Parashat Ki Tetze

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

Our society is judged on the basis of how we treat our most vulnerable members.

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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. 

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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.