Remember at the beginning of Singin in the Rain, when Gene Kelly is recalling how he got started in show business? With Donald O’Conner by his side, he says, with a straight face, that the bywords of his life were, “Dignity. Always dignity.”
Moses is still trying to get the last words in, with this week’s parasha, “Ki Tetse” , making sure the people get it. There are only three parshiot (portions) left in the whole Torah, and one of them is after Moses dies, so he really is down to the wire here.
Laws and instructions come tumbling out in no particular order. It’s like a braindump, and Moses is just all over the place – things to do/not do with the Land. Things to/not do with virgins, how to build port-a-potties outside the camp, what to do if you find your neighbor’s ox wandering around your yard. (Hint: get it back to the owner, but take care of it in the meantime.)
And so we come to the dignity, always dignity: “When you make a loan of any sort to your countryman, you must not enter his house to seize his pledge. You must remain outside, while the man to whom you made the loan brings the pledge to you. If he is a needy man, you shall not go to sleep in his pledge; you must return the pledge to him at sundown…..you shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger…you must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it…” (Deut. 24: 10-15)
When you loan someone money, you must respect the dignity of the recipient. Don’t come into his home to collect; for as Abarbanel (15thc Portugal) says, “For you would embarrass him by seeing his impoverished situation. Moreover, if he weren’t home, you could be alone with his wife, and either start a quarrel with her, or tarnish her reputation.” Wait outside and conduct business in public, like respectable men.
If you take a cloak for a collateral, give it back at night- don’t literally strip him of his clothes waiting for payment. And for God’s sake…literally…, if you hire someone, whether Jewish or not, pay wages on time. He depends on it, or as Rashi (11th c France) translates, “he carries his life on it.”
Dignity, always dignity. The daily transactions of life carry with them opportunities to infuse them with holiness and acknowledgement of God’s creation – humanity. We humans are a most unique creation, and the only one identified as having been made in God’s image. Torah is telling us to treat each other, no matter the economic conditions, with dignity. Pay a decent wage, and pay it on time. Don’t humiliate the one who owes you money. This is fundamental to honoring and respecting the inherent dignity in each other. There will always be an element in society that is needy or vulnerable. “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer.” The way we treat the neediest among us tells a lot about our society. With these words in our hearts, how do we assess the righteousness of our society? Apply these words to fair wage, foreclosures, protecting day laborers from harm, lack of jobs, policies that keep people in poverty, and more.
So that the vulnerable won’t “cry to Adonai against [us] and [we] will incur guilt”, dignity must be our guiding premise.