By Jeremy Burton
This September 8th at sundown Jewish communities around the world will begin our celebration of Rosh Hashanah, a new year and the start of ten “Days of Awe,” a period of reflection on the past year and a declaration of our hopes for the year ahead, concluding with the fast of Yom Kippur.
More widely, for many of us as Americans, this time of year is also a time of leave-taking and new starts, from kids beginning a new school year to farmers harvesting autumn crops and homeowners winterizing.
The Days of Awe are deeply ingrained in the Jewish biblical tradition; Labor Day is sacrosanct in American culture. Their proximity is an opportunity to explore their shared essence.
I haven’t always connected with much of the High Holiday synagogue service, it lacked resonance for me, the prayers written by rabbis long dead. But that changed in 2001. Living in Manhattan a week after 9/11, the words took on new relevance, particularly the U’Netaneh Tokef morning prayer, which begins with the invitation to “acknowledge the power of this day.” As our cantor read the words that tell us that on these days it is inscribed and sealed “who will live and who will die … who before their time … who by fire,” he — and the entire congregation — wept openly.
In that moment, the words of the judgment became real to me: This was not a thousand-year-old plea but rather an articulation of our reality. In the years since, I’ve continued to find meaning in the way this prayer intersects with the changing world around us. In 2005 , “who by water … who by storm, who will wander … and who will be harried” evoked the friends and strangers suffering these very pains in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
This year, with the Jewish New Year coming as close to Labor Day as any in recent memory, I find my mind and heart drawn to this prayer again, this time to the passage that says: “Their origin is from dust, and their destiny is back to dust. At risk to their own life they gather their food.”
In these words are those whom Labor Day honors; the eleven workers who died on the BP oil platform, the West Virginia Massey company coal miners who died this spring. Labor Day is also a day of hope for the future, for the workers who put their lives at risk through a lack of health care, who risk exploitation in industries excluded from workplace regulation, for all those who in this recession struggle to “gather their food.”
I am reminded that Labor Day is not just about barbecues, but also about the year’s accomplishments and about the potential to change our reality, to alter the conditions under which men and women toil.
• This year we began the momentous process of expanding health coverage for all Americans. Now, we can reaffirm our commitment to its implementation while working toward a goal where every worker – and every American – has access to basic coverage.
• In New York, the first Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights was signed into law this week, improving working conditions for those who care for our children, our elderly, and our homes. Now, we can support a national effort to expand workplace protections.
• We can create good jobs in green energy development and give offshore drillers and coal miners an alternative future while enhancing federal and state regulations to make existing jobs safer.
• We can make it just a bit easier for those who put food on the table, including working mothers, by passing the Paycheck Fairness Act and make sure that women receive equal pay for equal work.
On Rosh Hashanah, we recognize that change is possible, and we commit ourselves to change in the coming year. During the U’Netaneh Tokef, the congregation says aloud that “repentance, prayer, and charity will ease the hardship of the decree!” In the Jewish tradition we perceive repentance as not only regret for past failings, but a deep commitment to make things right going forward. We understand prayer as lifting our voices high and, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “praying with our feet” in protest and struggle. In our philanthropy we commit ourselves to giving money through a prism of tzedakah, a way of giving rooted in the pursuit of justice.
Just as when we honor Labor Day and the American workforce, on Rosh Hashanah we commit ourselves to changes in our actions, to giving our time to create a more just society, to giving what resources we have toward creating a better future.
This Labor Day, pause to recommit yourself to working for better workplaces. And, a few days later, regardless of whether you find yourself at a prayer service, reflect again on these same hopes. For myself, this national holiday and Jewish holy day together allow me to look forward with the knowledge that what is strong in my faith tradition and true of our country’s legacy commits me, in the upcoming year, to working for the betterment of my nation and for all those who toil for their bread.
Jeremy Burton is the Senior Vice President of Philanthropic Initiatives at the Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ), a national public foundation guided by Jewish history and tradition. JFSJ helps people in the United States achieve social and economic security and opportunity by investing in healthy neighborhoods, vibrant Jewish communities, and skillful leaders.