by Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann
The S’fat Emet, a mystical teacher and commentator on the Torah teaches about the Jewish holiday of Passover:
“In the act of telling about the Exodus [which we do on Passover], the miracle itself is continually fulfilled and enhanced…That’s what telling the tale does: it keeps drawing out further potential. The real point of the story is that we are liberated from the force of evil. The root of that force was back there in Egypt, but the specifics of our liberation are worked out each year.” (Quoted in The Language of Truth, translated by Art Green)
In this teaching, the S’fat Emet acknowledges that liberation from oppression and bondage is an ongoing act, not merely an important event in the historical experience of the Jewish people. The root of oppression and degradation may have been manifest in Egypt, but that oppression is present to this day and in this very moment.
Thus, it is an obligation for the Jewish people, and for all people of faith who consider the Exodus a foundational narrative, to continually look for and call out the ways in which people are oppressed or mistreated in our own day and to continually call to task those “Egypt’s”those people, forces, or systems that keep people from experiencing basic human dignity.
Economic inequality is one of the major contemporary manifestations of this kind of oppression. Today, it is possible –and in many communities in Philadelphia probable– that one works a full-time job and lives in poverty, unable to afford rent and left to choose between food, medication, and other basic needs.
This is a reality that can change. While the cost of living has risen dramatically, the country’s minimum wage has remained at $7.25. Anti-union and anti-organizing pressure among companies like Targetand many others contribute to a culture of wage stagnation. In many industries, workers are subject not just to low wages but to wage theft too. According to Robert Reich, even raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10/hour will still require us to support struggling families through Medicaid, food stamps, and other safety net programs.
In my mind, until all working Americans are guaranteed a living wage, we are still in “Egypt.”
But just as that oppression is present outside of Egypt and in our own time, so must be the hope and striving for liberation. As the S’fat Emet suggests, the specifics may not be worked out – but the possibility for redemption is present.
We can and should be advocating for raising the minimum wage – not simply to $10.10/hour but to $15/hourvi. We can listen to workers who are taking risks and fighting for their rights- like fast food workers who have been striking and putting a spotlight on the challenges they face as working adults- and support their efforts toward raising industry standards.
Here in Philadelphia, we have an exciting opportunity to make a difference in the lives of over 3,000 workersthat struggle to get by on the minimum wage every day. By voting “Yes” on a May 20th ballot initiative, we can raise wages for workers subcontracted by the City of Philadelphia, including those at Philadelphia International Airport, from $7.25 to $10.85/hour. While the “promised land” may seem far away, this is an opportunity to be in dialogue and action in order to change the status quo, in order to bring about a time in which all people will be treated fairly and with dignity. As a member of POWER, I have invested myself, with my congregation, in letting our neighbors throughout the city know about this chance to make a change here and now.
Tonight, Jewish people across the world come together to celebrate the first seder of Passover with family and friends. It is my prayer that we utilize this time to consider our modern-day Egypts and our contemporary chances to find and further liberation. It is my prayer that all communities of faith find wisdom and inspiration from this story and its message, that we may join together to bring about a City of Opportunity that Works for All.
Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann is the rabbi of POWER congregation Kol Tzedek Synagogue in West Philadelphia. On April 17, Kol Tzedek is hosting a Labor Seder, with organizers and workers from the Fast Food Worker Movement. For more information, https://www.facebook.com/events/1420585598198641/