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Posts Tagged ‘social security and medicare’

This is the week of divine revelation.  Parashat Yitro describes the unveiling of God’s central charge to the children of Israel.  Jews understand that the 10 commandments revealed in this week’s parashah are just a preamble to a much larger law code.  But that preamble is important, even critical.  It sets parameters for the relationship between the people and God.  The magnificence of the scene, the display of lightening and thunder, commands the people’s attention.  As this part of divine revelation concludes, we get a rather mysterious sentence, “v’chol ha’am ro’im et hakolot.” Which we could translate as, “And all of the people saw the voices.”

The natural reaction is to ask how the people could “see” voices?  How does one see sound?  Midrash Exodus Rabbah provides this insight into the verse:  “Rabbi Jochanan said that God’s voice, as it was uttered, split up into 70 voices, in 70 languages, so that all nations should understand.”  This midrash has been read and taught numerous times to demonstrate how the Torah is meant for everyone.  It is not the exclusive property of the Jewish people.  Other midrashim affirm this.  For example, one teaches that the reason Torah was given in the wilderness and not in the land of Israel was that all would understand it as the property of everyone.

Too often we fail to read the next sentence of the midrash, “When each nation heard the Voice in their own language their souls departed, except for Israel who heard but were not hurt.”  Rabbi Tanhuma then adds to this explaining, “The word of God went out in two aspects, slaying the heathen who would not accept it but giving life to Israel who accepted the Torah.”  Are we to conclude from this midrash that only Israel was worthy of revelation?  Clearly, this teaching conveys, that for at least that initial moment of revelation, only Israel accepted Torah as their life’s guide –  the basis for life and community.  But is that the end of the story?  Is this hint at a universal message really just a way to highlight Israel’s exceptionalism?

I believe this slice of Torah gives us a chance to examine the unique Jewish perspective on the relationship of the individual to the community.  It is all of Israel that witnesses and receives revelation.  They are a corporate unit, not a collection of individuals.  Just before revelation begins Torah tells us, “vayichan sham Yisra’el neged hahar,” “Israel camped there in front of the mountain.”  (Exodus 19:2) The verb “camped” is in the third person singular – the implication being that Israel is one, unified entity.  Although there were hundreds of thousands in the camp, for this formative moment, they were united as one.  Thus is the prelude to the declaration of law.

The first four commandments establish a relationship between the people and God.  The last five lay out the bare rudiments of interactions between individuals.  The fifth commandment stands out as a transition, and too often we do not read the complete commandment; “Honor your father and mother, that you may long endure on the land which Adonai your God is giving you.”  By only looking at the first clause, we see this commandment simply as an individual’s obligation to respect their parents.  But there is so much more.  Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, outlines what this commandment means.  It is not just showing respect for those who bore and raised you, but the obligation to provide for them as they become aged and infirmed.  You might not be able to do this yourself for a variety of reasons, so, according to Maimonides, you can place them in the care of others better equipped to meet their needs.  Your obligation, in that case, is to be assiduous in assuring that the caregivers are giving the appropriate care.  However, if we see this only as an individual obligation, we are misreading the text and intent of the law, the 10 commandments; indeed the entirety of Torah.

Remember, this revelation is for all of Israel as one unit, one community.  The singular forms are not just directed to individuals within the camp, but to the entire nation of Israel.  All must honor and care for the elderly in the community.  And that brings us to the last part of the verse, “that you may long endure on the land that Adonai your God is giving you.”  Our ability to properly provide for our elderly is a test of our society, our community.  If we do so properly, our community will endure.  If we do not, it is then a sign of a sickness infesting our corporate body.  The current discussions concerning social security and Medicare now take on a different meaning, imply a different consequence.

I recently attended a program by The Village Square that discussed our country’s budget deficits as well as the run away costs of these two programs.  The discussion was disturbing.   There was a lot of offering critique but not of offering solutions; encapsulating the political system’s inability to address real problems.  The fixes to social security are fairly obvious.  It must be a combination of adjusting the benefits to current actuarial facts, raising the income limit that can be taxed, and means testing.  Some combination of these will ensure that those of our elderly and disabled who need the program will get it.  The economist on the panel blamed Medicare for much of the budget deficit, calling for “market based” solutions to health care issues.  Yet, Medicare is the hero of the health care system when allowed to function properly.  For example, Medicare puts many services and health care supplies out for competitive bidding, which ensures the lowest prices – a market based solution.  However, it is not allowed to do so for drugs, as congress is lobbied by the giant pharmaceutical firms to prevent Medicare from subjecting drugs to competitive bidding.  Medicare spends only 2% of the money it takes in on administrative costs, with 98% of its dollars going for patient care.  Few private insurance companies even come close to that percentage.  Clearly, if Medicare were allowed to operate at its greatest efficiency, its available dollars would be stretched much further – again helping to provide care to those who need it while saving costs.

This one example, taken from the commandment to care for our parents, illustrates the illness infecting our country.  We see too many of our rights as individual without any communal obligation.  We see the singular language of revelation as directed only to the individual and not to the communal whole.  Which brings us back to the question of what Israel saw when they “saw the voices.”  Naftali Tzvi Horowitz in his Zera Kodesh says that the people saw the very first letter of divine revelation, the alef from the opening words anochi Adonai Elohecha, “I am Adonai your God.”  Why is this significant?  If you look carefully at an alef, you will see the bare outline of a human face, two eyebrows and a nose in the middle.  By only hinting at the shape of a face, the alef could be anyone’s and every person’s face.  At that moment Israel saw the face of others, and that each face of each other was reflected in God.  It was the beginning of understanding revelation not as for the self, but for the whole.  When we recognize the humanity in others, and their Godly connection, we begin to consider each other, not just ourselves, in our actions and calculations.

And what about the 70 voices?   What is it that made the other nations afraid and give up their souls despite hearing revelation?   Perhaps they were not ready to lessen the natural human obsession with the self and personal gain.  Perhaps they were not ready to accept a system which commands a real caring for others.   Israel, being forged in the furnace of slavery, of oppression, understood the consequences of the lesson.  They were ready to give their souls life by bonding as a community to the moral code God was sharing.  Perhaps this midrash is just a way of teaching that if we are not willing to stop focusing on the self, if we live only by the mantra of personal gain, we do indeed lose our souls.

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