Thursday, June 28, 2012

A National Health Care Policy that Answers to a Higher Authority

As the parent of two children with congenital heart disease, and as the spouse of a registered nurse, health care is an important family topic. Ensuring that all people have access to affordable health care is also a timeless Jewish value. That’s why I personally want to give the Supreme Court a healthy yasher koach on today’s ruling upholding the Administration’s Affordable Care Act. 

Beginning with the Bible itself, Judaism has always advocated for healthy living and for medical intervention when necessary and appropriate.  The early rabbinic commentators distinguished between what was visible and what was invisible.  What this means is that the Jewish sages viewed illness as something to be cured – optimally  -- by God, but if that failed, the responsibility to heal fell to human hands.  Later sources, as medical knowledge and ability advanced, extended humanity’s role in the healing process more broadly: “The Torah gave permission to the doctor to heal, and it is even a commandment.”  (Shulkhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 336:1)

Within Jewish tradition, providing health care is not just an obligation for the patient and the doctor, but for society as well. It is for this reason that Maimonides, a revered Jewish scholar and physician, listed health care first on his list of the ten most important communal services that a city had to offer to its residents (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De'ot IV: 23). Almost all self-governing Jewish communities throughout history set up systems to ensure that all their citizens had access to health care. Doctors were required to reduce their rates for poor patients, and when that was not sufficient, communal subsidies were established (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 249:16; Responsa Ramat Rahel of Rabbi Eliezer Waldernberg, sections 24-25).

And as my teacher and friend Rabbi Elliot Dorff has written:

The fact...that more than 40 million Americans have no health insurance is, from a Jewish point of view, an intolerable dereliction of society's moral duty. The Torah, the Prophets, and the Rabbis of our tradition all loudly proclaim that God commands us to take care of the poor, the starving and the sick. Given the current costs of health care, almost all of us fall into that category. On both moral and religious grounds, then, we simply cannot let the present condition continue; we are duty-bound to find a way to afford health care for all American citizens.

Reasonable people may disagree on how we get there, but today at least, the Supreme Court upheld the Jewish belief that we are obligated to provide health care for all our citizens. And this is an American victory that the entire nation should applaud.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Hukat of Leadership

Is great leadership the result of a combination of inborn traits or can one acquire the necessary skills to lead effectively?

According to some commentators, an analysis of the early episodes of Moses’ life, especially Exodus 2, support the former, suggesting that innate qualities he possesses predispose him to assume the mantle of greatest leader of the Jewish People. The text tells us that Moses exhibits the following personality traits:

  • The capacity for growth;
  • Compassion;
  • Ability to observe and analyze appropriately individuals and situations and act on that analysis;
  • Maintain loving, positive and non-judgmental relationships;
  • Willingness to take on responsibility, but not the need to assert power;
  • A healthy sense of self.

Because Moses had or appeared to be capable of these traits he was chosen by God to lead the people of Israel.

So one has to wonder when reading this week’s Torah reading what happened?  If Moses possessed so many characteristics of leadership, why is he punished for striking the rock rather than speaking to it?  What’s the big sin?

Leadership is not easy.  These are traits that have to be worked at constantly.  In fact, they can even be dangerous.  The obverse side of compassion may be too much passion.  This can lead to impatience and a short temper.  Too much analysis can lead to hesitancy to act, especially when one is shy and humble.  One may not always be able to remove one’s own self from an issue to make objective observations.  When you hear the same complaints again and again, who would not become impatient and judgmental? 

But in this week’s Torah reading something very subtle changes in the way the Israelites couch their plea.  Numbers 20:2-3, “And there was no water for the edah, the congregation; and they vayikahalu, gathered themselves, together against Moses and Aaron…Why have you brought up the Kahal, the congregation of the Lord into this wilderness?” 

So what did Moses miss?  They were no longer asking for themselves or for their children and cattle as they had done before.  They were now a mature group with a very special nature.  They were a Kahal, a congregation of the Lord.  S.R. Hirsch writes: “They were now united in the same common destiny – for that is the concept of the term Edah.”  And this was the first time the Israelites referred to themselves in this manner.  And Moses missed it.

That God understood the change and its implications is suggested by God’s response: “Take the rod and v’ykahel, gather the children and the edah, the assembly together, you and your brother Aaron, and speak to the rock before their eyes…”

Unlike earlier responses, this miracle was to be performed before all the people.  Moses is not to hit the rock, but to speak to it.  The rod is included as a reminder that even rocks can change.  This change symbolizes God’s recognition of the people’s growth from childhood into a mature nation.  But Moses did not recognize this change.  He hit the rock.  Israel had passed him by.

God’s decision, therefore, was not a punishment for sin.  It was a management decision.  Moses was fired.  God was saying in effect, “You were hired for your ability to grow, for your compassion and your caring, your ability to understand and love the flock you are leading.  I know it is a heavy burden.  Remember what I showed you at the burning bush.  The trick is to burn with a fiery flame, but not to be consumed.  This job has consumed you.  You are burnt out.  It’s time to let go.  You are not listening closely to them or to Me anymore.”

This is one of the most important lessons of Shabbat – slow down, listen to the people around you.  Really hear them.  Understand and reflect upon the issues you’ve encountered this week just ended, learn from them and refresh your soul.  In this way we avoid burn out and are able to celebrate these great gifts anew – week after week.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Welcome to Rabbi@theEpiCenter, a new blog that will feature reflections on Torah and Jewish life from the dynamic epicenter of North American Jewish life. Written by the visionary Rabbi Steven Wernick -- who is devoted to building strong kehillot (sacred communities) in his capacity as CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism --we hope that Rabbi@theEpiCenter will become a go-to site for Jewish inspiration that is rooted in the realities of contemporary life. Rabbi@theEpiCenter is for anyone who seeks a thoughtful, spiritual and wholly relevant Judaism that exists in harmony with the modern world.