(a sermon delivered on 6.23.17)
This week in Torah, we read the story of Korach, who was a cousin to Moses and Aaron. Our parasha describes how Korach, along with his lieutenants Datan and Abiram, organized a group of 250 Israelite leaders to challenge Moses and Aaron for leadership. Korach used the language of democracy to support his challenge, saying: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” [Num. 16:3]
On the one hand, Korach spoke some truth. The community was holy, every person – and God did dwell in their midst. Yet, in accusing Moses and Aaron of “raising themselves” above everyone else, he ignored the fact that it was God who placed them in their positions. The revolt, then, is not merely against Moses and Aaron, but also against God.
While we cannot know their motives for sure, it seems that Korach was angling for the job of High Priest, while Datan and Abiram, as the descendants of Jacob’s first born son Reuben, sought the political leadership. Regardless, their challenge not only failed, but they and their families paid the ultimate price.
In the great drama of this story, however, we often overlook that Korach is not the only one to challenge God:
Then the Presence of the Lord appeared to the whole community, and the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “Stand back from this community that I may annihilate them in an instant!” But they fell on their faces and said, “O God, Source of the breath of all flesh! When one man sins will You be wrathful with the whole community?” [Num. 16:19-22]
At the moment of greatest danger, Moses and Aaron put themselves at risk to challenge God, who incredibly, listens to them and spares those who were not directly involved in the revolt. Moses and Aaron are neither chastised or punished for challenging God directly.
The next day, things got even worse: “the whole Israelite community railed against Moses and Aaron, saying, ‘You two have brought death upon the Lord’s people!’” [Num. 17:6]. God once again commands Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from the people. Moses realizes that, this time, there is no time to argue with God, that the punishment has already begun in the form of a plague. So, he sends Aaron not away from the people, but into their midst – with a fire pan for a guilt offering. For the first time, Moses and Aaron challenge God not just with words, but with deeds.
What happens next? Some of the Israelites die of the plague – a large number. But the overwhelming majority are spared. Even more, neither Moses nor Aaron are punished for directly disobeying God.
The story of Korach, Moses and Aaron helps us to understand that we can and should stand up to those who have power, but only for the right reasons. Leadership, according to Torah, is about service. When our leaders truly serve the people, they deserve our support – even if we don’t agree on everything. However, when our leaders, are poised to harm the people, even if it is God, Torah teaches us to stand up for what is right, regardless of personal danger.
Speaking truth to power – this is moral obligation Torah places upon us all.
On this Shabbat, I cannot think of a more timely message.
Let’s talk about Health Care Reform.
This week the Senate passed its version of “repeal and replace,” which while we are still waiting for the CBO numbers to come out, looks as if it could be even worse than the House bill.
Now, before I get into the details, you might be wondering if I am simply taking a partisan position rather than speaking from the standpoint of Jewish values. So, let’s look at the Jewish part first, beyond the idea of speaking truth to power. Then we can get political.
We are commanded in Torah no fewer than thirty-three times to care for the most vulnerable in our midst: the orphan, the widow, the poor and the stranger in our midst. Yes, it is true that Torah makes no mention of Medicaid. Nor is healthcare mentioned anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible. How, then, can we link healthcare to these older texts? In a word: Maimonides. Maimonides, who lived and taught in the 12th century, is arguably the greatest and most influential rabbi ever to live. In fact, some historians divide Jewish history into two eras: the one before Maimonides and the one after. More to our point, Maimonides taught that health care was among the most important communal services that a city was obligated to provide its citizens. In his time, the city had the best infrastructure to manage and deliver health care services. Today, our infrastructure has scaled to a national level.
On a first reading, this latest Senate bill seems to cut Medicaid even more than the house bill, it’s just that the deeper cuts are delayed until 2025. Not only do both bills put millions of Americans at risk, but the Senate version is particularly dangerous to Baby Boomers. As they continue to age, Boomers will require more complex care right at the time Medicaid would be most drastically cut. As if this weren’t enough, the bill also mandates a healthy tax refund to the wealthiest among us from funds previously used to subsidize Medicaid and other insurers.
Although I know that there are deeply religious people who support these bills, I personally struggle with them. I cannot reconcile the harm these bills would cause to millions of vulnerable people with any teaching I have learned from our tradition. Perhaps that is why so many Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Federations of North American and the Union of Reform Judaism are lining up against these bills. For that matter, I cannot understand how something as basic as health care can be considered a polarizing partisan issue. It is a human issue! We need to be working together, across the aisle, to find a better solution..
Yes, Obamacare has some real problems. Yes, we need a better system. But, these bills are not the answer. Not only do they effect the most vulnerable in our midst, but they could place anyone who does not have enough personal wealth to cover their expenses without insurance at risk as well. In addition to dramatic cuts to Medicaid, this bill would remove protections against lifetime limits on the amount insurers will pay to cover individual health care costs, and instead leave it up to the states to decide.
Why does this matter?
Those people with the most significant health problems have higher medical expenses. Once they burn through their life-time limits, they would no longer be covered for the care they need to keep them healthy, and in some cases, alive. Only those with the means to handle private pay would be able to continue treatment. Leaving it to the states to determine which limits if any should be allowed is simply a race to the bottom. Let’s say that our wonderful State of Maryland decides to keep lifetime limits off the table. What happens if our neighboring states allow them? For-profit insurance companies would have an incentive to pull their business from Maryland in favor of markets that are easier on their bottom line. That in turn would place increased pressure on our state to change the rules to bring at least some coverage back to Maryland citizens. The cycle could repeat over and again, forcing potentially millions more to choose between health care or poverty.
Dayenu. It would be enough for us if only the most vulnerable were placed at greater risk, but these bills will harm many of us sitting here in this sanctuary right now.
In some ways we are quite fortunate. Thank God. All our representatives and senators are strongly against these bills. We do not need to lobby them. Not only that, but Governor Hogan issued a powerful statement yesterday decrying the bill – using even stronger language than his fellow Republican, Governor John Kasich.
So, what can we do?
First, we must stay engaged. We are so fortunate to live in a constitutional democracy, where we have the right to speak our minds in the public square. We must exercise that right.
Second, we can reach out to our friends and family who live in states where there is not strong opposition to these bills. We can explain why we are so opposed and ask them to reach out to their senators to urge them to vote against this legislation.
Finally, we should contact Governor Hogan’s office to thank him for his strong statement. He is taking a political risk, and he needs to know that we are behind him. Not only that, but we could also ask him to reach out to his fellow Republican governors and encourage them to make similar public statements, and while they are at it, to also place pressure on their senators who may be on the fence about this bill.
Korach may be the headliner of this week’s Torah portion, but we can follow a better example. Instead of pursuing our own wealth and power, let’s be like Moses and Aaron. Let’s speak truth to power to preserve life and health –
now and always.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras