Many, many years ago in a distant land a woman named Sarah was married to Abraham. Sarah was not able to bear children. She was distressed and often wondered how she could increase her standing in the community and keep the wealth she and her husband had acquired in their family, both of which depended on having children. One day she realized the answer was right there before her eyes in the form of her domestic help, the young immigrant woman from Egypt named Hagar. Sarah knew that Hagar needed the job at her house and would do whatever it took to keep it. Hagar needed to send money back to her family who was struggling to make ends meet back in Egypt. Asking her to go beyond the call of duty was fine, Sarah thought, because Hagar should feel lucky to have a job. And a good one at that, one that included in living in Abraham and Sarah’s nice house and eating their food. She was surely luckier than most of her kin back in Egypt who labored day and night just to keep food on their plate. Hagar should be thankful to Sarah.
So Sarah decided she would improve her status, be “built up by Hagar,” by allowing Abraham to conceive a child for their family with Hagar (Genesis 16:2). She made a deal with Hagar that she and the child she bore would be part of Abraham and Sarah’s family. They would care for her and her child until he was an adult. Sarah assured Hagar that this arrangement would not jeopardize her job or affect the amount of money she made and was able to send home to her family. Of course, this agreement was not put into writing. Hagar was nervous about what sounded like a complicated situation but was also excited about the possibility of having a child. And she knew she had no choice but to say yes.
Hagar soon conceived a child. Abraham was relieved and kinder to both Sarah and Hagar now that he knew his family line would be perpetuated. But almost immediately Sarah began treating Hagar harshly. She demanded Hagar work more hours each week without any pay increase. She scolded Hagar if she used the toilet at any time other then during an appointed break, and she refused to let her see a doctor when she burned her hand while making the fire one day. Finally one day Hagar was fed up with this abuse and left the house. She was going to quit and never come back until she realized that she did not have any other options. She was pregnant in a foreign country, needed the money and food her job provided as well as the access to doctors that she had when living in Abraham and Sarah’s house. Unable to survive without the job, she returned to the house. She decided she would just have to put up with the abuse.
Hagar gave birth to a beautiful and healthy boy, who Abraham named Ishmael. Years went by and Hagar worked hard, living under Sarah’s harsh treatment. She would complain about things with the other Egyptian women who worked in the Canaanite women’s households when they were at the well together, but none of them ever could figure how to improve their working conditions without losing their jobs.
Ishmael was getting older and Hagar was pleased about the opportunities he gained by living in Canaan and saw that he would have more possibilities in his life than Hagar had in hers. Then one day Sarah miraculously got pregnant, despite the fact that she was an old woman. She had told Hagar that God told her she would get pregnant but she had not believed such a crazy prophecy. Sarah was ecstatic. Hagar was hopeful that if Sarah had her own baby she would be a bit kinder toward her as she would no longer be jealous.
But that is not what happened. Sarah gave birth to Isaac and began to treat Hagar even more harshly. Now that Sarah had her own son she did not want her family to include these foreigners. Sarah made Hagar work even harder and provided her with less and less time off. She restricted the access she had to health care. It was terribly difficult, but at least, Hagar thought, Ishmael and Isaac were getting along. However, one day Ishmael and Isaac were playing together, laughing, and Sarah watched them intently through the window. Her jealousy boiled up inside of her, and she screamed at Abraham that he had to get rid of Ishmael and Hagar. She told Abraham that she was not going to have her son share her inheritance with an Egyptian boy.
Hagar knew Sarah had a temper, but she also knew that Abraham was very reasonable. She trusted Abraham would calm Sarah down and continue to take care of her and her son. But the next morning she awoke to Abraham knocking on her door. He said that she and Ishmael had to leave. He was sorry, but God had told him he had to do what Sarah wanted. Abraham put a pouch of water and a bag of bread on Hagar’s shoulder. Ishmael had woken up with a fever that night and could not walk so well on his own, so Abraham put him on Hagar’s other shoulder (Genesis Rabbah 53:13). The next day was the last day of the month, when Hagar would get paid. But Abraham did not give Hagar any silver or gold – only water and bread (Rashi on Genesis 21:14). He assured Hagar that God would take care of them and that Ishmael would be the father of a great nation. He then walked Hagar to the back door, before anyone else in the house had awakened for the day, and sent her and Ishmael out into the desert.
Hagar was humiliated and angry. She walked down the path away from the house, and she wandered into the desert trying to figure out where to go. Ishmael was drinking a lot because he was sick (Genesis Rabbah 53:13). The water was quickly running out. So Hagar lay Ishmael down under a bush, walked down the path, and broke down weeping and wailing. She knew her son would die. He had a fever. She had no access to medical care. She desperately wondered how she could get enough food and water to save her son. She was in disbelief that Abraham, Ishmael’s father, had left them to die. But she had no one to approach with her grievances. There were no laws or agencies to protect household workers. She thought of talking to her friends, the other immigrant women who were maidservants. But what would they do? If they talked to Abraham or to their bosses they could be cast out as well. She had no money. She sent most of her pay each month to her family in Egypt, so she had no savings. And she had worked all month and was now receiving no compensation for that work. She did not know how she would survive.
Thousands of years later Hagar has become Maria with a son named Fernando. Abraham and Sarah have become Abe and Susan. But the rest of the circumstances are eerily similar. Abe and Susan are restaurant owners who force Maria to clock out at 5:00 but work until 7:00 every day to avoid paying her overtime. They figure that Maria should be happy she has a job. They assume she is better off than she would be back home in Mexico. Maria keeps quiet for fear of losing her job, or even worse, being reported to the immigration authorities. When union representatives come to town and try to help Maria and her fellow workers organize themselves to protect their wages and jobs, they find that it is impossible to organize them because of their vulnerable status and because of the union-busting firms that Abe and Susan hire to get rid of the union.
Abe and Susan are one of thousands of American business owners building up their business and keeping the money in their own pockets by employing vulnerable workers and not paying them the wages they are due. Maria is just one of two or three million workers whose wages are stolen by not being paid minimum wage or not being paid for overtime work.
Kim Bobo, Executive Director of Interfaith Worker Justice, succinctly explains the problem of stolen wages and how we participate in it:
Although I know there are many fine ethical businessmen and women in the United States who employ workers and do their best to treat workers both legally and ethically, my experience from Interfaith Worker Justice … provides a disheartening view of the underbelly of the economy. Millions of workers are having billions of dollars of wages stolen each and every year. The protections that exist are inadequate or not enforced. As consumers and sometimes as employers, all of us participate either knowingly or unwittingly in supporting businesses that steal wages from workers. (Bobo, Wage Theft in America, xii)
The Economic Policy Foundation, a business-funded think tank, estimates that companies annually steal $19 billion in unpaid overtime. Some labor lawyers suggest the number is far higher (Bobo, Wage Theft in America, p. 8). We are all part of the national crisis known as wage theft, of workers not getting paid or getting underpaid for the work they perform.
On Yom Kippur we acknowledge the misdeeds we have committed in the past year, and we must examine our involvement in this economic injustice. This is difficult because many of us have suffered from the economic meltdown. Some of us lost our jobs. Some of us watched our retirement savings dwindle. And many of us begin this New Year facing stressful financial situations. It is not easy to think about other people’s financial problems when are experiencing hardship. However, it is never acceptable for people to not get paid for work they do. We cannot participate in this crime nor stand idly by while it happens around us or to us.
In our repetition of the Al Het prayer during the High Holiday services we ask God for forgiveness for the wrongs we have done knowingly or unknowingly and for wrongs we have done because of our avarice and greed. So we must ask ourselves how we have participated in wage theft? How we can stand by while Maria is treated like Hagar? And what can we do about it?
There are many things we can do to protect workers, to end the crisis of wage theft in America. We need to support legislation to re-empower workers to form unions that will give them the ability to protect themselves from wage theft and to obtain more job security and higher wages. We need to pressure politicians to strengthen the Department of Labor so that it defends the rights of workers instead of catering to the wishes of business owners. We need to advocate for legislation that will directly prevent wage theft and urge our legislators to pass comprehensive immigration reform. And we each need to take care to make more ethical purchasing decisions in our own personal and professional lives.
But we also need to ask: Why do we stand by when such rampant injustice goes on every day in every city in our country? Why do we stand by when the ratio of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) pay to worker pay is the most disproportionate of any industrialized nation in the world? In 2005 CEO pay in the U.S. was 262 times the average worker’s wages. By comparison, CEO pay in other industrialized countries is only 10 to 25 times that of the rank and file (iwj.org).
What keeps our hearts closed to the suffering of others? For one, we live in a country in which individualism is prized and status is often measured by material wealth. Surrounded by such cultural norms we become greedy and absorbed with our own desires. Just as Sarah wants to keep the inheritance all for her son and will throw Hagar and Ishmael out on the street to guarantee such an outcome, business owners today will exploit workers to make a higher profit. And we do the same. We want to find good deals on material goods and turn a blind eye to where our clothes, our toys, and our electronics are made. I am guilty of this myself and I work at a labor rights organization!
How hard it is to give up a good deal to protect a worker we will never meet. That is a central reason we close our hearts to the suffering of low-wage workers. We do not see them. In an industrialized, global economy many of the workers we support with our purchasing dollars are invisible to us: the people who manufacture our electronics, launder our suits, or manufacture our cars. But others are right behind the counters at our favorite lunch spot, cleaning the halls in the nursing home where we visit our elderly relatives, or repairing the roof at our office. But we move busily through our lives blind to the humanity of the workers who make our lives easier, cleaner, and more comfortable.
One of the first steps to solving the problem of wage theft and abuse of low-wage workers is opening our eyes to those workers. When we see others as human beings who love their children, dream about their future, and worry about their parents our hearts are opened and we can longer stand by idly. Our Torah teaches us this lesson. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein suggests that the name Hagar, which is written without vowels in the Torah, can be read in two different ways, by playing with the Hebrew vowels. We can read it “Ha-ger” which means “the stranger.” Or we can read it “Hey-gar” which means “G-d dwells within.” Rabbi Goldstein writes, “What a difference. Depending on how we read a situation, we can find God in the face of the stranger.” When we can find God in the stranger then we are more likely to act more compassionately, generously, and ethically.
At the same time we must open our eyes to the truth about ourselves. It is so easy for us to see our inner Hagar, the part of us that is treated unfairly, that knows desperation and pain. We can see the underdog in ourselves. It is much harder to open up our eyes to the Sarah within us, the powerful person within ourselves who has the ability to hurt others. That part of ourselves that is greedy and self-centered and wants to keep all the money for our family, who acts out of jealousy rather than generosity. We do not want to see that part of ourselves.
We must look at that part of us so we stop the cycle of recreating the story of Hagar and Sarah with different names in different places. So we can put an end to the suffering we cause by not seeing.
Just as when Hagar opened her eyes she beheld the unseen possibility in the form of a well that would save her and her son, may we have the courage in this New Year to open our eyes to the suffering of those who are different from ourselves, as well as to the unseemly parts of ourselves that perpetuate that suffering.
I pray that in this coming year we keep our eyes open wide enough to catch a glimpse of the unseen possibilities of how to work toward economic justice for all.
Ken Yehi Ratzon.
May it be God’s will.
Bobo, Kim. Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid – And What We Can Do About It. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009. Print.
Goldstein, Rabbi Elyse. “Yom Kippur sermon 5761,” kolel.org. September 14, 2009.