April 17, 2003
We Must Share Our Blessings With the Poor
America has blessed the Jewish community.
As we began our seders this week, one of our first acts was yachatz. We held high a matzah and recited, "Ha Lachma Anya" (behold, the matzah, the bread of poverty, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.)
The very flatness and blandness of the matzah remind us of the empty and oppressed lives of the Israelite slaves -- and of downtrodden people in all places and in all times.
Lest we think that economic injustice is a thing of another place, consider the city of Los Angeles. How can the same city that registers 20 percent of all the Rolls-Royces in the United States also be known as the homelessness capital of the country? The disparity of income between the richest and poorest members of this city should shame even the banana republics.
More than 2.5 million residents of this region have no medical insurance, yet plastic surgery is a cottage industry in parts of Los Angeles. No wonder Los Angeles has been aptly characterized as "a 'First World City' flourishing atop a 'Third World City.'"
This week, Jewish leaders conducted Passover seders to call attention to three local struggles to achieve justice. These three campaigns -- for janitors, Santa Monica hotel workers and nursing home workers -- represent efforts on the part of the religious community to bring some semblance of economic fairness to groups fighting for better wages and working conditions.
For example, take nursing home workers into whose hands we entrust our elderly, our infirm and ourselves. The annual median salary for California's certified nurse's aides, the front-line caregivers in nursing homes, is a shameful $17,638. These workers are 50 percent more likely to lack health insurance than the general population.
Each nursing home worker tends to 15-20 patients during the daytime and up to 35 patients at night, leading to compromised care and high rates of on-the-job injuries. Not surprisingly, certified nursing aides have a turnover rate of 78 percent.
For these reasons, more than 80 rabbis and 75 ministers and priests have signed a statement of principles in support of low-wage workers. The statement reads:
"We, as religious and business leaders, believe that we should strive for a state in which all low-wage workers, whether they are direct employees or contracted out, should be:
"Paid a living wage that allows them to meet the basic needs of their families.
"Provided with full health-care benefits for them and their families.
"Employed by companies that abide by all applicable laws -- including the right to organize.
"Treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve."
This simple statement embodies the teachings of Judaism on the just needs of workers. For example, Jewish law absolutely prohibits oshek (withholding fair wages). The principle of oshek is based on two biblical commandments:
1. "You shall not defraud your fellow [man]. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning" (Leviticus 19:13).
2. "You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger, in one of the communities of your land. You must give him his wages on the same day before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry out to the Eternal One against you, and you will incur guilt" (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).
Both biblical and rabbinic law seek to prevent the recurrence of Ezekiel's indictment: "The people of the land have practiced fraud and committed robbery; they have wronged the poor and needy, have defrauded the stranger without redress" (Ezekiel 22:29).
America has blessed the Jewish community with prosperity, freedom and security. The Passover haggadah calls on us to share our bounty, especially at this season.
"Let all who are hungry, come and eat," says the "Ha Lachma Anya." "Let all who are needy come and celebrate Passover with us. Now we are servants; next year may we all be free."
Now our poor are exploited; next year may they -- and we -- know the fullness of America's promise.
Rabbi Alan Henkin is regional director of the Pacific Southwest Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.