Advocacy & Activism, Legislation, Unions & Organized Labor

Commentary: Torah of Justice from the Streets of Los Angeles

From JewSchool.com, Aryeh Cohen, 26 Jun 2011.

Martin Sheen and the Mayor at the start of the march at City Hall

Martin Sheen and the Mayor at the start of the march at City Hall

[Sacramento, CA] — On June 16 the California legislature passed SB 104—the Fair Treatment for Farmworkers Act. The United Farm Workers have been organizing a series of actions to urge Governor Brown to sign the bill. On Friday there was a march from City Hall to the Ronald Reagan State Office Building where the governor’s offices are, followed by a press conference at which Mayor Antonio Villaraigrossa, Martin Sheen, two farmworkers, Angelica Salas, the Executive Director of CHIRLA and I and two other members of the clergy spoke. This is what I said:

Two summers ago many of us were gathered not far from here at a memorial gathering for 15 farm workers who had died in the fields because of a lack of shade or water or breaks, but mainly because of a failure to recognize that every single person is created in the image of God. It is two years later and we are finally on the verge of taking a large step forward towards rectifying all the wrongs that result from not recognizing that the workers who toil in the fields and pick our food are created in the image of God.

When the greatest of all Jewish philosophers, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, called Maimonides, needed to answer the question: What is the greatest perfection of all? He said it is knowing God. What, he continued, does it mean to know God? Does it mean to know that God is one? Does it mean to know that God is of a completely different nature from people? No, he said. Knowing God means understanding that God’s purpose is to create justice on this earth. The one who truly knows God, therefore, is the one who works to create a just society. Justice comes from recognizing that every other human being is created in the image of God and therefore I have an obligation to hear their cries when they are vulnerable, and to work to allow them the means to live in dignity; to support themselves from hard work; to organize to better themselves; to treat them as people created in the image of God—because that is what they are.
This is not charity. This is not a gift. This is my obligation, our obligation as people who want to do justice, who want to live in a just society, who want to hear the word of God.
The Bible tells us:
20 You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
21 You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan.
22 If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me,
23 and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.

Rabbi Aryeh Cohen speaking at the end of the march.

Rabbi Aryeh Cohen speaking at the end of the march.

In the thirteenth century Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman commented on this:

[God] says “you shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him” and think that he has no one to save him from your hands, for you know that you were strangers in the land of Egypt and I saw the manner in which the Egyptians oppressed you and I wreaked vengeance upon them, for I see “the tears of the oppressed with none to comfort them; and the power of their oppressors—with none to comfort them.” (Ecclesiastes 4:1) I, however, save all people from those stronger than them (cf. Psalms 35:10). So, too, “you shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan,” (Exodus 22:21) for I will hear their cries, for all these people do not have faith in themselves, but they can have faith in Me.

The Pharaohs always think that their strength and power, their profits and political contributions will win in the end. We are here today to say that, in the end, righteousness will win, justice will win. If we don’t fulfill our obligations towards these workers and towards all workers, salvation might come from another quarter but we run the risk of ending up as the detritus strewn on the side of the road towards redemption.

Governor Brown, sign the FAIR TREATMENT FOR FARM WORKERS ACT.

To sign the petition asking Gov. Brown to sign the act go here.

Source: JewSchool.com, “Torah of Justice from the Streets of Los Angeles” by Aryeh Cohen, 26 Jun 2011.

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