Yesterday we read in Isaiah the famous line, “Is this not the fast I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” (58:6). The verses, and our High Holy Day sermons, go on to talk about the hungry in our community. We’re all too familiar with the analogy: yesterday we chose our hunger, but every day millions do not choose their fast. Supposedly, these 25 hours (or less, because you might be hosting the break-fast or, let’s face it, those bagels and shmear are too tempting) are supposed to put empathy in our hearts, by way of our stomachs. But today, while the words of our rabbis’ famously long sermons still drone echo in our ears, I’m not going to tell you about hunger or poverty (although statistics show that the numbers of the impoverished are growing every day).
Yesterday morning, I noticed a verse I had always overlooked, in spite of it falling just two lines before the one quoted above: “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers” (58:3c). And I thought the fast was about food insecurity! Now Isaiah throws employment ethics into the mix? Maybe yesterday your rabbi talked about repentance, or poverty, or packing up a new house, or starting the new year afresh, or maybe you have no idea what she said because of your stomach growling and eyes closing. But I’m guessing the words “paid sick days” were rarely heard around our congregations yesterday. Here’s a taste of what those three words can mean:
“A little boy in pain. I am his teacher. I am worried about him. We sit down side by side, and I ask, “How are you?” He tells me he just had his tonsils out, and his mom couldn’t stay home to take care of him. “Where is your mommy?” I ask. He starts to cry. “She has to work.” And she does. She works two menial jobs to support her family. No benefits. No job security. And certainly no sick days.
“They struggle to find enough quarters to do the laundry once a week. There are no corners to cut to afford a day off without pay. So he suffers without her. Another student, a little girl, comes into class looking exhausted. I touch her forehead. It is burning up. “Sweetheart, you need to go to the nurse.” “No, please, no!” she begs me. She clings to my arm. “My mom and dad can’t leave work! Let me stay here, please!” She sits down and cries. And she’s right. Her parents, car-less, send her by bus and take public transportation themselves. They work so hard and love their children. But they don’t get sick leave. They don’t get time off. How are they going to pay the rent if they come and get her? Minimum wage rents them a single room in a relative’s house. “It’s like camping,” she tells me. They are hanging by a thread. If the nurse calls that thread could snap…” (California MomsRising Member)
These families are not alone. As one advocate says, “Everyone gets sick. Not everyone has time to get better.” More than 4 in 10 private sector workers and over 80% of low-wage workers do not have access to paid sick days. That’s 40 million employees who can’t miss a day of work to recover from common, short-term illnesses. Many are forced to come to work sick, including 3/4 of the food service industry, who serve you dinner while contagious with the flu. These workers are forced with the choice of staying home to care for themselves yet not earn enough to make ends meet, or go to work while risking their own health and potentially that of others. This shouldn’t have to be a choice.
Is this the fast we have chosen? To force employees to make this impossible choice? Even Isaiah realized the interconnectedness between different kinds of injustices; taking a sick day for many leads to unemployment, which can quickly spiral into hunger. As our residual hunger from yesterday subsides, we try to keep the memory of the lessons we learned yesterday in mind for the rest of the year. Isaiah explicitly tells us to share our food with the hungry and clothe the naked (58:7), but we can also read so many more mitzvot into those verses. What fast did you choose and how will you carry that into this new year?