[Sermon] Working well together for a better society – Human Right Shabbat 2019

9 December 2019 – 11 Kislev 5780

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein
7 November 2019

Laban, Rebekah’s brother, Jacob’s uncle says to him after a month’s stay, “Just because you are my brother, should you serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” (Gen 29:15)

René Cassin was a French-Jewish jurist, law professor and judge. He co-drafted the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948. His name was adopted by the organisation which is the Jewish Voice for Human Rights in the UK and designates this Shabbat for Human Rights.

Article 23 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights concerning work states:

    1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
    2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
    3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
    4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

As many of us will attest, this is an incredible ideal and just as we sometimes think the Torah idealistic, so might this be. However, for what reason do we often give up the ideal and when do we not write midrash – our interpretation on the text for our generation to maintain its relevance. Do we wish to deny human rights in our age?

When did we give up on the ideal?

Giving up meant that unemployment, under-employment – people working part-time jobs but wanting to work full-time with the protection and regularity that provides – which is now higher than unemployment, or overemployment – working unacceptably long hours, many of which are unrewarded – was acceptable.

Giving up on equal pay for equal work meant that many, especially women are still undervalued in the workplace.

Giving up on the right to fair and just pay, and where unavailable supplemented by social protection has deprived human dignity for too many and means that nearly 4 million children live in poverty.

Giving up on the right to protest against the ‘man’ has allowed those with power to demonise, dehumanise those without it.

Many commentators ask why it is necessary for Laban to ask, “what shall your wages be”, other than with the intention of paying less than Jacob’s labour was worth. Moses Maimonides (C.12, Spain, Egypt) explained that local custom dictated that when a shepherd and flock owner had no pre-arranged contract, the shepherd receives one third of the profit of stationary goods (that do not need his special daily care) and two thirds of mobile goods such as calves and young asses which need to be fed, etc., by the shepherd. Laban, knowing Jacob is no fool and capable to trickery – evidenced by Jacob tricking his brother, Esau out of his father’s blessing – insists on a contract because “you are my brother (in the art of trickery)”.

Laban challenged Jacob by saying “surely you do not want me to believe that you will work for me for free?” He wanted clarity but then, as he is later accused by Jacob, “you changed my pay 10 times.” (Gen 31:41)

How do we approach paying those who work for us or offer us a service? Do we look to pay the lowest rate possible or do we consider renumeration that we expect for ourselves, one that is just, fair and paid on time?

Sometimes we look to society to excuse our behaviour. Laban’s justification for deceiving Jacob into marrying Leah first, is, “This is not done in our region, to give the younger before the first-born”; (Gen 29:26) a fact he obviously conveniently omitted seven years when contracts were signed. In the following verse, Laban switches to the plural, We shall give you the other [daughter] also for the service you shall serve with me yet another seven years” (29:27).

The modern Israeli biblical commentator and teacher, Nehama Leibowitz states, “one of the characteristic signs of a wicked man standing in the way of reformation is the flight from personal responsibility… he regards himself as forced into it because the community or some vague body to which he belongs compelled him to act thus.” For better or worse, the standards and values of a community can create a baseline for employers.

When we look to society to excuse our behaviour, do we cite the basest example? When we seek to employ someone, do we look at anything we can get away with or perhaps the Minimum Wage, the National Living Wage or what is called the Real Living Wage?

The latter is cited by the Living Wage Foundation. Over 6,000 UK organisations and a third of the FTSE 100 companies are signed-up to it, believing that their staff deserve a fair day’s pay for a hard day’s work; that allows them and their family to live and not fear poverty. Some names you would expect, Oxfam and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, others might be a surprise, such as Ikea. Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Everton, Liverpool and West Ham, Luton Town, Hearts, FC United of Manchester, Dulwich Hamlet are the other football clubs all pay a Real Living Wage. Spurs resisted paying a Real Living Wage to its staff when it opened its new stadium. Is your team in this list?

As you would expect, Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue is a Real Living Wage employer and perhaps we all can be. Perhaps we directly employ staff, or engage cleaners, hairdressers, childminders, beauticians or carwashers. How do we recompense? Do we follow societal norms or do we make our own decisions to play and pay fair? When society – and that means each one of us – colludes, rejecting the human right to fair pay for hard work, we are responsible for poverty. On this Human Rights Shabbat 5780, poignantly preceding what we expect to be a defining General Election for our country, may we consider, amongst the many other issues which attract our vote, the moral barometer of our society, human rights. When Jacob and Laban finally depart from each other, there is no warmth in their parting but there is clarity at the fairness of their life situations and an agreement to not harm the other. They can sit down at the same table and share a meal. They know they have done the right thing. The episode concludes when Laban has departed: “Now Jacob went on his way and angels of God met him. When he saw them, Jacob said, “This is the camp of God!” So he named that place Machanaim” (Gen 32:2-3). May our community and our homes be known as, ‘Machanaim’, by our individual hard work and collective moral example.

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