All the People Are Prophets
D’var Torah for Beha’alotecha 2012/5772 by Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster
Recently, I was speaking on a panel about the overuse of solitary confinement in New York prisons, representing the view of the religious community that this type of incarceration constitutes a form of torture. I was glad that one of my panelists was a former prisoner and survivor of solitary confinement, because rather than offering a theoretical perspective like I could, she could talk about what it was like for her, what it did to her mind, to be held with minimal human contact or intellectual stimulation for 16 months.
But I was unprepared for a member of the audience to get up and begin to share his own experience of solitary confinement after being imprisoned at the age of 16. He spoke about how he had been a violent youth and turned his life around, after doing self-reflection and penance. He spoke about seeing people, especially those with mental illness, undone by years of isolation, unable to become reformed members of society. His human rights were not remote, but in my own community. And there are so many more like him.
In this week’s parshah, Beha’alotecha, we see the importance of expanding our circle of experts and hearing truth from all reflections of the divine image. Dealing yet again with the complaints of the Israelites, Moses vents his frustration and sense of being overwhelmed to God. Being the expert in transmitting the word of God to the people has left him isolated. In response, God asks him to assemble seventy elders of the people, so that God can share of the ruach hakodesh that is within Moses with them. When God’s spirit rested on them, they were able to prophesy. Two elders who remain in the camp also begin speaking the word of God. Rather than feeling threatened by this democratization of connection with the divine, Moses declares: “Would that all of God’s people were prophets, that God would put God’s spirit on them?” This sentiment is later echoed in the Book of Joel: “Your sons and daughters will prophesy; your old will dream dreams and your youth will see vision.”
But in fighting for change in American prisons, we already see that wisdom and expertise are found in ever member of our community. There are people who we pass every day who might have faced the psychological torture of solitary confinement, and it is their words that we must put at the center of the fight to end this abusive practice.