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Parashat VaYetze 5773 — 11/21/2012

Parashat VaYetze 5773 — 11/21/2012

This is how I was: By day scorching heat consumed me, and frost by night; my sleep drifted from my eyes.  This is my twenty years in your household: I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flocks; and you changed my wage ten times.  (31:40-41)

Do not withhold the wages due to your poor or destitute hired hand, whether he is one of your brethren or a proselyte, living in a settlement in your land.  You must give him his wage on the day it is due… (Devarim 24:14-15)

Do not unjustly withhold that which is due your neighbor (Vayikra 19:13)

Our Sages learn the duties of a hired worker from our passage in Bereishit where Ya’akov describes the one-pointedness with which he tended Lavan’s flocks over the course of his 20-year sojourn in Haran.  In the passages from Vayikra and Devarim the employer’s responsibilities are delineated.  In a word, the employee has to serve the employer faithfully and give good service during the time (s)he is on the job.  The employer is responsible for providing appropriate working conditions and for paying wages promptly, particularly for day laborers who generally are living hand-to-mouth.  There is an implied requirement of mutual trust and loyalty between employer and employee.  In addition, there is a series of “gifts to the poor” – the “corner of the field,” gleanings, the “forgotten sheaf,” and the poor tithe that provided a social safety net for those on the economic margins of society.

The crux of these laws, in my opinion, is to teach us that other human beings are not objects to be used and discarded.  It should of course be quite obvious that other people are people, with the same kinds of needs and desires that we have.  The process of human maturation includes extending our individual subjectivity outwards towards an ever-widening circle of people – ideally to all people, even those who look or think differently than we do.  It is a sad fact, and an indication of how deeply sunk in stress and ignorance we are, that we divide people into “us” and “them,” and proceed to treat the other as object – and all to often an object to be destroyed.  On the other hand, in a curious decision, US Supreme Court, bestowed “personhood” on corporations, hitherto nothing other than legal fictions, allowing them to pour virtually unlimited resources into political bribery and extortion.

A secondary import of the laws regulating employer-employee relationships is that “greed is not good.”  In Pirke Avot (3:2) R. Chanina, the deputy High Priest, advises: “pray for the welfare of the government, for if not for its fear, a person would swallow his fellow live.”  The purpose of government, in the Jewish view, is to moderate the tendency towards greed and oppression of the poor and vulnerable by the rich and powerful.  Note that when R. Chanina referred to “the government,” it was to the barbaric and oppressive Roman government, hardly an ideal form of government, yet even this government, with its mostly tyrranical regulation of society, was considered better than anarchy.  Were we all fully mature, perhaps such regulation would not be necessary; in our current situation it apparently is necessary.  I am writing this in mid-July, prior to the parties’ conventions, but you are reading this after the Presidential/Congressional election, so you have a better idea than I do whether, or to what extent, our government is going to fulfill these goals.

This principle, that we must learn to treat others with the same kindness and compassion with which we want to be treated, is actually a great principle of growth and maturation.  We begin life in a very egoist mode.  When we don’t get what we want we scream and cry until we are taken care of.  Our parents’ attentiveness to our needs gives us the confidence that the material world into which we have just entered is a welcoming place.  As we grow we gain the ability to interact, first with mother and father, then with others.  A fully mature adult should have the ability to evaluate any other person in terms of himself – that is, he should be able as it were to project himself into that other person’s world (to the extent that he can understand that person’s outlook, culture and upbringing), and see the other person as an “I” rather than an “it.”  It is very hard to conceive such a person harming another; it would be almost like harming oneself.

I believe there is an even higher level of identification of the “other” as “self” that we can achieve.  Most of us identify our “self” with our bodies, and perhaps to a lesser extent with our minds and feelings.  This is partly accurate – certainly our individuality is defined by these aspects.  However there is another aspect of our selves which is eternal and unchanging.  This is the deepest level of the soul, the “portion of Gd,” that is at our very basis.  If we are fully awake, we recognize this universal “Self” as our real self, and further, we begin to recognize this same universal level of Being as the Self of every human being.  When we reach this level we truly “love our neighbor as our Self,” because we are evaluating our neighbor in terms of our shared universality, rather than in terms of surface differences.

We can even take this a step further.  The same pure Being that is at the basis of our individual existence, is at the basis of all existence.  As this reality becomes more and more entrenched in our awareness, we can begin to perceive all of creation, including objective creation – animals, plants, furniture, anything, as expressions of the same basic “substance” which expresses itself as our individuality.  In other words, we have come around to the exact opposite of the behavior Torah prohibits, as we discussed above.  Not only do we not treat other subjects (i.e. people) as objects, we are even able to evaluate objects as having the same infinite intrinsic worth as our own subjectivity!  (This is not to say, of course, that we can no longer distinguish between different species in creation and relate to each of them appropriately.  Certainly with such accurate and refined perception we are able to evaluate and act in a manner that enhances the life of all creation.)

Ramban tells us that the purpose of all the mitzvot of Torah is to refine our character, our behavior and perception to the highest level.  I believe we can analyze all of the mitzvot, all of our religious practices, as ways of instilling in our awareness that there is a common basis to all existence.  When we reach that level, our every thought and action becomes an impulse of the infinite, fully in accord with Gd’s Will, moving Gd’s Creation closer and closer to its ultimate fulfillment.