This d’var Torah was given by Bruce Brown at Congregation Beth Israel (Asheville, NC) on Fair Trade Shabbat – May 9, 2015.
Welcome to my d’var debut.
This is the first time I have volunteered to offer a d’var Torah. It is far beyond my comfort zone to stand here in this capacity. If the topic had to do with shul finances, the kitchen or food, I could speak endlessly without notes, but as you can see today is different, and I am relying on my prepared notes. While other kids wanted to be firemen and policemen, when I was young I told everyone that I wanted to be a rabbi. Maybe 60+ years later these are my 5 minutes of fame.
Today we read Parshat Emor, and today is also World Fair Trade Shabbat. With my work in the kitchen and on the Social Action Committee, this was the perfect opportunity to prepare this d’var Torah. What is World Fair Trade and how does it relate to Parshat Emor?
http://www.fairtradejudaica.org defines Fair Trade as a movement that promotes economic partnerships based on equality, justice and sustainable economic practices. Fair Trade connects consumers in the West with producers from other countries, by emphasizing fair value return, environment protection, human rights and workers’ rights.
Fair Trade Principles Include:
- Fair pay
- No child labor allowed
- Creating worker independence and participatory workplaces
- Safe and healthy work conditions
- Gender equality
- Environmental sustainability
- Creating opportunities for low income producers
- Transparent management and commercial relations
The Benefits of Supporting Fair Trade:
- Fair Trade producers decide democratically how to invest their fair trade revenues. Profits are re-invested in local community projects, like health clinics, child care, scholarship programs, and organic certification.
- Artisans and small farmers are guaranteed prices that exceed their production costs, providing adequate income to feed their families, stay out of debt, send their kids to school, and keep their land.
- Producers are able to reduce costs, gain direct access to credit and international markets, and develop the business capacity necessary to successfully compete.
- Workers enjoy freedom of association, safe working conditions, and living wages. Forced child labor is strictly prohibited.
- Women are assured equal rights and responsibilities
- Environmentally sustainable methods protect artisans’ and farmers’ health and preserve valuable ecosystems and natural resources for future generations
- Cultural identity is preserved through the production and development of products based on producers’ cultural traditions, as adapted for Western markets.
Fair Trade provides us the opportunity to spend our dollars in way that promotes our own individual values and our values as Jews, and at the same time, provide opportunities for people around the world to earn a living that allows their families to thrive. Basically “put your money where your mouth is.”
Why is it fitting that we observe World Fair Trade Day this Shabbat when we read Parshat Emor?
Emor is part of the Book of Leviticus. Many scholars call this part of the Book of Leviticus the Holiness Code because the text emphasizes holiness (kedushah) as the central goal of the Jewish people. Parshat Emor begins with the rules of the Kohanim (priests) in order to preserve holiness.
In Leviticus 21:6, we read: They shall be holy unto their God, and not profane the name of their God; for the offerings of the LORD made by fire, the bread of their God, they do offer; therefore they shall be holy.
While this text seems to talk specifically to the observances of the Kohanim (priests) – in the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides writes: All of the House of Israel is commanded concerning the sanctity of the Great Name…and are warned not to profane [God’s name].
In other words, there are two commandments in this verse: “Sanctifying God’s name (kiddush HaShem) and not desecrating God’s name (chillul HaShem)”
Maimonides further cites examples of chillul HaShem in our lives – such as late payment for purchases, indulging in food, drink and luxuries in an immoderate way and otherwise rude behavior towards others. Such behaviors constitute chillul HaShem, because they cause the image of Judaism to be diminished in the eyes of others.
In contrast, the opposite person leads an upright, praiseworthy life.
In other words, when one acts beyond what the community expects in a way that brings goodness into the world, that is kiddush HaShem, sanctification of God’s name.
It is also fitting that we read Parsha Emor on the 2nd day of Passover and the first and second days of Sukkot – two of the Shalosh Regalim (three pilgrimage festivals).
In a drash given by Rabbi Edward Bernstein on the FairTrade Judaica.org web site – he offers the following:
We as Jews must bear witness to the deplorable use of slave labor in the production of the commodity sources of chocolate and coffee. Our society’s craving for these products has driven the corporate manufacturers to source their products in the cheapest possible way in order to provide consumers with competitive pricing.
It is estimated that half the cocoa in the world is grown in the African nation Ivory Coast, and there is strong documentation of trafficked child labor in that region and in this industry. This practice violates international law as well as a compact signed by major chocolate manufactures not to source products from child labor or forced labor. Also of concern, in the coffee industry, there is evidence of child labor, unsafe working conditions and low wages. Despite increasing awareness, these practices continue unchecked. Manufacturers look askance when their suppliers use unfair and illegal labor practices. It is enough of a chillul HaShem that such practices occur at all in our age. It is even more of a chillul HaShem when we know what is happening and do nothing to stop it.
The Jewish community can and must respond to this injustice. Our tradition calls upon us to stamp out chillul HaShem with kiddush Hashem. We must speak out against corporations exploiting child labor to produce our food products, and we must raise awareness. At the same time, we should vote with our wallets.
This Shabbat is Fair Trade Shabbat. Jewish communities across the country are not only studying and raising awareness of the problems, but they have also purchased the food served in their institutions from fair trade sources that do not permit child or forced labor in their production chain.
For those of us who enjoy chocolate and coffee, they are not staples in our diet. They are luxuries that bring us great pleasure. How much pleasure do you receive consuming these products when you know they were produced by the hands of slaves?
Several months ago, we at Beth Israel took the Fair Trade coffee pledge to only purchase and serve Fair Trade coffee at any of our functions. Be have partnered with Dynamite Roasting (a local Black Mountain roaster) to provide the synagogue with the Fair Trade coffee that we are serving today. How much better does this coffee taste knowing that our purchase of Fair Trade coffee reflects our values as Jews? And the cost is no different that purchasing any other premium brand coffee – $8.99 a pound. While we purchase this coffee in bulk directly from the roaster, it is available at the retail level at many local grocery stores.
Fair Trade Judaica is making a huge impact particularly with cocoa growers – but I encourage you to think even beyond this to many of the imports from Asian countries.
You may be surprised to learn that I did have a life and career before coming to Beth Israel. During my career as the owner of an educational publishing company, I had many of our products printed and manufactured in China. The prices were great and it provided us a competitive edge in the market place. My buying trips to Hong Kong did not give me insight into how and where the actual products were being made. As you might suspect, it was no different that taking a buying trip to a New York City corporate office – all suits and ties.
After several mistakes (dealing with less than reliable manufacturers), I did some online research about the practices of other US companies and their buying practices with Asian countries – especially China. During my next (and all subsequent buying trips) to Hong Kong, I took tours of any China-based factory that we were considering dealing with. A totally eye-opening experience!
While China has made great strides in worker rights and enforcing child labor laws – if you were to see first hand what I saw, you would shudder beyond belief. Workers sitting shoulder to shoulder in a tight assembly line doing repetitive task after repetitive task. The blue caps get a work break at a certain time, the yellow caps at another time – and only at that time. No chance to get up from their chairs if a break is needed in between. No opportunity to slow the pace.
And when the workday is finished, the workers live in dormitory style housing on the factory premises. They are provided with food and medical care and a moderate pay (much of which is sent home to help their families in the more disadvantaged parts of China). If you are envisioning your child’s dorm room at college – this is a far cry from that. Our college dorms are like the Taj Mahal as compared with factory dorms in China.
No, this isn’t officially slavery. Workers are free to apply for work in other factories and in other cities – although they do need to apply to the government for permission to move from one province to another. But, look at the suicide rate statistics. They are staggering. I saw many factories with netting hung from the dorm roof tops to discourage the “jumpers”. Some workers just don’t see a “way out” from this way of life.
But, does this reflect our values as Jews – especially Jews living in a country where we often take our freedom for granted? Would you want to do business with this company?
Consider the name Emor (today’s Parsha). It Hebrew, it means to speak. Your spending choices speak for you and about you. It speaks about the merchants you choose to support, the types of food you choice to buy, and the lifestyle you choose to lead.
We are all trained to read labels in the grocery store. We look for gluten free items, organic items and items with a hecksher. Now, consider paying attention to those items with the Fair Trade symbol. . Your purchases are a way to voice (speak/Emor) your values as Jews – kiddush HaShem – the sanctification of God’s name.
When you are back at your computer, please Google and learn more about Fair Trade. Take the Fair Trade coffee pledge for your home and business. See what other Fair Trade products are available.
I will close my remarks with a prayer from Rabbi Deborah Silver of Adat Ari El (Valley Village, CA)
God, let us be mindful of what we consume.
Help us to understand
that nothing in Your world is without a story
and that the choices we make build the stories of the future.
Help us remember that behind everything we buy stands a person
with human needs and human dignity.
Help us to value your gifts
To bless them with compassionate hearts
And to look for the spark of You in everything