express purpose of "softening detainees up" for interrogation. Shame them. Physically brutalize them. Terrorize them. Make them fear for their lives and their families' lives.
These are matters of fundamental immorality, and God cannot be pleased. United States military and civilian personnel have committed horrific and now documented acts of torture and human degradation upon THOUSANDS AND THOUSANDS of people overseas. They have done so in our names, yours and mine, and we have a moral obligation to learn about it, stop it, and bring to justice those who have committed these acts. No one should receive legal immunity for these violations of law and human rights.
Why should you and I care about this? Some would prefer to avert their eyes, "Don't ask, Don't tell." We want to retain our illusions. We don't wish to be let down by our Government, upset, fall victim yet again to hypocritical actions of leaders we once trusted.
We should care because torture does not make us safer or more secure. The truth value of statements made by torture victims is terribly compromised. Wouldn't you or I say whatever we had to say to protect ourselves or our families from further harm or threat of harm?
We should care because, in the immortal words of Professor Warren Sussman, Chair of the Rutgers College Department of History when I was an undergraduate, "For every Christian thrown to the lions, two more Christian converts left the Roman Amphitheater." With our post-9/11 torture and interrogation policies, America has created far more enemies than friends around the globe.
We should care because there has never been a documented case of a terrorist suspect whose tortured confession has led to discovery of the ticking time bomb - and there never will be. That is a fiction created by those who favor torture to justify immoral conduct and manipulate the fearful civilian population of this country.
We should care because torture puts our own troops at risk for similar treatment at the hands of our enemies. Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell was the sole Cabinet member on record as having opposed America's post-9/11 shift to secret torture. He is a former soldier who did not want to put our troops at unnecessary risk, where our morally repugnant actions would put us at or below the level of our enemies. Who shall take the moral high ground if everyone is behaving equally badly?
We should care because God is not happy when we fail to act in the face of immorality.
We should care because we Jews have been THE VICTIMS of cruel and degrading treatment: kicking; slapping; forced nudity; painful shackling into "stress positions" for agonizing lengths of time; encounters with vicious dogs; hooding and isolation; food, water, and sleep deprivations; threats to Jewish lives and families; electric shocks to the body; sexual humiliation.
As Rabbi Melissa Weintraub has notably written: "We remember, and our memories renew our empathy . . . We Jews cannot afford to live without empathy.
For we know the people beaten and degraded could be one of us, our loved ones, members of our congregation and community. The One who heard our cries in Egypt commanded that our tears must become a wellspring of compassion for all who suffer."
Pastor Martin Niemoller, a German political activist and survivor of Hitler's concentration camps, and whose widow spoke from this very Bimah several years ago, put it thus in his famous poem, first published in 1955:
"In Germany, they came first for the Communists, And I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist;
And then they came for the trade unionists, And I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist;
And then they came for the Jews, And I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew;
And then . . . they came for me . . . And by that time there was no one left to speak up."
Torture and other human rights violations and our collective failures to acknowledge them, stop them, and prosecute them, are today's moral equivalent of interning Japanese Americans in the 1940's; racial segregation in the 1950's and 1960's; and acts of violence against women and gay people in more recent times.
Some day we will look back with moral revulsion upon America's lapse into pre-civilized behavior, her fundamental break with an ordered society, her departure from her higher self. We will ask ourselves, or perhaps our children or grandchildren will ask of us: "How could this have happened? What more could have been done to prevent it or prevent its recurrence? What did YOU do? What could YOU have done to stop it?"
I want to be ready when that time comes. I want to deliver a courageous and forthright answer that says, "THIS is what I did, even though undoubtedly there was more that I could and should have done."
The Israeli Supreme Court has forbidden the Israeli military and police to use torture on detainees. Our nation should do no less.
Va-etchanan. I implore you - not as a matter of right or expectation, but rather as a matter of your grace in granting my request.
Let us join together, individually and communally, to learn about, stop, and prosecute crimes of torture and violations of human rights. They have been done in our names. We have an obligation to counteract these immoral acts, also in our own names.
For we recall Moshe's admonition to the Children of Israel: "Do not repeat my mistakes. If you violate God's laws, even though you get to enter The Promised Land, you shall soon perish from the earth. You shall be utterly wiped out."
We understand, as did Moshe, that God is an impassioned and zealous Commander in Chief. The consequences of disobeying God's fundamental laws - all Eleven Commandments' worth -- are severe and possibly fatal.
We should individually and collectively join and support the following organizations in their godly works:
1. T'ruah (Formerly Rabbis for Human Rights-North America)
2. National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NARCAT), created by my friend and colleague, Rev. George Hunsinger of Princeton Theological Seminary.
3. Amnesty International.
4. Nassau Presbyterian Church Anti-Torture Committee, of which Sandie Rabinowitz and I are active members.
5. Coalition for Peace Action in Princeton, of which I am on the Steering Committee.
6. Read Mark Danner's book, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror, published by the NY Review of Books, 2004. Mr. Danner is an award winning journalist, a brave and truth-telling man, and a Professor of Journalism at UC-Berkeley. His work is eye-opening and gut-wrenching. It is essential that we acknowledge what has happened, resolve to stop it, and prosecute those who have acted unlawfully in our names.
7. Remember the 11th Commandment, keep it holy, and act on it immediately and persistently. Our actions will set us free, along with our children, and our children's children, for 1,000 generations. And God, our impassioned and zealous Commander in Chief, will remember.
Va-etchanan . . .Ken Y'hee Ratzon . . .Shabbat Shalom . . .