This week, the people of Israel are once again standing at the foot of the plateau of Moab awaiting to enter into the Land of Israel. Moses is still in the third part of his discourse to the Israelites, proceeding their entry into the Land. If you recall, the first part of Moses’s discourse to the Israelites began in Parshat Devarim, at the beginning of Deuteronomy, and includes Moses chastising the Israelites for forsaking G-d in the desert and for the Golden Calf incident. The second part of Moses’s discourse picks up in Parshat Ve’etchanan and includes Moses criticizing the Israelites for being a “stiff-necked people.” The third part of Moses’s discourse picks up in Parshat Re’eh and includes Moses finally laying down the law to the Israelite people, with the mitzvot and the moral, civil, and criminal codes of law.
As discussed in our earlier weeks, the third part of Moses’s discourse is heavily situated in moral codes. After all, recall from the last two Torah portions, we discussed the text of “Justice, justice you shall pursue” in Parshat Shoftim and the dimension of social justice in Parshat Re’eh. This week, we entering the Torah reading of Parshat Ki Teitzei. Parshat Ki Teitzei does not disappoint regarding the continuation of the themes of moral codes from the third part of Moses’s discourse.
Parshat Ki Teitzei this week, describes 74 of the 613 mitzvot of our tradition. The mitzvot described in this week’s Torah portion are ideological and thematically bent toward the overtones of social justice described in our earlier Torah portions. However, the text of this week’s Torah portion is more direct, particularly regarding social justice as it relates to the theme of labor relations. Most specifically, our reading this week gives a set of laws that govern employer–employee relationships.
For instance, this week, we read about the responsibility that employers have to not withhold pay from employees. Deuteronomy 24:14 speaks to this, with, “You shall not defraud a poor and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land” and in verse 15 with “You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is poor and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to G-d against you and you will incur guilt.”
Our Torah reading this week also describes how employees must be offered time to eat and rest while on the job. More defined, Deuteronomy 23:24 states, “When you enter a fellow’s [an Israelite’s] vineyard, you may eat as many grapes as you want, until you are full, but you must not put any in your vessel.” This thought is completed in the following verse, verse 25 with “When you enter a fellow’s [Israelite’s] field of standing grain, you may pluck oats with you hand, but you must not put a sickle to your neighbor’s grain.” Our medieval rabbinic sages have interpreted these verses to mean that employers are commanded to allow food-processing workers to eat from the produce they are working with and is more widely understood as a requirement for employers to offer lunch breaks during working hours.
Yet, our discourse into labor relations in this week would be incomplete without its most prolific quotation from Deuteronomy this week dealing with slavery. Deuteronomy 23:16 states rather plainly, “You shall not turn over to the master a slave who seeks refuge with you from that master.” This verse juxtaposes our tradition with the ultimate abuse of labor: slavery. Instead, our tradition teaches that if a slave escapes we have a responsibility to uphold ethical standards of labor.
Our Torah potion seems to focus on labor relations out of concern of and for employees being mistreated by employers and thereby disenfranchised in a society. Further cementing this point are the prohibitions described in the Torah reading this week against capitalizing on the financial distress of the poor. And Deuteronomy 23:20 suggests that employers or private individuals may not offer loans with interest on the bare-essential items for living including food, water, or shelter.
But why? Why would this be relevant in antiquity, or even today? Unfortunately, it is not hard for some of us to imagine the following scenario. Imagine today, someone working for $7.25 an hour—that’s the federal minimum wage. If you worked a 40-hour-a-week job, you would earn about $15,000 a year. As of 2021, 28% of American workers today make below $15 an hour. Correlating with these data points is about 10% of Americans live currently under the poverty line.
Do not think for a second that this does not impact our community. We have members in our Jewish community here in Columbus, Georgia and elsewhere who fall into this category – members who work hard, day and night, just to stay alive, pay for meals, have insurance, and squeak by. These members of our community also include near and distant family members: our children, siblings, cousins and even parents. It is no fair way to live, but it is the way many are forced to make ends meet.
This may surprise many of you, but in rabbinical school, and directly as a result of COVID-19, many of my classmates found themselves in the lowest economic stratum in the U.S. Some students qualified for Medicaid, and some were on food stamps. The rabbinical students felt financial stress across the board, some more than others. However, the experience was eye-opening for many of us. Going from paying for health insurance in the marketplace to suddenly not was a relief. It was a social net many of us needed until we were back on our feet. Yet, it occurred to many of my colleagues at this moment that the social net easily could become an entrapment. If given the choice of struggling to get by on minimum wage or through a labyrinth of welfare entitlements, most of us imagined more attractive not working could have been. However, as we know, in order for labor to have a voice, workers must be able to work, and they must be undaunted by the allure of escaping into social entitlements.
The traditional voice of labor relations is a defined Jewish one. Think back to your social studies and history classes. The Bund, The Workers Circle, and the Jewish Labor Committee were all founded upon the principles and ideals found in this week’s Torah portion. Even the Religious Action Committee of Reform Judaism today is active in the bi-partisan campaigns of supporting the Raise the Wage and Family Act. On the landing page of website of the Religious Action Committee of Reform Judaism website is the verse from this week’s Torah portion: “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer…you must pay out the wages due on the same day, before the sun sets, for the workers is needy and urgently depends on it” from Deuteronomy 24:14-15.
Let us work to build a brighter tomorrow. Let us unite, as workers and employers, in this shared vision, for the sake of our Jewish values and tradition. Let us not forget the words of our Torah reading of this week, and let us always uphold the rights of workers. By doing so, we are ensuring a brighter, stronger tomorrow for all of us.
Keyn Yehi Ratzon