Friday, April 27, 2018

Parashat Kedoshim - Labor Rights

Shabbat Shalom! Together we count the omer, the blessing for which can be found on page 570.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has sanctified us with commandments, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer.

Hayom shmonah v’esrim yim, sheheim arba’ah shavuot la’omer.
Today is the 28th day, that is four weeks, of the Omer. The mystical realm of this day of the Omer is Malkhut sh’b’Netzach, or Majesty in Endurance. The Omer Calendar for Biblical Women attributes this day to Ritzpeh, a concubine of King Saul whose sons are killed off by King David in the transition of power. They are impaled, and Ritzpeh stays with their bodies day and night, refusing to allow birds of prey to land on them and further their destruction and humiliation. When David hears about this, he has the bodies removed from their posts and buried properly in Saul’s ancestral tomb. Ritzpeh embodies the strength of spirit, the grace and majesty on endurance, of one who refuses to be treated as less than human, overcoming great odds and forcing people in power to recognize her suffering.

This week we have a double Torah portion, Parashat Acherei Mot and Kedoshim. It is a full portion, with many rules dealing with both ritual matters and ethical matters. Kedoshim especially was considered by many ancient rabbis to be the essence of the whole Torah, as it repeats the 10 Commandments and gives us the commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Among the many pithy verses that fall under this category of ethical commandments in this parasha, there are a few that point to honesty in business. Leviticus 19:13 says, “You shall not oppress your fellow. You shall not rob. The hired worker's wage shall not remain with you overnight until morning,” and the Sifrei Midrash on the Levitical laws clarifies that the reason “You shall not oppress your fellow,” and “You shall not rob” and put in the same verse as “the wages should not remain with you overnight,” is to let us know that an employer who withholds his workers’ wages oppresses and robs his worker.

Just a few verses later we read as well, “You shall not commit a perversion of justice with measures, weights, or liquid measures. You shall have true scales, true weights, a true ephah, and a true hin. I am the Lord, your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:35-36). There is a volume of the Shulchan Aruch, the 16th century definitive code of Halakha, devoted almost entirely to the explanation and codification of Jewish labor laws based on these verses from Parashat Kedoshim

This Shabbat would be the birthday of Clara Lemlich, a Jewish woman who led the Uprising of the 20,000, a general strike of NYC’s garment workers a full year before the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire brought massive attention to the horrors of workplace abuse of the time. Without the help of today’s means of mass communication, without the help of the spotlight that the unfortunate fire would eventually cast on their working conditions, Clara was able to encourage tens of the thousands of workers to walk out on strike at a coordinated time on two days’ notice. Her efforts, and others like her, are largely to thank for our modern day labor rights - sensible hours, safe working conditions, bathroom breaks, freedom from harassment, and more. Although it would be some time before regulations reached the fully fleshed out versions we have today, by the end of the 2 month strike, Clara had earned the promises of her bosses that the workers would see improved hours and wages, and safer working conditions. Jewish women upheld the values taught in this week’s parasha and lived with the majesty of endurance shown by Ritzpeh. They stood up against kings of industry to ensure that their people - fellow Jews, fellow women, fellow immigrants, and fellow working class - and all their descendents would not be treated as subhuman as they were.

Let us carry on the Jewish values of this parasha and live up to the legacy of Ritzpeh and Clara. Let us conduct ourselves fairly and honestly in business, and demand that our bosses, our local businesses, and other Jewish-run businesses which represent our community to their workers do the same. Call out injustice and illegal labor practices when you see them, and stand by workers of all kinds. This is a Jewish legacy and a value from the Torah. On Tuesday, it will be May Day, International Workers’ Day, often a day for strikes and recognition for the labor movements that have fought to give us so much freedom in this country. If you go to work on Monday, and you work a decent 8 hours, with a lunch break, think about those who have fought for you to have those regulations, and those who are still fighting for a living wage. Be grateful for what a work week in this country looks like now, and let that gratitude open your eyes to the ways in which labor practices could still be better for a lot of companies and workers, especially those in manual labor positions. And may we have the majesty of endurance to ever further the efforts that came before us to truly make this world a continuously better place. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

No comments: