If I were to ask you what Torah is all about, you might answer in one of a number of ways. It’s about the beginnings of the Jewish people, you might say. Or it’s a book of laws and obligations. You might even say it’s about God and God’s relationship to us as a people.
I would argue that the Torah is a blueprint for a society that God wants us to build here on earth, a holy society that is characterized by a number of features. As we move through our study of Torah in the weeks and months to come, I will try to direct your attention to the elements of the readings that provide us clues as to what the holy society would look like.
It will not surprise you, I don’t think, to learn that the Holy Society envisioned by Torah is a society that cares for its most vulnerable. “Care for the ger, yatom, v’almanah, the stranger, the orphan and the widow” is a leitmotif that runs through four of the five books of Torah. In modern parlance, we have learned that a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable: variously, its children, its aged, its poor. That standard of judgment is found first in our own sacred text, and it is a standard that continues to be valid as we consider the world in which we live. How do we know when a society is functioning? When everyone is safe, not just our own family or our own neighborhood, but everyone. When there are no tent cities springing up in Central Park when it rains, when there are no Dumpster divers behind the restaurants on La Cienega Boulevard, when everyone’s children, even those who look nothing like ours, are cared for and protected. We don’t have to be reminded to care for those we love. Those who live miles from us, or just behind the wall next door but whose names we do not know – they also deserve our concern and our energy. Remember, says Moses repeatedly, remember how it felt to be a stranger, an unknown, a member of a shadow people in Egypt.
We Jews have gotten the reputation in this country of always being in the liberal camp politically. I don’t think we ever thought about liberal versus conservative when we thought about our voting options. Rather, we thought about what it means to speak out for those without a voice, what it means in America to care for the stranger, the widow and the orphan. I would like to think it was not a political or a social or an economic choice as much as it was a religious choice. I would like to think that.
The danger of having arrived in America – having Arrived – is that we take on the values of the society in which we live, and sometimes that means leaving Jewish values behind. Sometimes we worry so much about what we have accumulated or celebrate how far we as a people have come in this country that we begin to take off the Jewish cloak and put on the American one.
Sometimes that’s not a terrible thing, but when it comes to our concern for the vulnerable of this country, it can be a very bad thing. When we stop worrying about the stranger and the widow and the orphan, we lose the lesson God intended us to learn in our enslavement. Our time in Egypt wasn’t just so that we might have a wonderful meal every year in the spring. Our time in Egypt was meant to sensitize us to others who are now where we once were. If we have become inured to the suffering around us, we have stopped thinking as Jews. And that would be a very bad thing.
We have had so many opportunities in this country’s history to behave as Jews. We were overrepresented in the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. We are probably still overrepresented in the American Civil Liberties Union, and in many social action organizations around the country. And today we have the opportunity to speak out again, as Jews, on an issue that is as important as any to which we have addressed our energies in the three centuries that we have been in this country.
Many years ago, the Rabbinical Assembly organized its first Washington Lobby Day. We were invited to come to the nation’s capital and engage in a number of meetings, including small meetings with our senators and members of Congress. I’m a gosh-and-golly patriot when it comes to our capital, so I spent a good deal of my time gazing around at the beautiful buildings of the Federal Mall, my jaw hanging down, goose bumps marching up and down my arms. I love this country and I love its capital. Being there to speak to my elected representatives as an American and a Jew was thrilling. I even have a picture somewhere shaking hands with Joe Lieberman, who was my senator during the two years I lived in Connecticut.
During a program on that Lobby Day, I learned that only about 1% of the American people take the time to write to Congress. Now, with a population of 300 million, that’s still a lot of postage stamps, but the percentage was surprising. The Christian right has absolutely no trouble writing to Washington and representing themselves as who they are, quoting scripture and explaining what Jesus would want their representatives to do. It’s their right and there’s nothing wrong with that. But Jews, I learned, write as members of a whole variety of organizations and may be identified as Jews by their last names – maybe –but they’re speaking not as Jews but as feminists or civil rights activists or any number of identities – just not as Jews. If Congress is interested in the religious viewpoint on a given subject, I learned, the only one they hear is the Christian viewpoint and they think that’s the only one out there.
In order to express our views to Congress as Jews, two things have to happen. First, we have to know what Judaism says about a given subject, and then we have to feel comfortable writing to Washington (or Sacramento for that matter) and identifying ourselves as Jews, explaining how our tradition looks at a given issue. In 2009, have we come far enough to dare write to a representative and tell him or her that the Jewish tradition holds a particular position on something? Our parents or grandparents might not have, but I don’t think writing to a representative as Sam Gold or Sarah Greenberg the Jew requires the courage it once did. And so we must come to admit that we would write if we knew what Judaism had to say about the issue. We’re ready to teach. We just have to learn first.
And that brings me back to the issue I want to address this morning, an issue that will define this decade as much as civil right defined the 50s and Viet Nam defined the 60s.
Today, some 45 million Americans have no health care. Another 25 million Americans are underinsured; perhaps they are covered for catastrophic care or hospital stays, but not for the tests that might have caught their conditions early on, or perhaps their deductible is so great that they never qualify for their coverage. This makes a total of approximately 70 million Americans. If America’s population is at around 300 million, that means that nearly one in four Americans cannot get sick or injured. One in four. That’s not a few. That’s not a tiny minority. That’s a quarter of the population of the richest country in the world, at risk because they can’t afford office visits and preventive tests to screen for potentially life threatening diseases.
They are people like some who are in this room, some in your neighborhood, young people, middle aged people, not ready for Social Security people, singles, families…the cross section of the uninsured and underinsured is a cross section of America. It is the greatest tragedy of our time. And yes, Judaism has something to say about it.
I will say at the outset that this will not be a political conversation. There are senators and representatives on both sides of the aisle in Washington who are grappling honestly and sincerely with this issue. There are others who simply won’t move. They don’t get it. They have been convinced, like a fellow I heard quoted on the radio last week, that “there’s nothing wrong with the health care system.” They will tell you that the way not to get into trouble with health care is to exercise and eat right and not smoke. Or they’ll just say, “Don’t be a wuss.”
Tell that to the family of the young woman with lupus, an auto-immune disease, who lost her job and couldn’t then get coverage because of her pre-existing condition. By the time her symptoms became critical and she was admitted through an emergency room, she was beyond hope and died six months later. “Lupus didn’t kill her,” her doctor is quoted as saying, “the health care system did.”
Tell that to the cancer patient – who never smoked – whose benefits ran out before his chemotherapy did.
Tell that to people who eat right and don’t smoke and exercise, but who fall and injure themselves and can’t get rehabilitative surgery and physical therapy. And see the diminishment of their quality of life.
Then there's the young woman, a college student, who developed cancer. She was covered by her parents' insurance because she was a full time student. Her doctor advised her to take a leave of absence to concentrate on her chemotherapy and her beating the cancer, but of course once she was no longer enrolled, she lost her medical coverage. Her mother split her time between caring for her daughter and lobbying in the state assembly to get the insurance laws changed. The good news is that she succeeded. The bad news is that it was too late for her daughter, who died at 22.
Eat right, exercise, and don't smoke. Eat your vegetables and you have nothing to worry about.
This approach is simplistic at best, and at worst, it blames the victim. Frankly, it's downright insulting.
In response, we can teach what Judaism has to say. To begin with, we know that piku’ah nefesh, saving a life, is a foundational principle of Judaism. The most observant Jew will break Shabbat in order to save the life of another. Someone mandated by their doctor to eat regularly is prohibited from fasting on Yom Kippur. We are to live by our mitzvot, not die for them.
We also know that to be created in God’s image means that we have been given a divine soul housed in a body given to us by our Creator, and we have an obligation to keep not only our soul but our body safe from danger. We are not permitted to live in a town without a physician. Accessibility to that physician is implicit – what would be the point of living in a town with a doctor if you can’t afford to see her?
So far, we might look to these principles and agree that we have an obligation to take care of ourselves. But we have insurance. Why should we be worried about others?
First of all, we’re Jews and worrying about others is what we do. We learn from Hillel in Mishna Avot al tifrosh min hatzibur, do not separate yourself from the community. As Americans in the 21st century, our community is beyond the four walls of this synagogue. Our community is Orange County, the state of California, the 50 states of our union. We take this teaching seriously every time we go into a voting booth. Some of us demonstrate that they take this seriously when they run for public office or sit on school boards or community councils. Caring for those without access to adequate health care is part of our obligation to be a part of the greater community.
Some of you may remember one of the final scenes in the film “Schindler’s List,” when Schindler is given a ring as a gift. Inside the ring is a quote from Mishna Sanhedrin: Whoever saves a single Jewish soul is credited as though he saved an entire world. Did you know that an alternative version exists in some volumes? The word Jewish is omitted, and the sentence reads, “Whoever saves a single soul is credited as though he saved an entire world.” Every time we act to save a life, whether as a medical professional, a supporting friend, a blood or organ donor, a mental health professional, a donor to a social service agency, or as someone who speaks up for the uninsured, we are saving not only that individual but those who depend on him or her. Future generations. (Think of the young lupus patient who died before she could marry and have children.) Family at home needing her presence and love. Every act of compassion affects not only the person in need but concentric rings of people in his life.
And then there is the passage in Deuteronomy about the body that is found in a field between two cities. The elders of both cities are called out to examine the body and to determine whether they recognize the person as someone who passed through their city. The presumption, of course, is that the person was in need of food and shelter and was sent on his way without help, to die of starvation or exposure in the field.
The Torah instructs the elders that if neither community recognizes the deceased, the elders of the city closer to where the body is found should bring a heifer to the site and slaughter it – literally break its neck. In ancient times, lacking someone to carry the guilt of the death of the individual, something had to be done to put things right cosmically. The elders are declaring that they do not bear guilt for this person because no one would have passed through their city and not had their basic needs met. Theirs is a city that understands the obligation to care for its strangers, its widows, its orphans.
I have not been here in Mission Viejo long enough to have taken the political pulse of my congregation. I might be preaching to the choir here. If not, I hope that I have been explicit: the Jewish approach to health care is neither Democrat nor Republican, neither liberal nor conservative. We have an obligation to care for our bodies and as a community to offer health care to all who seek it. We have an obligation to provide health care whether it’s expensive or not, whether the care is for a month or the rest of the person’s life. It’s one way to identify a holy society – one where the welfare of all is as important as one’s own welfare.
But even if I have not needed to change anyone’s mind today, I still must encourage you to act. There are several bills before Congress, and to quote President Obama’s understatement last week, the details have yet to be worked out. Learn what the options are. Learn what each would mean. Study the issue in a cool, dispassionate way. Do not allow the shouting and demonstrations and hysteria to persuade you one way or the other. Make an informed decision. And then take pen to paper and write to Washington. Tell your representatives and Sens. Boxer and Feinstein what you think. Tell them what our tradition teaches. Teach them about the sanctity of the body and our obligation to care for it and how the lack of affordable health care is a clear impediment to fulfilling that obligation.
How will we recognize a holy society?
Let me quote you a verse of a song we probably all learned in grammar school – America the Beautiful.
O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears.
I’ve always been a little put off by the image of alabaster cities – cold, hard, impenetrable. But I do love the notion of “undimmed by human tears.” It’s almost a messianic vision.
The promise of the future, of a holy society, is the promise of a place where no one is hungry, where no one is homeless, where no one is brutalized, where no child cries in fear or hunger or loneliness, where all are respected and cared for. That is the promise of America. And it’s the mandate of Torah.