Parashat Vayetzei / פרשת ויצא
Torah Portion: Genesis 28:10 – 32:3
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, we find the first labor dispute in Jewish history. As agreed upon with Laban, Jacob works diligently for seven years in order to earn the dowry to wed his beloved Rachel, Laban’s younger daughter. After those seven years, though, Laban switches out Rachel for Leah so that Jacob would marry the oldest daughter first. Laban then requires Jacob to toil another seven years in order to wed Rachel. Jacob does, indeed, put in another seven years of labor and does, in fact, marry Rachel. Having now labored for 14 years to earn his dowry for two of Laban’s daughters, without ever acquiring any property of his now, Jacob negotiates a deal with Laban to acquire a portion of Laban’s flocks that Jacob himself raised. Again Laban cheats Jacob, this time by removing from the negotiated portion of the flocks the healthiest of sheep and goats.
Though Jacob himself had earned a reputation as a trickster, Laban surely exceeds even Jacob in his unethical labor practices. Much is made of Laban’s chicanery in biblical commentaries as well as in the legal literature of Jewish tradition, where Laban is held up as the model of one who deceives others for personal gain. To be sure, throughout Jewish history the highest value has been placed on ethical, just business practices; in that vein, our reading this week calls us to focus our attention on ethical lapses within our society and to redouble our commitment to justice.
It is unfortunately the case that in today’s world that both employer and employee too often seek shortcuts to improve their bottom lines. For their part, workers sometimes alter time cards to show more hours than they actually work or seek other ways to continue receiving a paycheck while choosing not to work for no good reason. Meanwhile, employer abuses are legendary in our culture and include wage theft, neglecting the safety of their workers, taking advantage of immigrants, and on and on. For many in today’s workforce, the story of Laban and Jacob sounds all too familiar, and because workers, especially migrant workers, lack the political clout to effect change, they are forever stuck laboring under unprincipled masters.
Many organizations work to ensure fair employment practices in the U.S. and abroad. One such organization within the Jewish community that is working on behalf of worker and human rights is T’ruah (www.truah.org), an organization of Jewish clergy who work “together with all members of the Jewish community, to act on the Jewish imperative to respect and advance the human rights of all people.” Meanwhile, Interfaith Worker Justice (www.iwj.org) “advances the rights of workers by engaging diverse faith communities into action, from grassroots organizing to shaping policy at the local, state and national levels.” It is incumbent upon each of us to learn about the issues facing workers and to advocate fairness in the workplace. Visiting the websites of Truah and IWJ are two places to begin that work, though searching the internet will reveal many, many more.
There is a succint commentary on this week’s parasha at http://www.myjewishlearning.com/ written by Jeremy Burton, former chief of staff at the Jewish Funds for Justice, which merged in 2011 with Progressive Jewish Alliance to form Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice (http://bendthearc.us/). In his article titled “Laban’s Excuse: Labor Ethics and Community Standards,” Burton demonstrates that Laban was able to get away with his unethical behavior because Laban refused to take responsibility for his actions and no one held him accountable. Ultimately, the mission of those working on behalf of workers rights and all of us, really, is to ensure that employers are held accountable for their actions and that they take responsibility for ensuring fairness in the work place.
This year, we read Parashat Vayetze on the weekend following Thanksgiving. What better time to turn our attention to those struggling within a system in which workers are too often ignored or oppressed than when we gather with friends and loved ones to give thanks for the bounty with which we’ve been so blessed but eludes so many of our brothers and sisters?