A d’var Torah for Parshat Chukat
When I visited Immokalee, FL, in 2013 and first met with leaders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), there was optimism that Wendy’s would be the latest and last of the major national fast food chains to join the Fair Food Program. After all, Emil Brolick, who had recently arrived as President and CEO of Wendy’s, was previously in that role at Yum! Brands when the company became the first to join the Fair Food Program in 2005. Logic would suggest that he would carry with him similar concerns about human rights to Wendy’s and ensure that Wendy’s would join the Fair Food Program as well.
Yet despite continuous efforts by CIW and its allies over the last three years, including a nation-wide boycott—its first since Taco Bell—the company has continued to ignore exploitative and abusive labor practices in an effort to make even more money. It is surprising and shameful that, although Mr. Brolick took a stand as a leader of Taco Bell (a subsidiary of Yum! Brands), he cowardly refused to steer the Wendy’s ship on a course of human rights. A decade ago he was a leader who cared about the rights of all. A decade later, he was a failed leader whose complacency allowed for the abuse of the rights of others to continue. (He left Wendy’s in May, 2016.)
This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Chukat, focuses on the failings of Moses as a leader. While the Torah concludes by declaring that “never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses” (Deut. 34:10), Moses’ human fallibility is on display in Chukat. The Israelites were thirsty and again complained about the lack of water. They cried about their pain and suffering, suggesting that they would’ve been better off remaining in Egypt. Moses turned to God for help, and God instructed Moses to “assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water” (Num. 20:8). Moses gathers the people of Israel and instead strikes the rock; water gushes out to quench the Israelites’ thirst.
God tells Moses that, because he did not trust God and struck the rock instead of ordering the rock, he would not enter the Promised Land. However, we should be able to forgive Moses’ mistake here. After all, it was in Parshat Beshallach (Exodus 17:6) that God commanded Moses to strike a rock in order to find water. Striking a rock makes sense. Talking to a rock certainly does not. But it wasn’t Moses striking the rock that led to him not entering the Promised Land. It was his treatment of his own people. Before striking the rock, Moses screams at the Israelites: “Listen up, you imbeciles!” (Num. 20:10). Moses lost patience with the people he was commanded to lead. He criticized them. He put himself first. Thus, he was no longer fit to lead them. As recently as Parshat Shlach, two weeks ago, Moses stood up to God to save them following the sin of the spies. Here though, he fails at his main responsibility as a leader.
Like Moses, Emil Brolick was a leader who initially stood up for the rights of all. Due to successful pressure and action from the CIW and its allies, he ensured that Taco Bell was the first restaurant chain in the nation to join the Fair Food Program. Doing so, much like Moses standing up to God, was an act of protection – protecting the rights, and lives, of those who pick the food on our plates. But also like Moses, Mr. Brolick eventually failed as a leader. Moses’ rant at the Israelites speaks volumes. It is a sign that he no longer cared for the needs of the people. Emil Brolick’s silence as CEO of Wendy’s speaks even louder. He went from a leader who protected workers in our agricultural fields while at Taco Bell to one who ignored the human rights violations in those fields for his own gain while at Wendy’s. And just like Moses, as a result, he was no longer fit to lead.
Eventually, in the book of Deuteronomy, Joshua takes over for Moses. The leadership transition is marked several times by the hope that Joshua is “strong and resolute.” For it takes strength of body, mind, and spirit to truly care for the rights of all. It takes true strength to look out for what is best – and right – for all, not just those on top.
As Todd Penegor assumes the role of CEO at Wendy’s, the boycott continues and the CIW and T’ruah continue to push them to join the Fair Food Program. My hope is that Mr. Penegor will learn from the failures of previous leadership. If he is to strike a rock, let it be the rock of injustice, shattering it to pieces. And as the waters flowed from the rock to quench the thirst of the Israelites, let the Fair Food Program continue to quench the injustices of our agricultural fields. As Amos said, let righteousness flow like a mighty stream. And let the new leadership of Wendy’s be strong and resolute – and join the Fair Food Program.
Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky serves Congregation Beth El in South Orange, NJ.