My Photo
Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Yom Kippur Day 5768: Isaiah and the Dignity of Workers

This was my Yom Kippur Morning address at USC Hillel

The Prophet Isaiah describes a hypocrisy abounding in his society as part of the Yom Kippur morning Haftarah.
G makes a request: “Give a full-throated cry, hold nothing back, Raise your voice to the pitch of a Shofar, and tell my people of their rebelliousness, proclaim their wrongs to the house of Jacob.”
A religious insincerity is then detailed, people who "are eager to learn My [meaning G's] ways, as if they were a nation that has always acted justly, and has not forsaken the teachings of its G."
For unknown reasons to the masses, their prayers seem to be ignored. They ask G, "When we fast, why do You pay no heed? Why, when we afflict ourselves, do You take no notice?"
G's response silences them: "Look here: Because on your fast day, you think only of your business, and oppress all your workers! Because your fasting leads only to strife and discord, and hitting out with cruel fist! Such a way of fasting on this day will not help you to be heard on high."
The prophet then juxtaposes this meaningless, hypocritical fast with what meaningful fasting entails. G says, "Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? To share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?"
Only then, says G via Isaiah, will "your light blaze forth like the dawn, and your wounds shall quickly heal. " Only then, says G, will "your Righteous One walk before you, the Presence of the Lrd be your rear guard." Only then, says G, "when you call, the Lrd will answer; when you cry, G will say, Here I am.
Only when the fasts come with ethical behavior, only when Shabbat is celebrated with a commitment to justice, will we feel secure and beloved by G.
All of this begs a question: Why is it that on this holy day, arguably the most significant holiday in the Jewish calendar, especially this year when Yom Kippur coincides with Shabbat, do we hear this message about hypocrisy? Why not provide a text that simply asks us to change our ways, such as the haftarah that is read between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, on Shabbat Shuvah? Obviously part of the answer is that the portion describes fasting, which is one of the five afflictions we observe for this holiday along with not wearing leather shoes, not putting on perfumes, oils and lotions, and not engaging in sexual activities, but is that the only reason? For what reason did the Rabbis believe that we need to hear that fasting without sincerity is pointless and, perhaps, even harmful?
Phrasing the question differently, in what ways do we act outside of our consciences? When we do something that we know we shouldn't do, do we feel guilt?
Daily, we are confronted by ethical challenges. Paper or plastic? Feed the poor guy we pass by, or getto class or work on time? But more likely, there are ethical challenges we don't even acknowledge. Moments of inconsistency, or worse, hypocrisy.Here's some examples that plague us:First, How many of us actively advocate positions we believe in our hearts to be morally correct? Preserving the environment through political advocacy? Anti-poverty legislation? Presidential candidates that we support? And even if we do, do we do enough?

Second, If we are against animal suffering as I believe nearly everyone here is, do we at least attempt to reduce our consumption of animals, given that we can survive with less meat?Third, on Facebook, one can join a "cause." I am a member of two causes right now, Save Darfur and Stop Global Warming. For the latter, there are 715,155 "members," or Facebook users, who have joined the "Stop Global Warming" cause. One is able to give money to these causes. With nearly three-quarters of a million people connected to "Stop Global Warming," can anyone guess how much has been given? I have not given either, by the way....$9,791 as of Thursday. This means the average gift to that cause, admittedly on Facebook which is a new agency for giving money, is less than two pennies. For Save Darfur, there's a little more being given: 7 cents per person. You can dismiss this data, but ask yourself; when was the last time you gave to a cause? Even as Jews give disproportionately relative to other communities, are we doing enough? Fourth, most of us here, statistically, believe that women should have the same or at least similar rights as men. Yet, why is it that still, after all these years of advocacy, do we still lack pay equality? Is it possible that deep down, even the male champions of egalitarianism feel somewhat threatened by women taking their jobs? More personally, how does chivalry interfere with a healthy, mind-game-free relationship between you and a member of the opposite sex? Why is it that the rules say that the guy must ask the girl to marry her? How does that undermine full equality? It might be subtle, but it is real. The fifth and final example. All of us here, statistically, believe that slavery should not exist. We hear about the sex slave industry and are aghast. However, in so many instances, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the toys and gadgets we buy, so many things are created by people earning substandard wages for these items. Do we ever ask ourselves, why are these things so cheap? If we are honest, we begin to understand that it is because sometimes someone simply isn't earning the money they deserve in order to take care of their family. When we had our house bolted to the ground for seismic reinforcement a few years ago, I spoke to the Latino men crawling around in the filthy crawl space under my home. Astonished at the feats they were performing in choking dust with no space, I said to them, "mucho trabajo." A lot of work. They retorted, "y poco dinero." little money. My heart dropped. It didn't surprise me, though, as I saw the way the guy who brought this crew over to my house treated them. As his chattel, his servants. Slavery in a more pervasive yet subtle fashion is alive and well, and as much as we try to avoid it, we cannot entirely remove our contribution to the underemployment of the hard-working, typically dehumanized people that we depend on to bring food to our table and build our homes. It is with regard to this fifth category that I would like to share some additional thoughts. Rather than just offering lip-service about our moral failings, I want to offer a tangible take-away. The hotel industry is a lucrative business for those at the top of the pyramid of management. Millions and millions of dollars go to the Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton, Radisson, Sheraton, and so many other multinational conglomerates. However, these profits, which are higher than ever, are dependent on thousands of low wage workers who park our cars, bring us room service, clean our rooms, wash our towels, and set our wake up calls. Some of these positions are low wage jobs without a union supporting the workers, with as little as 8.50/hour going to housekeepers, with no health insurance. Imagine trying to provide for your family at such low wages. When you stay at a hotel overnight, do you consider the nearly invisible workers who make the experience so luxurious? Certainly, there are basic ethical guidelines that will ensure that housekeepers, whom you never see, yet entirely depend upon, are treated respectfully. In fact, I am involved in an organization that is advocating "Kosher Travel: Being a good guest." Tips for travelers, which I have distributed include the following: ► Stay in union hotels and encourage others to do the same. With a union, housekeepers can express concerns about their health and workload. With all the anti-Union sentiments out there, I believe that it is important to look at each union separately, on its own merits. The hotel unions are critical for the basic rights of thousands of people nationwide to be treated with dignity. There’s really no union fat cats getting rich off the union dues in the hotel unions. Moreover, statistically we can see that a union hotel offers a worker a better standard of living than a non-union hotel.► General neatness: Clean up after yourself! Put trash in one place and keep the bathroom decent. People treat hotel rooms like there is no consequence. Reality is that hotel workers are assigned a number of rooms to complete during their shifts; if they deal with particularly messy rooms, the burden for them to finish on time is increased. Why do that to someone you don't even know? Clean up after yourself. ► Strip the bedsheets yourself before checking out, you save housekeepers time and shoulder strain. I hadn't thought of that one before, but it makes sense. They spend hours on beds alone, and typically, these are relatively petite women who are being asked to lift heavy beds. I hate making my own bed, i can only imagine what it is like for these women. ► Pile your towels in an easily-accessible spot in the bathroom. Or better yet, use less towels.► Leave a tip ($2-5/night). Tips ensure that people feel visible. A $5 tip for a $150 or even $200 or more room is so minor for you, but the world for them. ► Fill out customer comment cards. If your room was clean, give thanks to the housekeeper!These are such simple acts. And yet, in our zeal to serve as upstanding citizens, we can easily forget the ways we are, as Isaiah warned long ago, neglecting to "share our bread with the hungry." Take these tips for travelers, along with your own insights for how you can be a more responsible, ethical member of society, and rehumanize those so quickly forgotten, ignored, and struggling on a daily basis to provide food for THEIR children, THEIR elderly parents, their siblings. As the Rabbis said, "For sins between Gd and people, the Day of Atonement atones. But for sins between two people, the Day of Atonement does not atone until he has made peace with his fellow." Through our acts of kindness to those who we may never meet but whose lives we affect, we can make this peace required of us for atonement. And then, Isaiah's prophecy will be complete: "If you remove the chains of oppression, the menacing hand, the malicious word; if you make sacrifices for the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted; then shall your light shine in the darkness, and your night become bright as noon; the Lord will guide you always; God will slake your thirst in drought, and renew your body's strength; you shall be like a watered garden, like an unfailing spring. Your people shall rebuild the ancient ruins, and lay the foundations for ages to come. You shall be called "Repairer of the breach, Restorer of streets to dwell in." [Isaiah 58: 5-12]
May each of us do our part, and encourage others to do their part, to fulfill this prophecy. Amen.


Post a Comment

<< Home