30 September 2009

Health Care 5770

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

As part of our Yom Kippur service this year, I gave a brief introduction to the Unetaneh Tokef (much as I did last year). My theme this year was rather different: health care, health insurance, and reconsidering our collective, communal health in the context of thinking about another year of life. The text follows below.


Here is a line from a song some of you may know. Kris Kristofferson wrote it, and Janis Joplin made it famous: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” The punchline to the joke I haven’t yet told you is that “Freedom” is also the word that Oxford Health Plans gave to our HMO program, and it’s true: there isn’t much left to lose.

Now having said that, let me also say quickly that I feel fortunate to have health insurance in the first place, restrictions and all. Even just the costs associated with my wife’s giving birth to a healthy baby 10 days ago would be difficult to imagine without insurance.

So as the debate about health insurance rages on around us, this holiday seems an appropriate one during which to reflect briefly on the subject of health in the context of these days of awe that are now coming to a close. The Unetaneh Tokef reminds us that God records and seals, counts and measures, and remembers even what we have forgotten. On Rosh Hashanah it will be written, and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed: whether we will live for another year.
While we place much emphasis during this time on evaluating ourselves and our lives, the mitzvot performed and those left undone, what of the health of our bodies, and the steps we take—or fail to take—to ensure our physical health, year to year? Because we do have an obligation to ensure our health, our physical well-being alongside our spiritual one.

In "The Guide of the Perplexed," the 12th century scholar Maimonides—who was also a physician—addressed the issue with a clear call to action, saying that we should undertake “bodily exercise, which [is] necessary for the preservation of health according to the prescription of those who know the art of medicine... Those who accomplish acts of exercising their body in the wish to be healthy, engaging in ball games, wrestling, boxing and suspension of breathing . . . are in the opinion of the ignorant engaged in frivolous actions, whereas they are not frivolous according to the Sages."

In addition to thinking about ourselves, we should also consider how our Jewishly derived sense of social responsibility relates to caring for others—in terms of their health care. As a community, we already engage in many acts of tzedaka and tikkun olam, striving to heal the world. And many of us do so, around issues of medicine or care for the elderly, along with helping to sustain the homeless shelter here at the synagogue or contributing in other ways.
But perhaps we need to articulate a stronger and clearer Jewish perspective on the issue of health care more broadly. The questions we might ask ourselves are simple: shouldn’t the opportunity for medical care be as basic as access to food and shelter? And isn’t the health of our community something to approach as more than just a metaphor?

Within the long scope of Jewish history, the idea of “insurance” is a relatively new one. But that hardly makes it unworthy of consideration. Now, I am not here to talk politics, or to endorse a specific piece of legislation. I only want to say that as we think about this day, this very moment, we should consider the concept of our lives being weighed and measured, written and sealed, as more than metaphorical. Our physical health, and the health of those around us, will also affect our future.

While it is uncomfortable to think about, we all know that some of us may not live to see the next day, or the next year. But Judaism grants us great power over our own lives, through both word and deed. Perhaps in the coming year our collective words and deeds can help create an environment in which fewer people die needlessly—one in which we as a community look for ways to embrace and expand our sense of what it means to care for others, even for those we do not know and will never meet, and yet who are no less deserving of decent treatment and the opportunity of prolonged life.

G'mar chatima tova—may you be inscribed in the book of life.

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