Labor Sabbath: A D'var Torah

Labor Sabbath: A D'var Torah

This week’s parashah is Ki Tavo, and while there is not much I will have to say about all the blessings and the amazingly graphic and inventive curses, the tokhea, that are in it – in fact, I will say nothing at all about them – I do want to take note of the portion’s opening paragraphs.  

Ki tavo means “when you come,” referring to Israel’s entry into the promised land.  The first act upon entering the land is to perform a harvest ritual with a basket of each of the first fruits of the soil as a token of acknowledgment of God’s role in freeing the people and bringing them to this land.  The ritual includes the recitation of the words familiar to us from our Passover Haggadah:  

My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned – or we might say “immigrated” – there; and there he became a great and very populous nation.  

The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us.

We cried to Adonai, the God of our fathers, and Adonai heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression.

Adonai freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents.

Adonai brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Put aside the fact that in forty years of wandering through the wilderness, the Israelites have somehow been transformed from construction workers to farmers. What I want to focus on today, the Shabbat before Labor Day, is the very reason that they sought to leave their jobs constructing pyramids:  

וַיָּרֵ֧עוּ אֹתָ֛נוּ הַמִּצְרִ֖ים וַיְעַנּ֑וּנוּ וַיִּתְּנ֥וּ עָלֵ֖ינוּ עֲבֹדָ֥ה קָשָֽׁה׃

“The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us.” 

Avodah kashah, translated here as heavy labor, literally means hard work.

So what was the problem?  Can Jews not handle hard work?    

No, it was the unfairly oppressive nature of the work (not to mention that it was apparently unpaid forced labor, labor without wages).  The Egyptians were harsh taskmasters.  The Israelites were “groaning under the bondage,” the Torah tells us in Parashat Shemot.  The Egyptians were ruthless in exacting more and more labor from their oppressed captives, making their lives bitter.  

So unfair labor practices, we would say today (I am a former labor lawyer) are the reason for our liberation.  There was nothing inherently wrong with living in Egypt – after all, we had come there voluntarily, when there was famine in the land of Cana’an, and the Egyptians took us in.  (It is for that reason that last week’s parashah, Ki Tetze, has the commandment that “you shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land.”)  

It was how we were treated as workers.  That is what gave rise to the Exodus.

Labor Day is a day to remind ourselves that, as Jews, it is our duty not only to refrain from oppressing workers ourselves, but to work to create a society free from exploitation.  The Asheville-based nonprofit Just Economics each year urges congregations of all faiths to observe the sabbath before Labor Day as “Labor Sabbath,” to lift up the plight of workers and act faithfully to seek justice for workers.  

From the global pandemic to the racial strife, this year has highlighted existing injustices for workers in an unprecedented way.  Millions of workers are faced with unemployment, lack of healthcare and paid medical leave, the threat of eviction, and unsafe working conditions.  Small businesses have closed or are on the brink of closing, throwing their owners and employees out of work. Essential workers are putting themselves in harm’s way for less than a living wage, and the impacts of racism are devastating for workers of color. All this while the stock market soars, the last couple of days aside, and many large companies and executives thrive. 

The duty to care for workers has a special resonance in our tradition.  

“The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning,” we are taught in Leviticus (19:13).  

Last week’s parashah, Ki Tetzei, included this commandment about justice for workers:

Do not oppress the hired laborer who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your people or one of the sojourners in your land within your gates.  Give him his wages in the daytime, and do not let the sun set on them, for he is poor, and his life depends on them . . . 

-- Deuteronomy 24:14-15

“His life depends on them.” The Hebrew is clear:  ה֥וּא נֹשֵׂ֖א אֶת־נַפְשׁ֑וֹ  “He sets his life upon it.”  

Rabbinic commentary interprets this phrase as meaning that anyone who denies a worker his wages “it is as though he takes his life from him.” (Bava Metzia 112a.)

The corollary to these teachings is that if a worker’s life depends upon her wages, then those wages must be sufficient to sustain life – a living wage.  Yet we know that in contemporary America, that is not the reality.  We have laws that require payment of a minimum wage, but those wages are insufficient to sustain life – to put a roof over a family’s heads, to put food on their table, to put gas in the car, to meet the other necessary expenses of life – without outside assistance.  They are not living wages.

The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.  A full-time worker at minimum wage earns $15,072.00 annually before taxes. That is lower than the federal poverty line for a family of two.  Just Economics has calculated that a true living wage for Asheville is $15.50 per hour without employer provided health insurance, or $14.00 with insurance. This amounts to $32,240/year without benefits, or $29,120/year with benefits, assuming a 40-hour work week, 52 weeks a year.  (The rate is somewhat lower for WNC areas outside of Buncombe County, but still far in excess of the federal minimum wage.)  

The situation is even worse for workers in the food industry, from farm to restaurant table. The minimum wage for tipped workers is only $2.13 per hour, provided the tips are enough to meet the $7.25 minimum wage. When this subminimum wage was enacted in 1966, it represented about half of the then-prevailing minimum wage, so workers did not have to make up as much of the difference in tips as now.  The regulation is difficult to enforce and leads to wage theft by employers.  One in three waiters and waitresses in North Carolina earns at or below the federal poverty level.  Seventy-eight percent of these workers are women.  

It’s even worse for the workers who harvest the food that the waiter brings to your table.  American labor laws largely exempt growers from having to pay minimum wage to farmworkers.  Accordingly, workers who pick tomatoes, for example, are paid by the pound, not by the hour: $0.50 for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes, picked in backbreaking labor, yielding an average annual income of about $10,000.00, well below the minimum wage.  (Incidentally, you, the consumer, would pay the grocer $75-$80 for those 32 pounds of tomatoes if you bought them.) 

Our tradition teaches us to speak out against injustice.  

Proverbs 31:8-9: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” 

So we must advocate.  How do we do that?  For some ways that are specific to Asheville, check the Just Economics website,  Here are a few:

  • Support the right of workers to form unions to advocate collectively for their interests, including the nurses at Mission Hospital;
  • The City of Asheville has raised starting pay for employees to $15 per hour, except for firefighters.  77 firefighters make below $15 an hour, with the lowest paid firefighters making $11.65.  You can find a great fact sheet at the Just Economics website.  Consider contacting city council to advocate for firefighters;
  • Shop Living Wage Certified Employers and send them a note of thanks; urge other businesses where you shop to consider becoming certified; 
  • Support Medicaid expansion, so that more people have access to health care.

Our Sages stipulated that workers must be compensated sufficiently to at least cover their most basic needs (Bava Metzia 87a). Maimonides codified that a business may not profit at the expense of its workers and customers (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Thievery 8:20).  It is no less incumbent upon modern Jews to seek fair payment for the labor of all.  

Happy Labor Day, and Shabbat Shalom.

Frank Goldsmith

Social Action Committee, Congregation Beth Israel, and Steering Committee member, Carolina Jews for Justice