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In the run up to Pesach last year, I wrote here about the slavery that is still so much a part of our world’s reality. This year, I’d like to focus on the positive opportunities products like Fairtrade-branded goods offer us in guaranteeing workers get a living wage and a fair price for their produce – and some unique Jewish opportunities to engage with Fairtrade.
Over the past few weeks, we have been reading in the Torah about the construction of the tabernacle (the mishkan) and the skilled workers of the community who created the incredible adornments and tools of the movable Temple. Judging by the gifts of gold, precious stones and acacia wood the Israelites gave towards its construction, the mishkan was quite something to behold!
But the community that constructed the travelling Temple had just been freed from their previous construction jobs as slaves in Egypt, and for the first time were building something of their own determining (if God’s design!). It is partly this freedom to build and create as their hearts motivated them that we will celebrate at the end of the month when we sit down to our seder meals. But so much of our lives the rest of the year potentially helps to prevent others enjoying the same freedoms and dignity in the work they do.
Maimonides taught (Hilchot Deot 5:13) that in business we should be careful not to deny others a livelihood, even where it might be legal to do so. Many products we regularly buy might fall into this category, from coffee and tea to bananas, oranges, sugar, clothes and chocolate. So at Pesach, when we celebrate our own freedom, we should do our best to ensure that what we eat and wear does not enslave others.
Pesach isn’t the only Jewish tool we have at our disposal, though. There are many, but in particular next year, 2014, will see the start of the next shmitta year – a year when the Bible instructs us to leave our fields lying fallow, giving the earth a rest, leaving food in the fields for the poor, and giving the workers a rest and perhaps time to focus on other areas of their lives. While this also has the potential to lead to economic loss for many, it could be an opportunity to respond to ecological problems, as well as social disparities.
This was strongly suggested by Yair Sheleg in Ha’aretz in 2007, when the last shmitta was about to begin. He suggested not only that the shmitta might be a useful tool for the land, but that the economy should be built to support sabbatical years for all workers, allowing them time to focus on personal development and spiritual growth, (an idea promoted by Rabbi Yoel Ben-Nun).
Sheleg further suggested honouring the shmitta in more creative ways; reducing exploitation of natural resources by a seventh, or creating a giant fund in which one seventh of a business tycoon’s profits would be contributed to a fund for reducing economic disparities, as perhaps the original shmitta was intended to do. With recent EU legislation capping bankers’ bonuses, perhaps this would be an alternative model to the current system. Sheleg concludes saying: “In this way, shmitta could be transformed from a despised word to one that bears tidings for all of humanity”.
Perhaps, similarly, Pesach could be a way for us to transform our thinking and our behaviour around consumption and some areas of economic disparity. As we approach Pesach, it seems like the perfect time to reflect on our own freedoms, and to think about what we can build with them.
We have fabulous opportunities to contribute to Fairtrade – we can buy Fairtrade kippot, serve Fairtrade coffee, tea, sugar and chocolates (Divine Fairtrade chocolate even has a hechsher) in our homes and synagogues, and maybe even make our own tallitot from Fairtrade scarves, adorning our mitzvot as the skilled Israelites did their desert mishkan. Some have suggested adding a piece of chocolate to the symbols on our seder table as a timely reminder of our modern responsibilities.
So this year, as we celebrate our own freedoms, let’s remember that we also have a responsibility to honour the freedom of others, and acknowledge the power our own consumption can have on those freedoms.Opinion: At Pesach, Let Us Remember Our Obligation To Others by Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers