Torah Thursday: Migrant Workers and Malachi 3

Every Thursday, Jeremiah’s Laments engages in some anti-Zionist bible study in an effort to think about what a different kind of Judaism might look like. 

This weekend is Shabbat HaGadol (the “Great Sabbath”), or the last Saturday before Passover begins. As such, Jews around the world will read a special Haftorah from the book of Malachi. And, as it turns out, these passages could not be more topical.

As covered in yesterday’s Weekly Round-up of Israeli Racism, the Israeli Supreme Court this week ruled that migrant domestic workers are not covered by that country’s labor protection laws. Kav Laoved / Workers’ Hotline explains (Heb):

Caregivers’ exclusion from the law means that the minimum standards in these areas [of labor law] do not apply to them, and, therefore, they can be employed for 24 hours a day, with no breaks and no weekly rest, and without an obligation to pay them for overtime on Saturdays or holidays.

The Prophet Malachi this week has some choice words for the Israeli Supreme Court. The second verse from the reading details God’s displeasure with the way the biblical Kingdom of Judah strayed from righteousness. Specifically, God warns:

And I will approach you for judgment, and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely; and also against those who withhold the wages of the day laborers, of the widow and fatherless, and those who pervert [the rights of] the stranger, [and those who] fear Me not, says the Lord of Hosts.

In this one verse, God warns us twice against depriving migrant workers of their due wages, first in a direct warning against witholding wages owed to any worker and second through a special consideration of the migrant. (n.b. Stranger, in biblical hebrew, means a member of another nation.)

This insistance on special consideration for the migrant and the disadvantaged worker is a constant and repeating theme throughout the Bible. So much so that God even includes proper work relations in the Ten Commandments. It is not only the Israelites who were commanded to observe a day of rest, but also the servant and the stranger in their employ (Exodus 20:22). As such, the Israeli Supreme Court just violated the Fourth Commandment.

As the Bible unfolds, however, subtle differences emerge in the ways that this commandment is given. Just after freeing the Israelites from slavery, in Exodus 22:20, God commands:

And you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

As we approach Passover – when Jews are commanded to imagine themselves as having been personally liberated from slavery – it seems especially pertinent to be reminded in this week’s Haftorah of those too often kept in modern-day bondage.

Imagination, however, is not sufficient. As the Israelites come to political power, God stops appealing to them based on their personal memories of shared life experience. Now that they are in a position of privilege, God makes treatment of the stranger a yardstick by which to measure the worth of the polity as a whole. So, after listing a plethora of other sins, Ezekiel 22 concludes:

The people of the land have practiced oppression and committed robbery; they wronged the poor and the needy, and oppressed the stranger for lack of judgment. And I sought of them a man who puts up a wall and stands in the breach before Me, for the sake of the land that it not be destroyed, but I did not find. And I poured out My fury upon them; with the fire of My wrath I destroyed them. I put their way on their head,” said the Lord God.

The oppression of the migrant and the poor – resulting directly from a lack of proper judgement – is so bad that here God threatens to destroy the entire polity.

I want to emphasize this point again, as I have a feeling it will be one that we return to often in Torah Thursday: If a State fails to live up to proper standards of justice, then God judges it unfit to carry on in its current form. 

On the other hand, Malachi teaches us that treating the migrant worker properly is essential to achieving a better world:

Keep in remembrance the teaching of Moses, My servant-the laws and ordinances which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel. Lo, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord.

Treating the migrant worker properly – as mentioned by God at Mt. Sinai (Horeb) – is part and parcel of building towards a Messianic world.


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