Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת כי תבוא, תש״פ

Parshat Ki Tavo, 5780

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, September 5th, 2020

Honor and Dignity for Workers on Labor Day

In 1894, President Grover Cleveland followed the examples of Oregon, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York and declared the first Monday of September Labor Day, in celebration of those who toil each and every day to help our citizens thrive. Jewish Americans, specifically, have been at the forefront of workers’ rights, ever since Jewish immigrants entered the garment industry in the late 19th and early 20th century. At that time, Jewish organizers such as Clara Lemlich and Rose Schniederman led largely successful strikes and rallies, calling for labor rights that we now see as universal - restrictions in child labor, the institution of paid sick leave, and the standardization of the 8-hour work day, as just a few examples. Even today, the Jewish Labor Committee and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice partner with various labor organizations to help build policy. Both the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism have made statements and held rallies in support of various causes supporting a workers’ rights to food, health, and shelter.

Our Jewish American support of those throughout our workforce does not just come from the historical circumstances of the past century or two. Last week, Parashat Ki Tetse reminded us of the importance of supporting our workers: Lo ta’ashok sakhir oni v’evyon. “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it…” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15). The Torah’s command in Deuteronomy reflects and even earlier command, in Leviticus: “You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning” (Leviticus 19:13). The Torah, then, equates mistreatment of our workers, no matter who they are or where they are from, as abuse, fraud, and robbery. And the Talmud goes even further, to say that because workers often go to life-threatening lengths to earn their pay, delaying wages is equivalent to taking a life (Bava Metzia 112a). Here and elsewhere, the Torah and Talmud recognize that a person’s welfare often depends on her salary, as well as her state of being while on the job.

In carrying on our historical tradition, as well as keeping our halakhah, the Jewish people have the responsibility to work towards a job force that provides for a decent livelihood for every individual in our midst. The first step in our journey towards that goal is financial - the straightforward need for each person to be paid enough and paid on time. For each of us who acts as an employer, even in the role of hiring someone to perform a service, we have the ability to contribute to that goal. We can set wages or support service providers whom we know to offer a living wage to those on their team. Here in Caddo Parish, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in order to afford a one-bedroom rental home, assuming one individual for whom ⅓ of her expenses are rent, she would need to make $14.21 per hour in a full-time job. According to MIT’s living wage calculator, which uses slightly different calculations, she would only need $11.09 per hour, with no home size indicated, while she would need $23.55 per hour if she had one child whom she supported alone, and $13.07 if she and her partner supported one child together. Regardless of these variations in calculations, let’s say she needed a bare minimum of $11 per hour to survive in Caddo Parish. That is more than the median income for full-time waiters, home health and personal care aides, cashiers, teaching assistants, and retail salespeople in Caddo Parish. And of course, that is far above the $7.25 minimum wage regulated by the state of Louisiana.

For the past three years, Louisiana has been ranked last - fiftieth out of fifty - in U.S. News’ rankings of quality of life. That accounts for health care, education, economy, opportunity, and a whole lot more. How in the world can we see improvement in our community without giving individuals among us the financial resources they literally need to survive? Remember, along with commanding us not to abuse our workers, the Torah also urges us to abolish poverty from our land, and even when we fail to do that, to consistently open our hands to those in need. (Deuteronomy 15:4, 7).

Our duty towards improving where we are in regards to workers’ rights goes far beyond finances, into the realm of dignity and respect. In the book of Ruth, Boaz goes out to speak with those harvesting his fields; he inspects the wellbeing of those who could otherwise be like strangers in his midst. When we ask the cashier about her day or listen when a professional subordinate asks for more, we get to know what those around us need to sustain their lives, perhaps even what they would need to develop more passion for the work they do. In her 2008 teshuvah for the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards, “Work, Workers, and the Jewish Owner,” Rabbi Jill Jacobs prescribes legal language for how to put these values of dignity and respect into play:

This obligation should include, but should not be limited to, prohibitions against publicly yelling at, mocking, or otherwise embarrassing workers; forbidding employees from speaking their native languages at work; banning all bathroom breaks; changing work hours or adding shifts without advance notice; or making improper sexual comments or advances toward workers (47).

Rabbi Jacobs also mentions the importance of the rabbinic value of dina d’malkhutah dina, keeping the law of the land, keeping employment regulations at all times, even if they are not enforced.

In each moment in which we involve ourselves in shaping company policy, hiring, or firing, we must remember that we come from a tradition in which we care for one another as human beings created in the same image of God. Our tradition is so challenging because of its communal tendencies, because we cannot write anyone off as not trying hard enough or as not part of our definition of us. Our prayer language is consistently written in first person plural, in the “we”, because we know that we cannot sustain any society on our own. If our neighbors falter, we do too.

In one last rabbinic story for the evening, Rabba bar bar Hanan has a tendency to mistreat his transportation workers. When they break a barrel of wine, he takes their cloaks as payment. When Rav, a different rabbi, finds out, he tells Rabba bar bar Hanan to give back the cloaks, quoting Proverbs, “That you may walk in the way of good men” (Proverbs 2:20). When Rabba bar bar Hanan still does not pay his workers, Rav advises him to compensate them, even though they broke the barrel. Again, he quotes Proverbs: “And keep the paths of the righteous” (2:20). Complicated halakhah aside, good and righteous action must include fair compensation and recognition of those who spend their days toiling and building, serving and creating.

This Labor Day, when we search for sales, let us do some research on the stores and companies we are about to support, looking on company websites and in news outlets to learn more about their business practices. When we enjoy our barbecues at home, let us take our off time to think about how we can better manage employees and service workers when our time is back on. And of course, for those of us who are in a place of pay inequality or just plain crummy working conditions, know that the entire annals of Jewish text and history stand behind us; we are a part of a community who values our presence and who will fight for the ability to secure our needs. May we all spend this Labor Day weekend truly honoring those who labor for our sake and for the sake of their families. And for those who have the gift of being able to work each and every day, may we spend the weekend in awe of our abilities to fashion the world in a way that benefits those around us. Shabbat Shalom.