The following is a reflection written by Rabbi Joshua Ben-Gideon, from Beth Israel Center, connecting worker justice and Passover.
As we approach the Jewish holiday of Passover, it is appropriate to reflect upon the lessons of the holiday and what they might teach us in our own day. When Moses seeks to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, he says to Pharaoh: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Let my people go that they may celebrate a festival for me in the wilderness.” Ex. 5:1. The Israelites worshiping God is said to be the reason for why they need to leave Egypt. Interestingly, the first thing they do once they are free is not worship, but grumble about not having enough food and water. Within God’s response to them, with manna and sweet water, God teaches them about Shabbat, the Sabbath.
The rabbinic imagination frames the Exodus with the introduction of the idea of Shabbat. One of my favorite midrashim (rabbinic stories that adds depth to the Hebrew bible) tells a story about Moses going to his adopted father, Pharaoh, before he flees from his adopted home. He makes the case to Pharaoh that the Israelite slaves would be more productive if they were given one day off per week (a Shabbat/Sabbath). Pharaoh rejects this idea, and the rest of the story unfolds. It would seem then that being properly sustained and being able to work with the dignity that a day of rest entails, is at least as important a reason for the Exodus as the Israelites going into the wilderness to worship God.
In our own day, may we each remember that good working conditions are at least equal to worship in defining our relationship with God.