Reading laws in Deuteronomy is not like reading laws elsewhere in the Torah. They sound different. They feel different. Deuteronomy often addresses the reader in the second person singular: “When you come into the land that the LORD your God give you, do not…” (18:9) and “When you harvest your harvest in the field and forget a sheaf of grain in the field, do not…” (24:19). Other books of the Torah sometimes address us as “you”, but laws there often sound impersonal. Here they are about my life, my world. The lawgiver is addressing me.
The difference is more than pronouns. Deuteronomy addresses me not only as someone who owes obeisance to the LORD, but as a person with a conscience. This week, one law in particular makes me feel called upon personally to act properly: the law requiring that a day labourer’s wages be paid on the same day:
“You shall not abuse [ta‘ashok] a needy and destitute labourer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the LORD against you and you will incur guilt [ve-haya vekha et]” (Deut. 24:14–15).
This is not the sort of legal writing one finds in law codes. A modern legislator would write something like “One who employs labourers for a daily wage must provide compensation within one hour after the end of each day’s employment.” Here, we are told an entire tale, short but not without embellishment and emotional appeal.
First, I come under attack: “Do not abuse (or: exploit)….” What? Me—an abuser? An exploiter? This comes as a shock. Of what horrors am I suspected?
Next, I hear that my (putative potential) victim is “needy (or: afflicted) and destitute”. What kind of person does Deuteronomy think I am—someone so unscrupulous and callous?
Now I read that the law applies to resident aliens, not just my fellow Israelites. Am I assumed to be a xenophobe? A chauvinist?
The core law too, requiring that the payday be the workday, is a story. I see the setting sun and the worried face of the labourer after a day of exertion, hoping he can afford a simple evening meal. I hear his plaintive cry to the LORD.
The response to the worker’s plea? I will “incur guilt”, or “there will be sin upon [me]” or “it will be a sin in [me]”. What could be more personal? The focus has shifted from him, the labourer awaiting his pay, to me, the soul about to be sullied by the anticipated offense. The “sin” I would carry with me, or in me, implies more than just the threat of punishment. It comes to define me, and while the et (“sin,” “guilt”) is a fact, “guilt” quickly slips from a situation to a psychological state. I am going to feel guilty unless I pay up.
What our tradition takes to be Torah law is much more: ethical exhortation, a guide to living life so that I will gain the respect of others—and self-respect. The Torah is not primarily a set of rules and punishments. It is a tree of life.
Peretz Rodman is a Jerusalem-based rabbi, teacher, and writer. He has taught Hebrew and Jewish studies at universities, seminaries, and other post-secondary institutions, and his rabbinic work has taken him to Jewish communities in North America, Europe, East Asia, and East Africa.