Parashat Vayetze

Jacob the Migrant Worker

What a forefather can teach us about human rights.

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Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

The bumper sticker on my brother's car reads, "Everyone does better when everyone does better." This statement brims with optimism: it is a vision of shared work and shared gain. Yet as I repeat this phrase, the terms begin to flicker: Is the "doing better" economic or moral? Who is considered to be part of "everyone?" Jacob finds himself part of a quotient of work and gain in this week's parashah that helps illuminate the nuance in this slogan.

american jewish world serviceJacob is a migrant worker. He flees from a dangerous situation at home and takes refuge in Haran (Genesis 27:41-45). In this foreign area, he does arduous agricultural work for his uncle, Laban, who assumes the role of deceptive and abusive employer. Because Jacob arrives destitute, Laban easily takes advantage of him. From Laban's perspective, this presents a wonderful opportunity for economic growth, both for himself and for his community.

According to Midrash, the Haranites are cognizant of this exploitation. Laban gathers everyone and reminds them that Jacob's labor has improved their economic situation. "Do as you think fit," the people respond. Laban then announces that he will dishonestly persuade Jacob to stay seven more years. "Do whatever you please," they say (Bereshit Rabbah 70:19). The community tacitly encourages Laban. They believe that their prosperity will be multiplied collectively:Everyone does better when everyone does better.

Exploitation & Rights

Millions of migrant workers today suffer the consequences of this thinking. They are exploited in much the same way as Jacob, and this exploitation is supported by the communities around them--either explicitly or implicitly. In Thailand, Burmese immigrants work long hours for little pay in unsafe, abusive environments. In the U.S., Mexican-born farm workers toil in dangerous conditions, and many earn incomes below the poverty level. Powerful nations reap the benefits, gaining a flexible labor supply and avoiding social costs of health care, fair wages and overtime pay. Our country, and each one of us, depends on migrant work being done cheaply across the globe.

This system is possible because migrant workers, like Jacob, are perceived as marginal, invisible. They are not part of "everyone." Because rights are not granted or acknowledged, the migrant worker has no recourse and must accept whatever horrendous situation an employer offers.

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Sam Berrin Shonkoff is currently the Jewish student life coordinator at Stanford Hillel. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religious Studies from Brown University and has also studied in Jerusalem at Hebrew University, Pardes Institute, and The Conservative Yeshiva.