Monday, 10 January 2011

Living Wage - Slaughter the Sheep

Going back to last week


Moses goes to the children of Israel with the good news –

God is coming, God’s going to come and take you out of Egypt, rid you of this slavery, redeem you and take you as God’s people ..


And nothing.

Vlo shamu el moshe mipnei kotzer ruach v’avodah kashah.


They can’t hear Moses because of shortness of spirit and hard work.

They can’t see the light even when a candle is waved before them.


The enslaved people don’t know how to yearn for redemption, they cry out from the weight of slavery, but they don’t yearn to be free.

They’ve forgotten what they should be doing because they are so busy working.

Two weeks ago,


Children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God saw the children of Israel, and God took cognizance of them. (Exodus 2, 23-25)


The slaves don’t remember who they are – the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, participants in a covenantal relationship with God.

They have a destiny, a role in the world that is not about labour.

God has to remember that and carry, as it were, God’s people along until a time when they can yearn for their own freedom and begin to make their own contribution.


Since that moment of shortness of spirit and hard labour Moses is not commanded again to speak again to the children of Israel until the midst of this week’s parasha. It’s almost as if God knows there is no point speaking with the enslaved people, their ears are shut.


Come back to this second attempted conversation with the Children of Israel later, God tells the children of Israel to slaughter a sheep.

Why a sheep?

I’ll come back to that later, for now I’m interested in this inability to hear the call to freedom.

Why is it that the Israelites can’t respond to Moses telling them that they are going to be free.


Even the Rabbis are surprised.

V’chi yesh lecha adam sh-hu mitbaser besorah tovah vaino sameach

Have you ever heard of a person getting good news and it not making them happy?[1]


That’s the impact of slave labour, work so hard that can’t even hear a promise of redemption.

That’s how bad it gets.

It’s not purely an ancient phenomenon, nor is it something that only applies in the sweat shops of Bangladesh and ‘over there.’ Labour practices which constrict the soul and limit the ability of a person to participate in a redemptive journey are also found in this country.


I had an interesting insight into the way in which power of avodah kashah – backbreaking labour – shuts a persons ears through my work with London Citizens.


We are, as a Synagogue members of a campaigning organisation, London Citizens, most known for their work with the Living Wage.

There is, as I am sure you will know, a minimum wage in this country - £5.93 an hour.

It’s legislation that recognises that, unless tempered, some employer – employee relations can result in pay for work at levels that effectively enslave. As a society we have deemed that employing at less than £5.93 an hour is slave wages and should be illegal.


But there is a problem with the minimum wage.

If you are working a 40 week, 50 weeks of the year on minimum wage you are earning the grand total of £11, 860 a year, before tax.

For the Americans here that’s $18000 a year.

Not a lot of money.


What kind of people are expected to live on £II,000 a year?

Overnight cleaners working on contract cleaning the sorts of offices where the rest of us tend to work during the day.

Hotel staff in the hotels we probably stay in.

Health care assistants wiping up after those who are too old, senile or ill to take care of themselves.

The hidden labour force of this country


And what’s the problem with paying people only a national minimum wage –

I think the problem is that it turns them into the Children of Israel, enslaved in Egypt.

Unable to realise that there is anything else in their lives but hard labour.

They end up having to take a second, and third job just to put food on the table.

They can’t provide for their kids, they can’t afford basic health care, they can’t properly educate their children.

End up costing the rest of us as we subsidise slave-level employers with work credits and anti-poverty tax spend.

It might be legal, but it’s still not employment at a level that allows a person to be part of a redemptive journey.

It doesn’t allow a person to be free.


So London Citizens have adopted a campaign to ensure that everyone in London is paid at least a living wage, a wage calculated by the GLA at £7.35 an hour – enough to allow a member of the workforce of this country to feel a worthy employee, enough to allow them to feel like a free person.


Campaign well over a hundred years old in this country, always been led by religious voices.

Particularly active have been the Quakers, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation remains particularly involved.

The campaign works with small groups of citizens arranging to meet with employers and explaining them the injustice of low pay, the value of paying staff at a living wage level.

Incredibly success, employers such as Canary Warf, KPMG, Barclays, University of London, Greater London Authority, it’s a long list.


I met a cleaner who benefited from the campaign.

He had been running a youth club for at risk Yeminite kids who lived in his area, and was having to stop because he needed to earn more money for his family but then the living wage kicked in and he was able to carry on.

You can’t be a full citizen until you get paid enough to take you out of slavery


Work is good –

Sheshet yamim tavod

Love work – ehov et hamalacha

But slavery is bad because blinds, deafens and dumbs us.

If interested in the Living Wage campaign, let me know.


Promised to come back and touch on the second attempt of God to instruct the Children of Israel, now their slavery has ended.

Tells them to take a sheep and use the blood to daub the doorposts.


Why a sheep.

Rambam thinks a way of snubbing the Egyptians – who venerate the sheep.

But Kli Yakar suggests something else. Sheep are fairly pathetic creatures, led wherever the shepherd leads them, even, as Psalm 44 suggests – to the slaughter.

God wants the children of Israel to slaughter dafka a sheep because God is trying to get us out of that mentality.

The mentality of someone who only works to live, nose to the grindstone, missing what is going on around them, missing being part of a broader society.

Missing what is means to be free, missing what it means to be part of a redemptive journey.

Interesting that this is directed to people who aren’t doing slave-labour.

No longer being employed on the equivalent of £II,000 a year.

Sometimes need more than merely the removal of slavery, or getting a decent paycheck to remind you that you are free and that there are more important things in the world than work.

Sometimes you have to slaughter the sheep

The inner sheep, perhaps, inside us all that will happily wander round, doing what we are told, not stepping back from the professional merry-g-rounds that can otherwise suck up our every energy.

Sometimes you have to slaughter the sheep.


For those of us fortunate enough to be paid far more than either the minimum or the living wage, slavery can still be a problem, self-imposed slavery, or the slaver imposed by societies expectation that we wear the right kinds of lcothes and live in the right style and custom.

Slavery comes in many forms.

We need, always to remember we are Children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

We have a role in redemption.

We need the call to step back from work and appreciate the possibilities of freedom.


For that we need two things

A base level of material sustenance – a living wage

And then we need to be prepared to slaughter the sheep.


Shabbat shalom

[1] Mehilta Bo, mesechata pischa 5

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