Emor: The Poor and The Stranger and Health Care

"Prague," by Joshua Barnett, via Flickr.com (Creative Commons License)

The Torah never fails to impress us. There, in the midst of a passage that outlines a sacred festival calendar and additional rules, regulations and offerings, comes a small but powerful verse that leaps centuries. In Leviticus 23:22 we read a verse , the context of which is related to harvesting crops once the Israelites enter Canaan. “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor (“oni”) and the stranger (“ger”): I am God.”
Of course, the context of the verse reflects the time and situation of when this verse was written. However, it is interesting to see hoe commentators looked at this injunction to leave some of the harvest for those who are lacking. This verse, and the morality behind it, has found its way into the current debate on health care reform. Simply put, does society have a moral obligation to provide that which is lacking to those in need? And, it should come as no surprise to find that modern scholars have written on this issue, and have been doing so for decades. An overview of several approaches to the health care debate gleans a mood of response that says that a Jewish approach to health care should be based on a value of “tzedek” or justice. A “just” society needs to provide for all of its people, especially for those in society who lack essential needs. In other words, there has to be a basic foundation that guarantees health care to all. In his “In Matters of Life and Death” (JPS. 1998) Elliot Dorff writes that “While the specific form of health care system may vary, Jewish ethics definitely demands that American Jews work to ensure that the United States, as a society, provides health care to everyone in some way.”
Another contemporary scholar, Dr. Jeff Levin, of Baylor Univ. wrote an essay that sought to catalogue ten basic values that should inform the debate. He echoed the need for a just system based on the idea of our being created “tzelem elohim”, in God’s image and thus, we are called to model that relationship. The people who lack basic necessities (the poor) or the stranger need to be included as they may be lacking in these basic needs. Levin, in his essay, “Jewish Ethical Themes That Should Inform the National Healthcare Debate” (in “Judaism and Health”. Jewish Lights. 2013) writes that “however we choose as individuals, as communities or as a nation to work that out, a Jewish understanding is that we most certainly are obliged to act, without reservation”.
This debate will continue. The Leviticus verse from Emor provides us with another textual basis to see the health care reform debate within a context of Jewish texts and tradition. I urge your congregation or organization to look at these texts as a basis for relevant and timely discussions. This is an issue that will impact each of us and our families.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Richard F Address

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