The Torah of Justice in the streets of Los Angeles
As President Obama said today, the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice. However, there are some places where justice is taking longer than in others. While we celebrate one step in the Egyptian people’s march toward freedom and democracy, we cannot forget that there are other struggles for justice that are not yet won. In the US, the recession has provided corporations with an excuse to try to roll back hard won gains that workers have made. The Hyatt Hotel chain (run by the Chicago Pritzker family, close to the Obama administration and generous to the Jewish community) is using supposed recession losses to try to roll back health benefits, deny raises and outsource jobs.
Last night there were actions at several Hyatt Hotels to draw attention to the fact that the workers were working without a contract for two years; that hotel worker injuries are unacceptable high—at one Los Angeles hotel, the Hyatt Andaz in West Hollywood, the 2009 injury rate was twenty percent higher than the industry rate statewide; that though the tourist industry is the face of Los Angeles in many ways, the people who work in that industry are made invisible.
I was asked to speak to the hundreds of workers and community members who gathered at the Hyatt Century Plaza. Here is the Torah that I shared:
God introduces Godself at Sinai by saying: I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. (Exodus 20:2) How are we to enact in our lives this commandment? In what way is this a commandment? The fourth century Babylonian Sage, Rav, one of the the founders of the Academies in Babylonia, says that this verse teaches us that a worker can go back on a labor contract even in the middle of the day, before the work is done. In other words. The way we enact the fact that God is the God who took us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, is by drawing a sharp, clear line between wage labor and slave labor. The way we enact the fact that God is the God who took us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, is by struggling for economic justice, by standing with workers against the corporations who would abuse them.
When Moses first brought God’s demands to Pharoah: “Let my people go that they may worship me.” Pharoah brushed Moses off with “Who is God?” When the Israelites foremen came to plead to Pharaoh for better working conditions, Pharaoh ignored them saying: “You are shirkers, therefore you make these demands.”
Those of us who stand with the workers (and perhaps especially the workers who have not yet won the right for union representation) against the corporations, stand as Moses before Pharaoh demanding that justice be done. We also know, as Moses might not have known yet, that though Pharaoh thought he was all-powerful, justice was more powerful. In Egypt then, in Egypt today, and in the struggle for economic and social justice everywhere.
photo credits: Danny Feingold, CLUE LA