Thursday, March 31, 2016

Health Care and Human Rights (Idaho Statesman column for April)

Hillel famously taught: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, what am I?  If not now, when?”

While the gist of this teaching is fairly obvious—finding a balance between self-interest and communal responsibility—a subtle reading reveals much more.  It is especially critical to note the shift in pronouns from the first question to the second.  One would expect Hillel to have asked, “If I am only for myself, who am I?”  But the who changes to what—suggesting that when we don’t tend to the needs of others we become something less than entirely human.  Narcissism and greed distort our core humanity.

This is worth remembering in the aftermath of the 2016 legislative session.  Once again, our representatives refused to extend health care to Idaho’s poorest citizens.  Then, adding insult to injury, Governor Otter called a press conference to affirm that callous decision.  Senator Jim Rice of Caldwell captured the prevailing ethos of the Idaho Republican party when he declared: “There is no right to health care. Not one of those who left the bloody tracks in the snow at Valley Forge did so for free health care.”

If I am only for myself, what am I?  Apparently, for starters, a Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives.

In Jewish tradition, the saving of human life is known as pikuach nefesh.  This obligation overrides virtually every other religious consideration.  When a person is in danger, it is permissible to violate almost every commandment in the Torah to rescue them.  We derive this imperative from the Torah’s teaching: “You shall not stand idle while your neighbor bleeds” (Leviticus 19:16).  By this understanding, health care is absolutely a basic human right, and denying it to those in need is disgraceful.  Idaho’s leaders are, indeed, standing idle while the most vulnerable of the citizens they serve are bleeding.  When Idahoans die needlessly, due to lack of access to healthcare, as too many surely will in the coming year, let there be no doubt: the bloodguilt is on the heads of those who voted to deny them.

This is not just bad policy—it is moral bankruptcy.

Shame on our legislature and governor.

And shame on us, for continuing to elect them to high office.

We can do better. 

And if not now, when?

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Purim E-Torah

I’m proud to announce an extraordinary new fundraising opportunity for CABI, thanks to America’s first serious Jewish presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders.

During his recent campaign swing through Boise, I was blessed to receive a personal visit from Senator Sanders.  After we schmoozed for a while about important things like our shared dedication to excellent posture, our conversation turned to Idaho politics.  I described the lamentable record of our chief executive and legislature on a whole host of issues: their failure to add the words extending protection to LGBT citizens, consistent underfunding of public education, refusal to expand healthcare for low income Idahoans, continuous harassment of women’s reproductive freedom, and dogged determination to ensure the right of every lunatic in the state to own and operate an entire arsenal of assault rifles.

Senator Sanders listened with remarkable empathy and then decided to act on our behalf.   On the spot, he picked up his phone and called his old friends (and longtime Jewish activists and philanthropists) Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream fame.  He told them about CABI’s commitment to human rights and they, in turn, immediately agreed to add two new treats to their line, for sale in supermarkets in the Gem State and beyond: Chock Full O’ Nuts Legislative Lemon Sorbet and Bananas Butch Otter Pops.   True to their names, both of these treats will be full of nothing but artificial ingredients and empty calories; Ben and Jerry guarantee that they will be certifiably unhealthy to everyone except radical patriot survivalists living off the grid in Outer Kamiah.

The good news?  Fifty percent of all profits from these confections will go to fund CABI social action projects.  There is one catch, though: this is a true partnership, so we will be producing Chock Full O’ Nuts and Bananas Butch Otter Pops right in our own CABI kitchen, with volunteer labor provided by our own membership.  That’s right—we need you, CABI members, to sign up for ice cream making, preferably once a week.  I promise that it will be fun and satisfying, raising valuable dollars for a good cause.

So please join me in the kitchen and, as Ben and Jerry and Bernie all put it:


Happy Purim,

Rabbi Dan

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Two Truths--Or One? (portion Vayikra)

Every person should hold two truths, one in each pocket, and take them out according to the need of the moment.  One should say, “The world was created for my sake” and the other should say, “I am dust and ashes.”
                        -R. Simcha Bunam

I have always loved this teaching but over the years, I have also come to realize that it is, like most Jewish wisdom, more complicated than it first appears.   The challenge is that the “need of the moment” is not always obvious and may, in fact, be paradoxical.  Someone who seems to be acting arrogantly—and therefore in need of the “dust and ashes” truth—may, in fact, be overcompensating for a deeply-rooted insecurity that actually calls for “the world was created for my sake.”  And sometimes when we find ourselves in the throes of depression, an awareness of our mortality—“dust and ashes”—can offer a perspective that is comforting, much like listening to the blues.  Knowing which truth to pull out at any given time is a fine—and essential—art.

This week’s Torah portion, which begins the book of Leviticus, opens with the word that bestows its name, Vayikra—God called. . . .  It starts with the Holy One calling to Moses to teach him the laws that he will transmit to the Jewish people.  But there is an interesting anomaly in the way the word Vayikra is written in the Torah scroll.  The last letter, aleph, is inscribed in a small, undersized script, as if it is a sort of afterthought.

The Rabbis offer an abundance of commentary on this phenomenon but my favorite connects that aleph with the ego, as it is the first letter in the word anochi—“I” or “self.”  Like R. Simcha Bunam’s teaching, this reminds us that our ability to hear and respond to the call of the Divine depends on having our ego in proper proportion.  If we have too much ego, we are so full of ourselves that we leave no room for God (or anyone else).  If we have too little ego, we assume ourselves unworthy of being called in the first place, and shy away from the encounter.  We can only harken if we possess a strong sense of self that is balanced by compassion and genuine curiosity about others.  When we can see that we are, simultaneously, dust and ashes AND the reason the world was created, then God calls to us and we respond, Hineni—Here I am, ready for service.

This week, as we begin the book of Vayikra, consider: How can you better prepare to hear the call of the sacred in your life—and respond to it?

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Sanctuaries, Safe Places, and the Work of the World (Portion Pekudey)

According to all that the Eternal had commanded Moses, so the children of Israel did all the work.  Then Moses looked over all the work, and indeed they had done it; as the Eternal had commanded, just so they had done it. And Moses blessed them.

Countless commentators, both ancient and contemporary, have noted the literary links between the completion of the mishkan, the Israelites’ portable sanctuary-tent, described in this week’s portion, Pekudey and the creation narrative in Genesis.  The mishkan is a microcosm, a world in miniature—a modest human echo of God’s grand design.

There is, however, a significant difference between the model and the thing itself.  With the mishkan, everything falls perfectly into place, exactly according to plan.  Later, even in the worst of times, when the Israelites rebel and fall and fail, this space remains a beautiful, safe, and secure shelter for the Divine Presence.   Would that this were true for the wider world!  As Rabbi Shai Held notes: “In reality - and according to the Torah itself - the world as we find it falls far short of God's hopes and expectations. Instead of a world in which human dignity is real, we live in a world in which barbarism and cruelty all too often rule the day, in which unspeakable suffering pervades every corner of the globe. . .”

So what do we make of the mishkan in a world so often gone awry?  Perhaps it is meant as a powerful and essential reminder of the way things were meant to be—and might yet become if we can learn to work together to create justice, compassion, and peace. As Professor Jon Levenson notes, the world is supposed to be just like the mishkan: "A place in which the reign of God is visible and unchallenged, and God’s holiness is palpable, unthreatened, and pervasive."

It is hard work to repair what is broken in the world—and in ourselves as well.  Sometimes we need to take time to renew our vision of what we are working toward.  We seek havens—sanctuaries—that remind us what we are laboring to achieve and why it matters.  Our experience of God and sacredness in brief moments and small spaces can restore our dedication to the larger effort when our strength, faith, and courage might otherwise falter.

This week, consider: where do you find the spiritual resources that fuel your efforts to bring healing in your life?  What are your sanctuaries?  And how do you take the wisdom and security you find in those times and places out into the wider world?