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The Value of Labor

Torah Talk on Ki Teitzei 5779

A question: what are the most important laws?

Our weekly portion of Ki Teitzei in Deuteronomy obligates us to ask this question, for it is filled with an array of laws and ordinances affecting every aspect of life, 72 in all. They range from rules limiting unorthodox ritual practice to rules limiting conduct in wartime, from personal morality to behavior in society. Family laws are established concerning marriage, inheritance, and divorce. Tort laws on damages are instituted, providing moral and financial responsibility for property owners. Laws of kindness decree human decency in every area of life.

Lots and lots of laws, laws, laws, some obscure, some famous. In short, Ki Teitzei is a bit dry. There is a reason lawbooks never make the New York Times bestseller list… And much of the legislation is outdated, while other sections are completely irrelevant.

But two sets of related laws established in Ki Teitzei guarantee its place in the highest of moral realms. Both put into practical terms what the Torah has already stressed: when a person is in your power economically you must not exploit his weakness.

The first of these states that if you take as pledge an item of clothing from a poor person you must return it to him before nightfall. You must not allow an impoverished man or woman to spend the night without proper clothing or shelter. This is a necessary reminder for our society, which tolerates homelessness in a manner that the much poorer world of the Torah’s time would not. It is simply not Jewishly acceptable to blatantly disregard human misery.

The second law states unequivocally, and memorably, that you must pay a worker on the day he completes his labor. In our society delays of two weeks and more are common for payroll, even for minimum wage employees who need the money most. Money is often withheld from workers who have earned it to pay for anticipated taxes, health care needs, and other deductions. This would never fly in the Torah or the Talmud, which at the least implies God’s disapproval of such practices. Created over 2500 years ago, the Torah insists on a higher standard of morality for employers than we do today.

As Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, said, “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

Labor has innate value, and honest work deserves immediate pay. It’s a simple lesson—and one we still haven’t quite learned in 2019. Perhaps it’s time to allow Ki Teitzei to teach us that once again.

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