by Ari Hart
Turn it, turn it for everything is in it. Pirkei Avot, Chapters of the Sages. 5:26
The Torah's power to speak to the realities of the day never ceases to amaze me. In this week's parasha, we read the story of Yaakov and Lavan. Yaakov, fleeing from an unsafe home, sets out into the wilderness. He eventually finds a community where he might work, and a boss, Lavan, who will employ him. Lavan initially seems to care for Yaakov and want to help. However, we quickly see that for Lavan, Yaakov's only value is as cheap labor. Lavan tricks and cheats Yaakov, robbing him of his very life by manipulating his wages and extorting him to work more and harder. Yaakov describes his 20 years of servitude as follows: "By the day I was consumed by scorching heat, and at night by the frost, when sleep was snatched from my eyes." (Genesis 31:38)
This story is a the archetype, and hopefully also a source of inspiration, for hundreds of millions of people living in the world today. It is the common story of the migrant worker, driven from home to find opportunity in a strange land. It is the tragic story of that worker's exploitation and betrayal. It is the hopeful story, that God is with the worker in her struggle to find safety, improve her lot, and build a future. God promises never to leave Yaakov individually, and we also see over and over again in Jewish literature God's profound care for the vulnerable worker. The Torah demands that we pay a worker their fair wage, on time. The Prophets contain dozens of admonishments to the Jewish people for exploiting the weak and vulnerable within their midst. The Talmud equates withholding wages to murder. Siman after siman in the Choshen Mishpat deal with how to pay your workers on time, the right salary, and how to treat them with dignity and respect. Yaakov, or soon Yisrael, has experiences that are foundational to who we are as a nation. His experiences as an oppressed migrant worker provide the strongest foundation for a culture, a law, and an ethics that supports and protects others in his vulnerable position.