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Parashat Re’eh

August 28, 2008

By Maralee Gordon
Shabbat Re’eh is the beginning of Labor Day Weekend this year. Often we view Labor Day as its oxymoron-a day off from labor. But of course, it is meant to call attention to the contributions of workers to our society. The U.S. Department of Labor states:

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

Many of our ancestors were involved in the nascent labor movement at the turn of the 20th century, in which they struggled to make sure that those on the edge of poverty were able to work under decent conditions rather than slave away in inhumane circumstances for less than living wages.

Re’eh can help us to understand our responsibility to continue that struggle today:

There shall be no needy among you-since Adonai your God will bless you in the land that Adonai your God is giving you as a hereditary portion-if only you heed Adonai your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day . . . .

If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that Adonai your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs . . . . For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land. (Deut. 15:4-5, 7-10)

Many of us look on the United States of America as our hereditary portion. Like the Israelites who came to Canaan, our ancestors immigrated to this land of milk and honey, where we are all considered to be kinsmen. As in this week’s parashah, our legislators have worked to limit poverty in the land and to make sure that all are provided for. One initiative was the Minimum Wage Law, enacted to ensure that no one was working for slave wages, that a full week of work could actually support an adult and his or her offspring.

But Minimum Wage didn’t keep up with inflation, and thus, today, it is in no way a Living Wage. Working at minimum wage actually ensures that one cannot support one’s family without taking on many extra hours or one or two extra jobs. Minimum Wage, being as low as it is, ensures that the number of needy among us continues to increase.

Some cities have passed Living Wage ordinances, requiring employers to pay higher than minimum wages. The rationale behind some living wage proposals is that these jobs should pay enough so that these families do not need government assistance. But not all cities have Living Wage ordinances and not all workers are covered by these ordinances. Living Wage ordinances cover city employees and employees of businesses that have a contract with that city or county government, or those that receive economic development subsidies from the locality.

Certainly it behooves us in the Jewish community, whether synagogues or Federations, day schools or JCCs, to pay all of our employees, janitors as well as professionals, a living wage. Indeed the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards recently passed a teshuvah by Rabbi Jill Jacobs affirming this and stating (in summary) that:

Jewish employers must treat their workers with dignity and respect.

Jewish employers should comply with federal labor laws, hire unionized workers whenever possible, and allow workers to make free decisions about unionization.

The Living Wage mandate affects our consumerism as well. Recently we have become more aware of the working conditions at kosher meatpacking plants, and many of us actively support the Hekhsher Tzedek initiative of the Conservative Movement. Some of us try to purchase clothing from manufacturers who pay workers a living wage. Some of us question whether the employees of “big box” stores where we might shop are paid a living wage. Finally, we can remember to leave adequate tips for the workers who clean our hotel/motel rooms, for restaurant staff and taxi drivers.

Maimonides states that the highest level of tzedakah is to provide an individual with the financial backing or skills necessary to be able to support themselves. Let us set aside some of our extra time-off on this Re’eh/Labor Day Weekend to reflect on ways to personally take steps to open our hands to the working poor who contribute to our standard of living, and to actively reduce our contribution to their poverty.


Rabbi Maralee Gordon (AJR ’01) serves the McHenry County Jewish Congregation, Crystal Lake, IL.