Author Archives: Rabbi Justin David

Rabbi Justin David

About Rabbi Justin David

Rabbi Justin David is the spiritual leader of Congregation B'nai Israel in Northampton, MA. He was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and is a graduate of Oberlin College. He lives in Northampton with his wife, Judith Wolf, and his sons Lior and Ezra.

Child Laborers: The Torah Will Not Let Us Rest Until They Do

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There are some forms of moral outrage for which we do not need the Torah to sensitize us.

Imagine meeting Anwar, who at age 7 began weaving carpets in Pakistan until he earned enough to pay off a family debt. Once, after a particularly painful beating, he tried to run away, only to be apprehended by the police and returned to the carpet looms.

Or Demaris, who at 13 starting working in the broccoli and lettuce fields of Arizona. Exposed to pesticide drift during her 85-90 hour weeks in the fields, she suffered daily nose-bleeds for months on end, several times fainting from plummeting blood pressure.

Or, perhaps, one of the nearly 50,000 Afghan children recruited from schools by the former Taliban government to serve their war effort. If fairly compensated labor is a path to dignity, then abusive child labor is nothing short of the basest pornography.

Child labor occurs daily, around the world, with estimated numbers of 250 million children between the ages of 5 to 14. It occurs in all industries, in all countries, whether developing and industrialized, on family farms and within the purview of multinational corporations. Children are exploited on farms and in factories, on the streets as beggars and prostitutes, trafficked for profit and relegated into bonded servitude. The ubiquitous quality of abusive child labor coupled with its devastating effects, render it not only a labor offense, but also a potential plague.

In Romania, 30% of children under 15 have left school to attempt to eke out a meager living in order to help support their families. The depressing domino effect is easy to imagine: increased child labor means less education, which means less skill, which leads to lower compensation and a depressed economy. And the proliferation of child labor only feeds the cycle as employers, successfully exploiting the vulnerable with impunity, see no incentive to reform their practices.

Compared to the Torah

In the face of such moral blight, the admonitions of the Torah seem superfluous. As human beings with even a modicum of inherent moral consciousness, we experience automatic outrage. The Torah, it would appear, provides a theological gloss, a refining, although not deepening, perspective on what we can only view as dreadfully wrong.

But the Torah does more than that. The Torah is ultimately a tool for the constant cultivation of a moral consciousness, the "common sense" which might not be at all so common. Its teachings are designed to penetrate our souls, transforming our "hearts of stone" into "hearts of flesh." And while the offense of child labor will no doubt present itself to us as heinous, the Torah further illumines for us its evil dimensions.

According to the Torah, labor bestows dignity, but desisting from it brings holiness. This point could not be more explicit. The Torah states, "God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation…. (Genesis 2:3)" As endowed with God’s image, we encounter sanctity when we imitate the divine and partake of the blessing of rest. Conversely, when children are denied respite, the divine image is trampled upon in the most brutal fashion.

Throughout the Torah, we find concern with the inherent dignity of the worker. As a poignant illustration of this principle, we encounter in this week’s portion, Ki Tetze, the imperative of just and timely compensation to the poorest of laborers: "You shall not oppress a poor or needy worker, whether he be of your kin or a stranger…On the day of his labor shall you give him his compensation, nor shall the sun go down on it; for he is poor, and sets his heart upon it, lest he cry out to God, and you will have sinned" (Deuteronomy 24:14).

These teachings point the way to the simple realization that a society is to be judged on the basis of its treatment of the most vulnerable and desperate. Through its treatment of the needy, a society becomes collectively elevated or morally bankrupt.

But even in the presence of a degradation such as child labor, hope does exist. Linda Chavez-Thompson, Executive Director of the AFL-CIO, spent every summer between the ages of 10 and 15 weeding cotton in 100 degree heat, earning 30 cents an hour. At 15, her father took her out of school in order to work full time. The most dire circumstances can be overcome.

And there is action to be taken. Learn more about anti-child labor campaigns from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Global March Against Child Labor. Contact your Representative and encourage him or her to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to impose limits on the number of hours children can work in agriculture when school is in session. Support living wage campaigns–if adults earn more, their kids don’t have to. Support legislation to protect immigrant farm workers, who contribute more than 90% of the agricultural labor in this country.

Let us use our Torah portion’s injunction to cultivate a new sense of urgency. Child labor persists, and the outlets for information and action are plenty. May our tradition provide us with the sense of imperative and inspiration to pursue our tasks. 

Modern Untouchables: Our Sins Of Exclusion

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This is the Torah portion that becomes infamous at some point in one’s Jewish education, recounting the unseemly details of a strange skin disease, tzaraat. Additionally, we become acquainted with the unfortunate consequences of the disease, as the afflicted one is alienated from the community until he or she is healed, welcomed back only after a purification ritual involving the kohen (priest), and an anointing of sanctified water mixed with the ashes of a red heifer.

Students of the Torah have been bothered for millennia–not only, to be sure, by the sheer aesthetic unpleasantness of this parashah, but also by the seemingly arbitrary nature of the affliction and the alienation it imposes. The ancient Rabbis are troubled by the absence of any rationale for the affliction of tzaraat. The Torah does not state what people do to contract it, nor is atonement effective as a cure.

Alienation and Affliction

But perhaps this is precisely the point–to raise the awareness of alienation and affliction in our midst. Seen in a broader context, the book of Leviticus calls our attention to the communal standards of holiness, and tzaraat reminds us that there is an underside to every society, even one predicated on such a lofty foundation. Where there is prosperity, bounty and harmony, there is also bound to be pain, alienation and discord.

In fact, the Torah as well as later Jewish tradition seizes upon the motif of tzaraat as symbolic of a breach among people as well as between people and God. For example, the Torah makes clear that Miriam is afflicted with tzaraat after she apparently speaks ill of Moses’ wife. Following suit, rabbinic midrash portrays this skin affliction as a sign of enmity produced by lashon hara, the unrestrained tongue.

For an example of tzaraat as spiritual alienation, one can turn to the popular poem Yedid Nefesh, recited at the beginning of the service to greet Shabbat on Friday night. Here, the individual soul is "lovesick" for God, with the soul being so distant as to be like Miriam, suffering from tzaraat, to be cured only by Moses’ plea to God: "El na r’fa na lah (please God, heal her)!"

This parashah calls attention to how alienation is experienced individually, and addressed by society. Tzaraat is indeed an unbearable affliction, but one that is sustained only for a short time until healing is found. Furthermore, the overwhelming feeling toward the afflicted one is empathy and compassion.

No one with tzaraat is viewed as a permanent outcast. Their return to the community is envisioned after healing and a re-introduction ritual presided over by the priest. Finally, it is viewed as a truly regrettable and desperate situation to be avoided if at all possible. To prevent needless isolation, a thorough skin examination is required by an expert, and the rabbis illustrate the variety of instances in which the appearance of tzaraat is called into doubt.

It is troubling, then, to consider the extent to which we render those in our society who are most vulnerable as surrogate "metzora’im," outcasts in the manner described by the Torah portion. Regrettably, yet predictably, the poor, the uneducated, the mentally ill, all those who are deemed to be social pariahs, generally by no fault of their own, come to occupy a position of perpetual exclusion from the blessings of our society.

As these metzora’im are outcasts, so are all those who live in perpetual exclusion from adequate education, health care, a sense of safety and daily well being. As the metzora’im are "untouchable," so are those exiled by poverty ignored and disdained.

Treatment of the Poor

Furthermore, in light of this week’s Torah portion, our society’s treatment of the poor is particularly egregious. Leviticus at least views tzaraat as temporary, assuming that the afflicted individual will rejoin the community. The scourge of our society is that we expect only exceptional individuals in extraordinary circumstances to benefit from such social transformation. Contrary to every humane impulse of Jewish tradition, we have rendered poverty a pathology for which there is no cure, an exile for which there is no return.

Such treatment, by the standards of the Torah, is not only unjust, but blasphemous. Consider the famous line from chapter 58 of Isaiah, verses 6-7, that what God desires is for all to share their bread with the hungry, to welcome the homeless into their own home.

The great teaching of Isaiah is to view the poor not as alien, but as integral to our community, also created in the Divine image. It is a realization that begs immediate response, acting in such a way as to transform hearts of stone into compassionate hearts of flesh, fashioning a society in which no exclusion is permanent.

The Truth Of Social Justice

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One of the frequent comments I hear is that experiences of engaging in social justice are more profound than other aspects of religious life. For those who find a formal synagogue spiritually stultifying, an opportunity to contribute to the work of a soup kitchen or mentoring a child in need may provide an experience of the transcendent.

On the one hand, I applaud the desire to find meaning in endeavors that benefit other people, and recognize these moments as inherently holy. But I am distressed that so many are disenchanted with a system of ritual that is itself abounding in significance and which has been hallowed by centuries of practice. I would like to think that Jewish ritual serves as a potent catalyst for softening one’s heart and expanding one’s mind, important pre-requisites for any socially conscious person.

Isaiah’s Quandary

This quandary is not new. It is expressed quite eloquently by the prophet Isaiah in the haftarah, the prophetic reading, for Yom Kippur:

“…you fast in strife and contention, And you strike with a wicked fist!… Is such the fast I desire, A day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush, And lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, A day when Adonai (God) is favorable?”

Isaiah emphasizes what to us might seem obvious: that ritual observances can be

divorced from the ethical treatment of other human beings. The power of his words renders his message an eternal one. Ritual without social justice is simply a lie. Isaiah supplies his own prophetic vision:

No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke, To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, And not to ignore your own kin.”

For Isaiah, the religious expression desired by God is k’vod ha-bri’yot, respect for other human beings as creatures formed in the image of God. Quite naturally, this principle is fulfilled to its highest degree by providing for the most poor and vulnerable. Such is the true measure of a society that strives to bring holiness into its midst.

Perhaps part of what moves us when we participate in experiences of furthering social justice is the intimate contact with others. We all know that any one of our efforts is but a minute contribution in the larger context of society’s ills, but the contact we have with other people seems a world unto itself. We all know that our contributions of presence, of compassion and respect nourish others in equal if not greater measure than the food, clothing, toiletries, or other resources we contribute.

In our Torah portion this week, which begins the book of Leviticus, we learn that the intimacy integral to social justice is a foundation of truth. Within the first few verses, a drama of immeasurable proportions has occurred. Moses, who transmitted the design of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the desert, and oversaw its construction, is unable to enter, for God’s presence fills the Mishkan. But in the opening verses of our parashah, God invites Moses into the Mishkan, this portable tent, for an uninterrupted conversation.

The rabbis elaborate on the intimacy God and Moses share. It was not only that God spoke to Moses, but God spoke only to Moses, as the divine voice was not audible outside the tent. Moses stood not at the entrance of the tent, but in its innermost chamber.

Finally, God’s voice spoke to Moses from a single point, between the images of keruvim, the heavenly creatures that adorned the ark holding the Ten Commandments. The episode is singularly private, intimate, secluded.

Moses Understands More Than Anyone

And in this tightly enclosed space, Moses understands God’s revelation in a manner unmatched by anyone. Certainly, Moses enjoyed a kind of access unique among the Israelites leaving Egypt. The rabbis emphasize that, unlike other prophets, God spoke to Moses panim el panim–face to face, as it were–in the highest degree of intimacy. Where there is intimacy, imply our rabbis, there is undeniable truth.

I would hope that we can learn from our experiences striving for tikkun olam (repairing the world), and infuse our prayer lives with greater depth and substance–that we can plumb the depths of that spark which we feel in a soup kitchen, across from a mentee or a bed-ridden elder, and hold onto it during Shabbat morning services.

My aim is not simply mercenary, to create an experience that “catches” people and lures them into the synagogue. Rather, it is to strive to realize the vision of Isaiah, to bring our lives into an integrated whole.

We pray so that we can soften our hearts and render ourselves better vehicles for God’s presence, as we cultivate awe for the humanity, which is God’s creation. We attend to the cultivation of compassion and humility so that we can better alleviate suffering and pain.

And the contact with other human souls in turn reminds us of the depth and resilience of the spirit with which we are uniquely endowed. And through social justice, we discover that the truth enlightens all aspects of our lives and propels us to seek and feel more deeply.

Benevolent Dictatorship or Righteous Balance?

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The following article is reprinted with permission from

About a year ago, a congregant with a long career as a law professor and social activist approached me with an iconoclastic reading of Joseph. “Joseph isn’t a tzaddik, a righteous leader,” he said, “but a despot. He depletes the wealth of the towns, centralizes power in the cities, makes the people utterly dependent on him and then becomes responsible for enslaving them!” His interpretation gave me pause, and yet, it intrigued me.

I always give the benefit of the doubt to a novel interpretation–particularly one that heightens our awareness of totalitarianism. In Parashat Mikketz, Joseph does seem to impose draconian economic policies on the Egyptians.

A New Interpretation

Interpreting Pharoah’s dream of seven robust cows followed by seven sickly ones, Joseph believes that Egypt’s years of plenty will be followed by famine. His solution is well known: collect all the grain to be stored in the cities as a reserve. It is a drastic measure, to be sure, but one viewed as exceedingly wise. Joseph is rewarded with the office of Vizier under Pharaoh, effectively ruling all of Egypt with unchallenged authority.Joseph interprets dreams

Further along in the narrative, however, we read of Joseph’s policies that threaten to compromise the security and well being of his people. After Joseph has invited his family to settle in Egypt (Genesis 47:11-27), the famine continues to the point where there is no bread left in the land.

As payment for the bread in the storehouses, which was originally the people’s property, Joseph successively collects the people’s money, livestock, and, finally, land. Dispossessed of all their property, the people declare themselves to be “slaves” to Pharaoh, and receive seed so that they may grow their own wheat and make their own bread. Joseph reduces them to being sharecroppers on their own land.

My congregant appears to be right. Joseph robs his people of their produce, robs them again so they can buy it back and then seizes their land, effectively enslaving them.

Other voices from the tradition denounce this kind of exploitation. When the Israelites plead with the prophet Samuel to install a king over them, Samuel warns them, “He will take a tithe of your seed and your vineyards, which he will give to his courtiers and servants…He will take a tithe of your flocks and render you his slaves.” (I Samuel 7:15-17) To a word, this seems to be exactly what Joseph does!

Was Joseph Really Bad for the People?

Furthermore, we have an explicit condemnation of Joseph from Rabbi Meir ben Shmuel, known as the Rashbam, the grandson of Rashi, the great 11th-century commentator. The Rashbam compares Joseph not only to the king of Samuel’s warnings, but also to the autocratic Achashverosh, the Persian king of the Book of Esther, and Sennacherib, the ruthless Assyrian invader (see II Kings 18). It seems that reservations about Joseph are not only the product of our own minds, educated in a democratic society, but also find echoes in some of the most authoritative sources of our tradition!
But ultimately, there are problems with this critical reading of Joseph. Our judgment of Joseph as an exploitative despot does not seem to be born out by other elements of the biblical text. After all, it is not under Joseph that the people experience excessive suffering, but under the Pharaoh “who did not know Joseph” at the beginning of Exodus.

Furthermore, Joseph’s machinations fulfill critical elements of God’s plan. His position, and Egypt’s advantageous economic position, which Joseph brings about, are crucial to the brothers reuniting and establishing the continuity of Abraham’s descendants. Finally, even after the most severe of Joseph’s policies, the text tells us that the Israelites were “fertile and increased greatly (Genesis 47:27),” implying Joseph’s centrality to the ultimate success of his people.

An Exception that Proves the Rule

This juxtaposition of Joseph’s seemingly ruthless policies and their ultimate justification leave us with an uncomfortable question: is authoritarianism justified? But there is another prism through which we can view this seeming contradiction, suggested to us by Joseph’s exalted role in the tradition as Yosef ha-tzaddik, Joseph the righteous leader. The root of the word “tzaddik” has another revealing connotation: balanced, literally, as in, for example, balanced scales, weights and measures.
To be sure, Joseph imposed austerity, but perhaps it was austerity without oppression, balanced by the pathos Joseph exhibits when he cries at being reunited with his brothers. Perhaps, through some combination of charisma and compassion, Joseph was the kind of extraordinary leader who could create a sense of common good and purpose that allowed people to embrace the sacrifices he mandated.

An apology for the text? Perhaps. A fantasy? Maybe. But a fantasy like this serves to refine our moral consciousness. Joseph just might be the exception that proves the rule. Joseph was a tzaddik because he could achieve this delicate balance–but we would be hard pressed to find another like him. We should always be wary of the uses and abuses of institutional power. Samuel’s warning is perennially our own.

Zionism: A Call To Awe And Compassion

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Zionism represents a revolution in its aspiration to establish a society based on justice and compassion. On some level, all Zionism relies on an ancient tradition that gives voice to human pathos, calling all to mercy and empathy in spirit and deed. At its most noble, Zionism could be a triumph of each individual’s yearning for well being and community.

The complex relationship between Jews and the Land of Israel has yielded a series of moral quandaries. In addressing them, we can choose to develop either a narrow or expansive vision of what "Zionism" is, weighing the relative importance of living in the land per se, and of the way we build a society and conduct ourselves on that land. That choice is shaped by a variety of sources–among them, classical Jewish texts and their multiple interpretations–and has far-reaching political and social implications.

In the Torah, God’s promise of the Land to the Israelites was not guaranteed, but contingent on each generation’s pursuit of God’s justice. The success of that pursuit would be judged by the extent to which God’s blessings of fertility and bounty were distributed among the entire society. Therefore, even in the Torah, as well as the remainder of the Bible, the Land of Israel was a means, not an end.

In cultivating a Zionist vision for ourselves that is similarly compassionate and committed to social justice, we need to interpret texts so as to stress the Land of Israel as a vehicle for kiddush ha-shem, glorification of God’s name through admirable acts of moral conscience.

In Parshat Haye Sarah, we are given an opportunity to interpret a critical text. Over these past few weeks, we have seen how Abraham, a semi-nomadic shepherd, follows his flocks to a series of fertile parcels of land. Over time, however, Abraham’s weary and cyclical existence becomes infused with an awareness of destiny, and the charge to live as a blessing to humanity.

In this emerging divine plan, Abraham’s connection to the land becomes essential. He can only thrive morally by having his survival and that of his descendants assured. That assurance comes in the form of God’s promise that Abraham will lay claim to particular land, with guarantees of divine protection and prosperity.

Yet is for Abraham to establish this claim himself. As the parashah begins, Abraham purchases the cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite as a grave for Sarah, effectively establishing his first legitimate land claim. The transaction between the two is especially revealing in this regard. Ephron repeatedly offers the land to Abraham for free, expressing that it would be an honor for him to do so. But Abraham flatly refuses the offer, insisting that he pay the full price. By acquiring the land at a premium, Abraham establishes a claim that is uncontestable.

But the legacy is more than just physical–it is a bequest of a life lived in such a way as to be a blessing to all humanity. Abraham’s purchase of the land, after all, is in the wake of Sarah’s death, which, according to one traditional commentary, occurs upon being informed of Abraham’s taking Isaac to be sacrificed. How can we ignore this tragic irony?

I can only imagine that we are left to puzzle over this juxtaposition in order to consider two interlocking spheres of relationship: those among human beings and those between humanity and God. It is part of the legacy of Abraham and Sarah for us to consider how we receive intimations of our relationship to the divine through our interactions with other people.

But there is also a small, poignant detail that suggests to us Abraham’s desire to establish a legacy that glorifies the moral grandeur of which we are capable. The Torah tells us that, when Abraham dug his first well in Be’er Sheva, he planted a tree next to it, and proceeded to invoke God’s name. The rabbis ask why – after all, one might expect the patriarchs to erect altars, not trees.

This is the answer they supply: Abraham’s mission was not only to settle land, but to be a witness for the benevolence of its creator, and to share in that benevolence with all who visited. He would invite passers by to sit under the tree, take some rest in the shade, and have a drink or something to eat. And afterwards, he would invite them to say a bracha, a blessing of thanks to God for their bounty.

For the rabbis, then, the goal of settling the land was to share of its bounty, and to testify to the goodness of God’s presence in the world.

We would do well to keep Abraham’s tree in mind as we ponder our own relationship to the State of Israel, the Land of Israel, and the people Israel–and to understand Zionism as an attempt to manifest awe, empathy and compassion on a societal level. May we work to see these values made manifest speedily and in our day.