What did the people do to merit the dispersion of humanity across the globe and the proliferation of different languages? A common interpretation is that they challenged God by building a tower to the sky. But the rabbis had a different view. In the midrash we read that what really bothered God was that the builders were more concerned about losing a single brick falling off the tower than losing a life. The rabbis saw in the lesson of the Tower of Babel an example of a society that cares more for bricks than bodies, for material goods than for human beings. Perhaps it’s telling that this story comes in Chapter 11, a sign of the moral bankruptcy of this kind of thinking.
It’s been two years since the Occupy Wall Street movement gave us the catch-all term, the 99% and it still feels like people care more about bricks than bodies. Just this week, a report came out with the shocking and disturbing news that the income gap in the US today is even wider than it’s been for 100 years. In 2012, the top ten percent of Americans made half of the income. The top one percent made 20% of all the income in our country. After five years of recovery, the income gap is worse than before the Great Depression. The top 1% have received 95% of the wealth during the recovery, not leaving very much for the 99% who still suffer from unemployment and income stagnation. This is a shande and an outrage.
These statistics sound a shrill echo to Isaiah’s prophetic message in the Yom Kippur haftarah. Both call us to act for economic justice.
Our haftarah begins with the words solu solu, build up build up! But the building that Isaiah calls for has a dramatically different design than the Tower of Babel. Isaiah calls on us to clear a highway and remove the obstacles to creating a world of morality and justice, where greed is punished and the oppressed will go free.
Isaiah knew the Hyatt Hotel corporations of his day, the Walmarts and the McDonalds, the industries that promise low prices to the public, wealth to the shareholders and exploitation to its workers. Isaiah taught us that there is a limit to financial success, that there is a moral bottom line that trumps the economic bottom line. He says directly that God refuses to accept the offerings of the greedy,
“Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers!” (58:3)
Hyatt is now the exemplar for Isaiah’s call for teshuvah (repentance), having reached a historic agreement with hotel workers, despite having been the worst hotel employer for the past four years. Though the agreement does not right the wrongs of the Boston Hyatt 100, and is far from perfect, it demonstrates the importance of standing up for workers, for demanding fair pay, and for taking a stand for justice. The Hyatt agreement gives us hope that we can make a difference.
As we hear the angry words of Isaiah consider the actions that you can take.
At the top of my list this year is to increase the minimum wage, nationally and locally. Income inequality starts with the lowest paid works. If the minimum wage had kept pace with the cost of living for the past 5 years, it would be at $10/hour rather than the $8/hour that it has been since 2008. There is not one state where a worker making minimum wage for 40 hours a week can afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment. Not one. Many minimum wage jobs that used to provide pocket change for teens or supplemental income for families have become full-time employment for the breadwinners in many families.
To those who argue that raising the minimum wage will cause employers to fire more workers, Dr. Bob Rubin makes a very different case. Rubin is a professor of management , human resources and organization development consultant and organizational management coach. In an article entitled “Paying a High Price for Low Pay,” Rubin insists that the data shows that increased labor rates do not lead to increased labor costs. Creating a living wage actually improves overall company performance, increasing employee retention and even lowering costs by increasing productivity. It’s a win-win for everyone.
So what can you do when you hear Isaiah’s call for economic justice?
There are two simple ways we can all support an increased minimum wage in Massachusetts:
We can support the bill currently being debated in the Massachusetts legislature is to lift the minimum wage and to link it in the future to the cost of living. Please contact your legislator to voice your support for the bill.
We can also support Raise Up Massachusetts, to put a vote on the state ballot for 2014 to require employers to offer earned sick time and raise the minimum wage. Please plan on spending a few hours collecting signatures for this ballot initiative this fall.
Remember the lesson of the Tower of Babel. Listen to the message of Isaiah. Let us build a world where bodies count more than bricks, where we work together to clear a path toward justice, where “your light shall shine in the darkness and your gloom shall give way to the noonday sun.” (58:10)