The 7-year old boy’s heart begins to beat faster as he listens to the story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The boy actually begins to sob with pity for Isaac. After the service, the rabbi approaches the boy. “Why were you crying? The rabbi asks, “You know the story; you know that Abraham does not kill Isaac.” The boy questions the rabbi, “Suppose the angel, had come a second too late?” The rabbi comforts the young boy saying, “angels, do not come late.”
That boy would become the great 20th century scholar, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory. Years later, Heschel would still be haunted by the same question: Suppose the angel had come, a second too late! As an adult, Heschel reflected that, while angels do not come late, human beings sometimes do. “All of history,” Heschel teaches, “has been a dry run for the moment when we can act like the angel; we must not be late.” Heschel insists that every human being has the capacity to be an angel, for we are put on this earth to do God’s work. And so, we learn from the angel. Understanding the urgency, the angel calls out: Abraham, Abraham, in order that a wrong might be prevented, a life might be saved.
Recent news of our nation’s struggle for health care, reinforce for me, a sense of urgency. A call to pay attention, if a life might be saved.
When you unroll the Torah, if you open to the exact middle of the scroll, there you find Kedoshim, meaning holiness. This literal and metaphorical heart of the Torah teaches us the why and how of Judaism. Why? Kedoshim tihiyu: You shall be holy, because God is holy. How? Here’s a summary of the first 19 verses of the portion:
Honor your elders
Reflect on Shabbat
Provide and eat fresh food
Sustain the poor
Do not take what is not yours
Your excess is not yours
Pay your worker on time
Show dignity and support for people with disabilities
Make fair decisions
Do not gossip
Do not profit from someone else’s loss
Do not hate
Do not hold a grudge
Take responsibility for your neighbor
Love your neighbor as yourself
Why? This is the source of holiness. How? Over and over again the Torah spells out the Jewish mandate to care for the vulnerable. There is no exception for pre-existing conditions. When we take responsibility for our elders, the poor, our workers, children, people with disabilities, when we bring more fairness into a world where not everyone has the privilege of equal opportunity, education, neighborhood, health care, that is how we become holy. That is how we do God’s work here on earth.
When it comes to the challenge of health care, this season’s urgent focus, Jewish tradition had much to teach. Now, no political party has the monopoly on the truth, on compassion or on values, and no health care system has been perfect. The question is: what does a health care system need to address, according to our Jewish values?
Our tradition interprets the Torah’s mandate for care in compelling ways for our own time. The Talmud* teaches: Whoever is in pain, lead him to the physician. The revered 12th century scholar and physician, Maimonides, interprets this to mean that physicians are obligated to heal, and that patients are obligated to see a doctor. Maimonides also legislates that we ought to conduct ourselves in ways that promote good health. When you exercise or eat right, you are doing a mitzvah!
Not only does tradition mandate that we care for our health, it also insists we make medical care accessible to those who are in need. The Talmud teaches, “a physician who charges nothing is worth nothing!” Care needs to be made accessible, but clinicians are not expected to waive the bill. So the question is: who pays the doctor? The Jewish answer: we all do. The mitzvah, Pekuach nefesh, to save a life, is not only an obligation for physicians, it is an obligation for each of us. Financial responsibility lies with the individual, the physician, the family members, and the entire community. Jewish law goes so far as to require a community, to establish subsidies for those who cannot otherwise afford access to medical care.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, past president of the Union for Reform Judaism, writes that American health care is entirely relevant for our own Jewish community; yet this is not primarily an issue of self-interest. He teaches: A Judaism that ghettoizes itself has no real purpose. We cannot pray for the sick (in our Misheberach/healing blessing) and then do nothing to get health care, for those who need it.
As Jews in 21st century America, we balance a complicated tension. We affirm the recently threatened Johnson Amendment, which secures the separation of Church and State. The separation of church and state rightly prevents me or our congregation from endorsing or opposing a political candidate.
Still, the separation is not meant to silence religious people from expressing our views related to policy. When our religious sages, in their deep exploration of moral obligation, teach us lessons about what it means to care for our fellow citizen… when our Jewish values offer guidance for some of the great dilemmas of our day, it is for us to express those values, that our society may learn from them. In this case, open the Torah to its literal center, and it’s right there in Kedoshim. Our Torah cannot and ought not write the legislation; but it can and ought to inform our message, about what that legislation must protect.
As American Jews, we now anticipate Independence Day. I am a patriot. When I am with my children in the Independence Park neighborhood, we stop to pay tribute. And in for my family, July 4 is truly a holiday. A day off from work and my mother’s cake with the blueberries and strawberries designed in the shape of the American flag, cannot be the entirety of my patriotism.
As our guest speaker former Deputy Speaker of Kenesset Naomi Chazan taught last night in her remarks about democracy: “A patriot is a person who loves one’s country and believes on the principles on which it was founded. One who wants to stand up for its founding ideals.”
Our tradition, in its deep exploration of moral obligation, teaches us… Why? Kedoshim tihiyu: You shall be holy, for God is holy. How? Take care of each other. Feed the poor. Organize systems of fairness to the vulnerable. Do not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block in front of the blind. Protect your elders. Love your neighbor as yourself.
This shabbat may we discover paths to holiness, that we may do God’s work here on earth.