Vayetzei: Fiddler and Fair Labor

minimum-wage

PERCHIK: Now children, I will tell you the story from the Bible of Laban and Jacob…Now, Laban had two daughters, Leah, and the beautiful Rachel.  And Jacob loved the younger Rachel, and he asked Laban for her hand. Laban agreed, if Jacob would work for him for seven years.

SHPRINTZE:  Was Laban a mean man?

PERCHIK:  He was an employer.   Now after Jacob worked seven years, do you know what happened?  Laban fooled him, and gave him his ugly daughter Leah.  So to marry Rachel, Jacob was forced to work another seven years.  You see, children, the Bible clearly teaches us, you must never trust an employer.  (Fiddler On the Roof)

Throughout the parasha, Vayetzei, Laban and Jacob had a pretty contentious relationship.  No stranger to deceit himself, Jacob recognized when he was being played, and set about getting what he needed and wanted from his father-in-law.  It all came down to fair wages, over and over.  It started out all right:  Laban said to Jacob, “Just because you’re a kinsman, should you serve me for nothing?  Tell me, what shall your wages be?” (Gen 29:15)  Jacob wanted Rachel.  He got Leah, then worked longer for Rachel.  All that time, he was practicing careful husbandry, and Laban’s flocks grew healthy and numerous.  After Rachel finally bore her first son, Joseph, Jacob said he wanted to go home.  Laban continued as the fair employer, “Name your wages due from me and I will pay you (Gen 30:28)  Jacob negotiated.  He turned down wages for product –  choosing from among Laban’s flocks.  He knew what he was doing and eventually, Jacob grew “exceedingly prosperous” while Laban’s flocks were feeble.

Jacob finally had enough.  He wanted out.  Jacob said to Rachel, “As you know I have served your father with all my might, but your father has cheated me, changing my wages time and again.” (Gen 31:7)  The two adversaries finally had it out, with Jacob leaving, Laban chasing after him, Rachel stealing her father’s idols and hiding them, Laban pretending to be hurt that he couldn’t say goodbye to his grandkids, and Jacob taking umbrage at Laban not trusting him.  There could be no more concise description of unfair labor practices and worker frustration than this, as Jacob said to Laban, “These twenty years I have spent in your service, your ewes and she- goats never miscarried, nor did I feast on rams from your flock.  That which was torn by beasts, I never brought to you; I myself made good the loss; you exacted it of me, whether snatched by day or snatched by night.  Often, scorching heat ravaged me by day and frost by night; and sleep fled from my eyes.  Of the twenty years that I spent in your household, I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flocks, and you changed my wages time and again.”  (Gen 31:38-41)

Fair labor practices are a hallmark of a just and righteous society. When employers get good work done, and employees feel respected and fairly paid, the system works well.  Today, much of this has broken down.  Unlike Jacob, workers at our lowest end of society’s ladder don’t have the option of choosing product over pay. All too often, they contribute to the owners’ wealth, as Jacob did, but can’t share in the profit.  You see, children, the Bible clearly teaches us..to raise the minimum wage.

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