SHAVUOT YIZKOR 5774
On Shavuot we relive that day—3326 years ago—when the Jewish people stood at Mt. Sinai as Gd gave us the 10 Commandments and the Torah. Mt. Sinai has since become the seminal event for the Jewish people—an event, more than any, that defines us. But as important as Mt. Sinai is to us, I often had a question about Sinai that I could never explain until recently when my colleague, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg sent me a piece he wrote wherein this question is asked. The question is, why do we have so many hospitals named after Mt. Sinai? I grew up in NY with its Mt. Sinai Hospital in uptown Manhattan. My parents moved to Florida with its Mt. Sinai Hospital in Miami Beach. You could say that there were so many NY Jews in Miami Beach that they named it after the Hospital in NY. But that doesn’t explain Mt. Sinai Hospitals in Los Angeles, Cleveland, Toronto, Detroit, Milwaukee, Hartford and Philadelphia? What does Mt. Sinai have to do with hospitals?
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Jews were barred from most medical schools—and sometimes as patients in hospitals—Jewish communities built their own hospitals and often chose the name “Sinai” for them. I don’t know if you ever asked yourself why, but for your being good enough to come to shule today, I’m going to tell you the answer!
Our tradition teaches us that in preparation for the giving of the Torah at Sinai many miracles took place. We were in the dessert and yet flowers and vegetation bloomed. That’s one of the reasons for why some shules are decorated with flowers on Shavuot. But one of the most amazing miracles, according to the Midrash, was that everyone was healed. When they left Egypt, many were blemished and broken from years of oppressive slavery, beatings, whippings and climbing up and down the pyramids. Stones would fall, people would get injured, and some became blind. But when they came to Sinai, Gd said, according to the Midrash, “I want my Torah to be given to an unblemished people.” So he healed them—the blind were able to see, the lame were able to walk. Sinai thus became associated with healing, and that’s why Sinai became an appropriate name for a hospital.
In our day, however, I fear that we may have lost sight of the connection of Sinai—Gdliness—and healing. I think that we’ve lost something when we can tell a person in pain that they’ll get an appointment with a doctor in 6 weeks or 6 months. I know there’s something wrong when 1700 veterans who served our country get lost in the system, waiting for a visit to a Veterans Hospital. I do know that thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of them are made to wait for treatment longer than we would have our dog wait to see a veterinarian. It makes me ask, if this is what government health care looks like, is this where Obama Care is headed?
Where all this can lead is perhaps reflected in the perspective I got when my mother was once hospitalized. All of a sudden, I was not a rabbi anymore. I was a son. My mother wasn’t just a patient, a statistic. All of a sudden I was angry! They had taken my mother and made her a number with a silly white gown and a band on her arm that identified her by code. And they had left her lying on a cold cot waiting hours for an MRI, waiting to see if her insurance company would approve it. She later told me she was shivering in the cold. And then they informed her it was too late in the day to have it done. She had to be brought back down again tomorrow.
This smart, beautiful, sharp woman was made to feel as though she was a nobody. And suddenly I was seeing things that I had never really noticed before. They treat you like a child. They put you in a bed that has sides like a crib. They talk about you in your presence as if you had already passed away. They use big, technical words to describe your condition, and don’t bother to translate them. They make you wait nervously for endless hours.
One of the members of our congregation was once suddenly told, “The insurance company said: ‘Time’s up, time to go home!’” This at 10:00pm on a Friday night! When the patient said, “I have no way of getting home,” they called him a cab! Don’t get me wrong…my own hospitalization almost 3 years ago showed me that doctors and nurses are “angels of mercy.” It’s the system that’s sick!
There most certainly is a connection between the physical Sinai and spiritual Sinai. Strictly speaking, what is a patient? A human machine in need of a repair. But if a patient is no more than a machine, then a doctor is no more than a mechanic or a plumber! Jewish tradition understood that you could not heal the mind and heart unless you also heal the soul. Yes, the body isa machine, and machines can be fixed or replaced. But a soul is a one of a kind, created in the image of Gd!
The Jewish values taught at Sinai don’t allow a person to be treated as a number. We’re not even supposed to count people. I spoke about this recently. Some of you may remember your grandparents or great-grandparents, when they wanted to count how many people were in the room would say: nisht eintz, nisht tzvei, “not one, not 2. Yes, there is a Jewish spiritual arithmetic and it differs from ordinary arithmetic. In ordinary arithmetic, 2 is more than one and 3 is more than 2. In Jewish spiritual arithmetic, one means just as much as 2 and one means just as much as 2 million. It’s Jewish spiritual arithmetic which teaches (Talmud Sanhedrin 37a), “Whosoever saves one life, it is as if he has saved a whole world!”
I don’t know everything there is to know about Obamacare but I know that something is wrong in our country when lifesaving health issues are decided on the basis of how old a person is, how much it will cost and how much the insurance will cover based on actuary scales…it’s all a matter of numbers.
This is an important lesson to keep in mind of us as well. Many of us today find ourselves assuming a responsibility we never expected. Loved ones are living longer and we’re the ones called upon to be there in their time of need. It can be as little as a ride to the doctor or taking care of some bills or it can mean a daily involvement. There’s even a name for this: “caretakers.” There are now 30 million caretakers in America. Care-giving is an extremely stressful challenge. How do you take care of someone who used to take care of you? How do you find the strength that it takes to care for someone whom you know will not get better no matter what you do, and who deteriorates day by day before your very eyes?
Babies take a lot of caring for, but babies make progress every day and so there’s a sense of accomplishment as you watch them learn to walk and talk. Adults get weaker and more helpless every day and so there’s a sense of anguish watching them forget who they are and who you are. And perhaps to make matters even worse, sometimes whatever you do is unappreciated and never enough. But remember: this is not a number you’re caring for…this is your flesh and blood, your heart and soul. This is a one of a kind!
How do we say Yizkor for our departed? We don’t say, “May Gd remember the souls of my parents and my siblings and all my relatives?” Instead, we say the same Yizkor prayer over and over again, just changing the name—once for a mother, once for a father, once for a brother, once for a husband or wife, and so on. Each one gets their own Yizkor. Why? Because each one was an individual, a person, and therefore you don’t just lump them together. Every human being is an individual and deserves to be treated as such in life as well as in death.
In these moments before Yizkor we realize so clearly that who and what we are is the product, not of kings and presidents, but of our parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, teachers and friends—the ones who made a difference in our lives. And how do we remember them? One at a time—name by name! And what do we remember them for? Not for how they died; we remember them for how they lived. The success we have been blessed with…is it not due to the love and devotion, the care and concern our parents extended to us? They weren’t as well educated as we are, but they worked hard for us to be able to get our degrees. They weren’t as sophisticated as we are, but they taught us the importance of being a mentch. They took care of us—our bodies and of our souls.
Yizkor—we pause to remember them. They were not the rich and the famous. They were never stars in any game. All they were was mommy and daddy and bubbie and zaide…and all they did was make our world a better place. And they did it one by one by one.
As we relive this Shavuot our experience on Mt. Sinai and remember the healing that took place there, let’s hope to witness the fulfillment of the words of our prayers: r’fa-eynu Hashem v’neyrafey, “Heal us, Hashem, and we shall be healed,” as the Jewish people were healed at Sinai. Bila hamavet lanetzach u’macha dima meyal kol panim, “Gd will destroy death forever, He will wipe away tears from every face.” Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis