Torah offers wisdom on workers, justice

BY RABBI ANDREA GOLDSTEIN

This past Monday our nation celebrated Labor Day. Thinking about the origins of this holiday, which was instituted over 120 years ago in order to honor and thank the hard working men and women of our nation, I was struck by how appropriate it is that we read Parashat Shofetim this week.

Right at the beginning of the portion we come across one of the most well known verses of Torah: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue (Deut. 16:20).

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Our Sages were often intrigued when words were repeated in the Torah, and they sought to understand what deeper meaning (beyond mere emphasis) the Holy One might be trying to share with us. Bachya ben Asher taught that the repeating of the word “justice” in this verse means: “Justice under any circumstance, whether to your profit or loss, whether in word or in action, whether to Jew or non-Jew.”

To me, this understanding speaks directly to the issue of workers’ rights — an issue that is being discussed more and more in the Jewish community in the wake of the Agriprocessors scandal.

With the economy lingering in such a precarious state, now more than ever we need to be asking ourselves how, as individuals and as a community, do we treat those who labor to make our lives better? Do we know whether the people who clean our houses, manicure our lawns, care for our children, or tend to our aging parents are earning a living wage?

Are they able to freely discuss the benefits or drawbacks of joining a union without fear of intimidation? Do they have access to affordable health care?

Are we willing to ask ourselves these questions? And are we willing to work through words and actions, on behalf of the Jew and the non-Jew, and whether for our profit or our loss to bring about the justice that our sacred tradition requires from us?

American culture asks us to remember working people at least once a year on Labor Day. But Judaism demands more.

Our tradition asks us not only to remember, but also to respect and protect the poor and vulnerable workers among us.

Our Torah portion commands us to pursue justice, so that all in our communities can have a decent job and earn a decent income.

For us, every day should be Labor Day.

Rabbi Andrea Goldstein, of Congregation Shaare Emeth, is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.