Dvar for Kedoshim from Michael Madwed

Dvar for Kedoshim from Michael Madwed


I have married seven people in my life. (pause)

I have performed three marriage ceremonies in my capacity as a Universal Life Church minister – free credentials, now obtainable on line – the mild farce of which is in contrast to the seriousness with which I approached the officiating of these weddings.

The weddings have been spread out over three decades and represent different categories of relationship for me – one for a couple known since my residency days in the 1980’s, my age, long time dear friends, in Seattle; one for my youngest brother and his wife, in Palo Alto, California; and one for a family practice resident advisee and his wife, many years my junior, in Alexandria, Virginia.  The couples are all still together, I am satisfied to report, and they have five children among them.   The memories of all three events have given me a lot of satisfaction.

The first book that I ever bought Karin, the seventh person I married, on one of our first dates, was Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston, a giant of the Harlem Renaissance.  She writes, “Love is like the sea – it takes its shape from the shore it meets, and it is different with every shore.”  I used that metaphor as the unifying theme of each of the three ceremonies that I performed, each in their own different way.

What beautiful writing – “love is like the sea – it takes its shape from the shore it meets, and it is different with every shore.”

Marriage is about love and responsibility, about commitment over time to an arrangement, freely entered.  It is a covenant.  Such a commitment limits our freedom, limits our choices, because it comes with responsibilities.  We accept these limitations because a life of connection, of relationship, can be more meaningful than one lived in unharnessed freedom.

Such is our relationship with God.

But, where is God, that we should have a relationship?  Every Shabbat in the Kedushah of Musaf, we pray this question in song.

(Sing this in full.)

K’vodo malei olam, m’shartav sho’alim zeh lazeh ayei m’kom k’vodo – God’s glory suffuses the universe, but His servants ask one another, where is the place of His glory?”

Ayei – Where?  “Where?”, the shatz calls.  “Where?”, the congregation echoes.  Eighteen times we chant the word, “Ayei.”  We so want to know the answer to this perplexing question.

Rabbi Daniel Nevins writes: “This is the paradox of our faithful practice; we feel God’s presence everywhere, yet we are unable to pinpoint it anywhere.  Like the unseen and elusive God, our pursuit of holiness is ever beyond our reach.”

And so, we get to our parshah this week – KEDOSHIM T’HYU KI KADOSH ANI ADONAI ELOHAICHEM – You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.

YOU shall be holy.  The YOU in this exhortation to be holy is in the plural.  This implies that we are called upon to be both holy as individuals, but also to be holy in the aggregate as a community.  A complicated collection of holy individuals may come together to produce a holy community structure, but I would venture that it is not a given.  Individual holiness does not guarantee collective holiness.  We are called upon to be mindful and strive for both.

You shall be HOLY.  What does it actually mean to be holy?

Our parshah answers this, in part, by what follows – fifty-one laws – 51 of the 613 – which govern social, economic, sexual and ritual behavior.  Taken as a whole, these laws lay the foundation for a just society, and serve as a concrete manifestation of what it means to exhibit holiness, and thus to emulate God.  More than that, they are a pathway to find God, to answer the question asked before – Ayei? Where?  God may be found in our behavior, in our striving for holiness.

So, here are some of the highlights…..

Revere your mother and father.

Keep Shabbat.

Do not turn to idols or make molten gods for yourselves

Do not steal.

Do not deal falsely with one another.

Do not profane the name of God.

And, then……

You shall not defraud your fellow.  You shall not commit robbery.  The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.

LO TALIN P’ULAT SACHIR ETCHAH AD-BOKER – the wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.

That seems very clear and obvious.  Once work is done, the employer is now in debt to the worker for the value of that work. Debts should be paid promptly, as the worker is not a lender, but rather beholden in position to the employer in the first place.

But, there is more to this.  There is an unstated assumption that wages, when paid on time, will be sufficient to sustain the worker.  If not paid, they would be missed in a significant way.

So, the next question, of course, is then, what does sufficient to sustain mean?

Maimonides described a living wage in commentary on how to compensate scribes.  He asks, “How much are they paid?” and then concludes: “Ninety maneh a year.  If this is not sufficient, they are given – even against their will – an additional amount sufficient to meet their needs, those of their wives, the children, and the other members of their household.”

By the way, a maneh is roughly equivalent to 100 zuzim (think Had Gadya), and one zuzim is roughly 4.26 grams of silver, and silver is currently 54 cents a gram, so 90 maneh is about 21,000 dollars today, or a full time job paying $10.10/hr (tuck that away for later).

According to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism Guide to Ethical Employment Practices, congregations should consider paying full time employees a fair, living wage, which is defined in the guide as the estimated amount of income necessary to live comfortably and which qualifies a family as middle class, in the specific municipality.  Economist Lawrence Glickman goes further and has articulated a living wage as “….a wage level that offers workers the ability to support families, to maintain self-respect, and to have both the means and the leisure to participate in the civic life of the nation.”

There are four commonly used indices that the United Synagogue suggests using to assess that level:

  • The living wage for the home municipality, with living wage defined in a formulaic way as that amount which allows one to have a “normal” standard of living and which is published and easily obtainable
  • Three times the fair market rent on a one or two bedroom apartment in that municipality
  • The “self-sufficiency wage” for the municipality, which is defined as 130% of the poverty line
  • 80% of the area median income.

Applying those indices to the Seattle area specifically, we get the following:

  • Living wage standard – for one adult, it is $29,000 per year ($13.88/hr) – for one adult responsible for anyone else, it is over $20/hr.
  • Three times the fair market rent on a one bedroom apartment standard – it is $44,000 per year ($21.20/hr)
  • Self-sufficiency wage standard (130% of poverty) – it is $33,000 per year ($16.18/hr)
  • 80% of median income standard – $64,000 per year ($31.16/hr) – such is the economic growth of this area

So, that is a bunch of somewhat disparate numbers, and this is all well and good – it is interesting, perhaps, in a sociological sort of way, but why pick this focus when there is so much else of interest in kedoshim?  Well, it is because Beth Shalom, all of us collectively, are not currently meeting any of these minimum standards recommended for our employees.  And, this is ultimately holding us back from being as holy a community as we can be.

We can well ask ourselves as a kehillah:  Who are we most responsible for?  Who depends on us?

In our lives, we have responsibility for ourselves.  We have responsibility for our families, for our children, to those we hold most dear.  We have responsibility to our friends, to our jobs and to our community.  We have responsibility to the larger society as well.

But, the class of people who most depend on all of us in the aggregate, on our community, is the group of people who are employed by Beth Shalom – our administrative staff, our educators, our professional staff.  These are the teachers who work in our Early Childhood Center (ECC) with little children, the ECC which is a major financial support to our synagogue’s operation.  These are the teachers who teach in our Hebrew school, for whom we have such high expectations and hopes.  These are the office staff who oversee the administrative functioning of our synagogue community.

Across the board, the people who depend on us the most are not compensated with what can honestly be labelled as a fair and living wage.  It has frankly been one of our failings for many years, and it persists.

We are not drastically apart from meeting this standard, we are close.  In most cases, we are 10 to 15% away from this ethical goal.  But, we are not there yet.

Here are some basics that speak to this situation.  While Beth Shalom’s expenses have increased by 41% in the last 10 years, dues have increased only 10% per member family during the same period.

While basic wages have kept pace with the minimum wage act, which remember was mandated by the larger community that we all live in, the average administrative wage has increased only 63 cents per hour over the last 10 years since 2008.  And the average Religious School teacher’s hourly wage has increased only $1.21 per hour since that time.  This has coincided with a booming local economy, and a notable increase in cost of living in our area.

I am calling on us as a community, as individuals in that community, to devote ourselves to rising up to this level of holiness and bringing the folks who work for us to a fair and living wages standard over the next year.  You will be hearing more about this from myself, the incoming president, Norbert Sorg, and the board in the near future and upcoming months.

The journey towards holiness, holiness as individuals and as a community of individuals, is long and never-ending, the major challenge of our lives.  But, it is a journey that brings us into the presence of God.  And, when we find ourselves asking, AYEI, WHERE, I hope that we can say, RIGHT HERE, in the midst of this community.

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