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The working life

This Labor Day, consider what you can do to help those for whom hard work is just not enough

Reflecting upon his early life with his father, Bruce Springsteen recorded this song, “Factory” on his classic album, “Darkness On The Edge Of Town.”

Early in the morning factory whistle blows,
Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes,
Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light,
It’s the working, the working, just the working life.

Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain,
I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain,
Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life,
The working, the working, just the working life.

End of the day, factory whistle cries,
Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes.
And you just better believe, boy,
somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight,
It’s the working, the working, just the working life.

Springsteen’s relationship with his father, Douglas, was difficult and combative. On the same album, he sings about how they were both “prisoners of a love in chains…with the same hot blood running in our veins.” Springsteen Sr. was, reportedly, an angry, taciturn man who never understood his son’s passionate calling as a musician, and who resented him for daring to free himself from the safe but suffocating constraints of their lives in New Jersey.

What is so refreshing yet sobering about “Factory” is Bruce Springsteen’s ability to reflect at some level upon his father’s experiences as a blue collar factory worker. The song is one of the artist’s slowest and most somber pieces. Its plodding movement almost makes us imagine his father, along with thousands of others, plodding out of bed, trudging through the factory gates in the rain under grey, heavy skies, slowly losing his hearing due to the noise of the factory machinery, then trudging home at the end of the day, a man with death in his eyes, whose entire sense of being is imprisoned by the working life. Think of the stark imagery that Springsteen uses: a mansion is an expansive, lavish home that reflects wealth, ease, luxury. Yet the only mansions that the workers of Springsteen’s father’s experience occupy are inner mansions, spaces of fear and pain. Yes, the factory gives them life by providing a paycheck, but we sense that it is taking it away from them as well.

Finally, the artist hints at where all of the anger, frustration, and dead-end despair of a poor working person goes when the working day is over. “And you better believe, boy//someone’s gonna get hurt tonight.”  Is Springsteen telling us that, feeling demeaned, even abused, a poor working person might come home and violently take out those feelings on the nearest family member? Is he thinking about his own experiences of abuse growing up with his father?

Work is a financially, emotionally, and socially critical aspect of our lives. Because the working life is so vital and it takes up so much of every working person’s day, it can easily become the source of deep fear, frustration, and despair when working people are treated poorly. Not every job can or needs to be scintillating, but every job must be governed by specific rules of fairness, decency and justice, even if an employer can argue forcefully that doing so is not technically obligatory. This is especially the case for the working poor.

Consider an extreme case of the working poor found in the Torah, the servant who is indentured to a master to pay off a debt or a criminal charge. The book of Exodus, chapter 21, tells us that the servant must be set free at the beginning of the seventh year of service, a kind of Sabbath for indentured servitude. However, that same servant cannot expect the master to provide him with anything upon leaving: no pension plan, no health benefits, no enrollment in a job placement program, as it were. Yet the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 15, changes this rule by stating unequivocally that you, the master, may not set that servant free, empty handed. Ha-anek taanik lo, the Torah emphasizes to us in Hebrew, literally, “Furnish, you must furnish him with sustenance.” Deuteronomy builds the imperative of justice and compassion into the legal structure of the relationship between the master and the servant. We can make the logical inference from this biblical imperative about servants to the imperative concerning all workers. If I have no right to send my lowly indentured servant away empty handed, but am duty bound to support him, how much more so am I duty bound to treat my un-indentured, paid employees with decency.

Of course, the problem with all legal systems is that they leave room for technical, letter-of-the-law interpretations which give people in power the ability to justify doing the wrong thing to others in their power. Jewish law has always recognized how subject to potential abuse law can become in favoring the powerful over the powerless. It is constantly striving to rectify these injustices, by seeking to do what is right, no matter what is technically permitted under law. Let’s consider the following story from the Talmud (Tractate Bava Metzia 83a) about a rabbi who was also an employer:

Some porters hired by the sage, Rabbah, negligently broke a barrel full of wine that belonged to him. Because they were too poor to pay him back, he took their cloaks (the one item of clothing that they each owned). 

They complained to Rabbah’s teacher, Rav, about what Rabbah had done.

Rav told Rabbah, “Give them back their cloaks.”

Rabbah said to him (incredulously), “Is what you’re telling me the law?”

“Yes”, Rav told him. “The Bible tells us, ‘You should walk the way of good people.’” (Proverbs, 2:20)

The porters came back and complained again to Rav: “We are poor, we worked all day, and we’re hungry, but we have nothing to eat! (Rabbah needs to pay us.)

Rav told Rabbah, “Pay them their wages.”

Rabbah said to him (incredulously), “Is what you’re telling me the law?”

“Yes”, Rav told him. “The Bible further states, ‘You should guard the paths of the righteous.’”  (Proverbs 2:20)

Notice what happened in this story. Rabbah, a man who knew the law, insisted that he be able to take his poor employees’ single items of clothing as collateral for the damages they could not pay him. After all, his broken wine barrel was clearly a result of their negligence. His teacher, Rav, knew he was technically correct. They were responsible for paying him back, and if all they had were their clothes to do this, then technically he had the right to take the clothes from them.

Yet being technically correct and behaving ethically are not always the same thing. Rav did not see negligent employees in front of him, he saw impoverished human beings who would go hungry and die if his student were allowed to prosecute their negligent behavior to the maximum extent of the law’s technicalities. Not only did he insist that Rabbah return their clothing, he insisted that Rabbah pay them to keep them from going hungry. In response to Rabbah’s incredulity, Rav quoted him two parts of a verse from Proverbs, the biblical wisdom book, hardly an authoritative law code of the Torah. By using this verse from Proverbs about the importance of staying on the path of good and righteous people, he was asserting quite clearly that the letter of the law often provides us with bare minimal standards of conduct only. The underlying spirit of the law requires us to go well beyond minimal standards for the sake of doing what is just and right for those who lack the power and the means to stand up for themselves.

Admittedly, Rav’s ruling does not tell the whole story: employers have rights as well, and Jewish law does not permit employees to do whatever they feel like when they are working. Still, this story exemplifies just how much Jewish tradition insists upon justice for employees, who like anyone in a society with less power and fewer resources, are often at a huge disadvantage.

As Americans celebrate the Labor  Day weekend, with its barbecues, vacations, and department store sales, we would do well to think about the people in our country who, like the factory workers of Springsteen’s song, are the working poor. From the factories and the farm fields to the floors of Big Box stores and company showrooms, many of our fellow Americans just want to earn a decent wage, do well, and have a good life, but they are still struggling to do so in a manner fitting for all Americans. How can we, like the Torah and the sage Rav, help them to help themselves to pursue the good life? How can we give them, not a hand out, but a leg up?

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (Jewish Publication Society, 2020.)
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