“Let us idealize…the trade union movement, show that it is the way towards the emancipation of the worker, and with that aim in view and a great deal of hard, earnest, persevering work, the victory will be ours.”
Revolutionary words. Whose are they? Bernie Sanders in ’16? Nope. Try Rose Schneiderman in ’11…1911.
It’s actually a fun party game. I call it “Bernie Sanders or A Leader of the Early 20th Century Garment Union?”
How about this one? Our duty, “is to share bread with the hungry, and to take the socio-economically depressed into our homes; when you see someone who is without clothes, to put clothes on their back.”
Who said it? Hillary? Nope. The prophet Isaiah. And that’s a little game I call, “Hillary or a Biblical prophet.”
All of which is to say, the connection between Jews and the fight for the rights of the working-class goes back. Way back.
The Torah instructs us in the book of Devarim or Deutronomy about the treatment of the worker, commanding, explicitly: Do not oppress the hired worker who depends on their wages, whether a citizen or a migrant worker. Don’t let the sun go down without paying them their wages.
There it is, a sacred Jewish commandment, like fasting on Yom Kippur or honoring your parents. An essential way of honoring the Torah and exalting the Holy One of Blessing is to recognize the rights of the worker to a fair wage, paid in a timely manner.
Yet, the Torah goes farther than to set out a code of ethics for employers. Rather, it will hold up work, in and of itself as a holy endeavor. In this weeks parashah Tetzaveh, we receive the instructions concerning the bigdei kodesh, the sacred clothing that will be worn in the temple service. The Torah had no way of knowing that for so many Jews the garment business would be their foothold in American society, and yet this ancient portion arrives and proclaims that there is holiness in this work. Sewing: holy. Hemming: holy. Knitting: holy. Quilting: don’t even get me started on quilting. In fact, the construction of the Mishkan, the portable, wilderness sanctuary, will be the source from which every category of melacha, or work, will emerge. In building, in metal work, in plowing and reaping, and baking and sculpting there is a sacredness inherent in the work. It is to be honored; to be exalted.
As Studs Terkel, the great oral historian of working-America once wrote, “Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor.”
And, as much as the Torah raises up the value of work, even higher is the value of rest. Shabbat. To know the power of work, is to recognize the glory in refraining from it. It is called both a taste of the world to come, and a remembrance of the garden of Eden. Yet, each of these readings make Shabbat seem to other-worldly, and in truth Shabbat is all about the grittiness of our everyday lives.
Indeed, one midrash is creative and audacious enough to imagine Shabbat as originating from the stance of solidarity taken by Moshe Rabeinu. In this telling, Moses sees the suffering of the people in Egypt and confronts Pharoah. He says:
If someone has a slave, and does not give him one day off each week,
the slave will die.
These are your slaves!
If you don’t let them rest one day a week, they are going to die.”
Pharoah responded: “Go and give your people a day of rest.”
Thus, Moses established Shabbat so that the Israelites could rest.
We have seen Moses play many roles in the minds of the sages, shepherd, communal leader, teacher, and yet here we have him take on the role of labor negotiator. He sticks it to the management, and he succeeds.
How exactly does Moses raise his consciousness about the plight of the people? The text says “Vayar v’sivlotam” He saw their burden, and he recognized himself in them.
But, it is no easy task. To see the burdens of others is to take off blinders that society wishes for us to wear. To see, to truly behold, all of the work, the labor that is going on all around is… it is counter cultural. In the campus center, to see the janitor as she quietly sweeps, on the T, to notice the individual helping direct the coming and going of the trains, in a restaurant, to witness the individuals who prepare your delicious, food. It takes effort.
Yet, it is just this effort that our tradition demands of us. We are meant not to just live lives filled with shallow ritual, but to connect our traditions to the struggles of our time. Shabbat is beautiful. It is a delight. And, it is meant to remind us of the holy labor that surrounds us every day. This, after all, is the teaching of Isaiah who year after year chides us on Yom Kippur. Don’t fast and look sad and feel bad for yourself. That’s not the fast I want. No. The fast I want is the loosening of the chains of oppression, the liberation of the worker, the breaking of every yoke. May we be blessed this Shabbat with the glory of rest, and may we arise awakened to the struggles of the laboring class, able to see the burdens of our world, and willing to make the radical step of seeing our liberation tied up in theirs.
Rabbi Jordan Braunig, Director of the Initiative for Innovative Community Building at Tufts Hillel, is a newly minted rabbi from Hebrew College in Boston. Before coming on board full-time, Jordan was the Rabbinic Fellow at Tufts Hillel, where he learned that there is no better place to work. Rabbi Braunig gave the above d'var Torah on February 19 in honor of Labor Shabbat, an event co-hosted by the JLC celebrating the role of labor in the Jewish tradition.