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Legislating Labor Morality

Torah Talk on Ki Teitzei 5780

What are the most important laws?

Our weekly Torah 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. They range from rules limiting unorthodox ritual practices to rules limiting conduct in wartime, and 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 decreeing human decency are decreed.

Lots and lots of laws, laws, laws, some obscure, some famous.

In short, reading Ki Teitzei is interesting but a bit dry. Some of the legislation seems outdated or irrelevant.

But two sets of related laws established in Ki Teitzei alone would 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. In other words, 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.

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 payrolls, even for minimum wage employees who need the money most. Again, the Torah insists on a higher standard of morality for employers than we do.

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

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