Parshat Mattot

Parshat Mattot
Saturday Morning
2011
1. Shabbat Shalom
2. The beginning of this week’s parsha is about vows and oaths. It is about the requirement that our word must be our bond. If you happened to see the Broadway play, “Jersey Boys” about the singing group, “The Four Seasons” you know that they had a string of musical hits in the early 1960’s and the agreement between them was never anything more than a handshake. There were no contracts nor obligations. From the beginning to the end, Frankie Vallie’s word was his bond.
3. Those days were different from today. Today, a verbal agreement is not worth the paper it is printed on. If you don’t have it in writing, you don’t have anything. And even if our agreement is written down, there are so many loopholes and legal dodges that even then we can’t really be sure that someone will fulfill his word. The local news is filled with horror stories of contractors and venders who signed contracts, took the money and skipped town.
4. But usually we don’t think about the U.S. Congress this way. Over the years, Congress has had all kinds of names thrown at it. Will Rogers used to say, “Hold on to your wallet, Congress is in session!” Others have compared Congress’s control of the National Budget as “putting the fox in charge of the hen house!” I am sure that we all remember, not very fondly, of the time that Congress shut down the government during the presidency of Bill Clinton and that the favor-ability rating of Congress was in the single digits. I have to tell you, that what we have seen over the past few months has been some of Congress’s most terrible times, and the country hovers near the brink of new financial meltdowns because of the mess they have created.
5. Television and radio, as well as our mailboxes, have been full of the foolishness that Congress has been producing lately. There was the Ryan plan that would make drastic cuts in Medicare. There are the changes in Medicaid that would affect health care for the poor and for children. There is talk about Social Security being near bankruptcy. All this in a series of attempts to balance the Federal budget and reduce the national debt. Now it seems that we are nearing, finally, the end of the debt limit talks. Where do we stand with all these issues that mean so much to us and to our families?
6. So if you listen to the dueling pundits on Fox News and MSNBC, you either think that the entitlements of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are the cause of our troubles or the only things that stand between us and the end of civilization as we know it. Day after day members of Congress and political commentators come out to tell us that either the only way to fix our country’s financial problems is to reduce the entitlements or to raise taxes. And it seems that neither option will be good for the country. If Congress is so split on the issues is there no way to really know what is the truth and what is exaggeration?
7. Do you know that Judaism has a lot to say about this entire process? Our faith already has the outline of a structure that can help us navigate the difficult waters ahead. If you think about it, the purpose of religion is to help us make difficult decisions and there are teachings in Judaism that can guide us as we try to resolve the stickiest financial problems that our country faces. Clearly, rabbis can’t tell Congress how to act nor can or should we be advising the President. But if we believe in the simple solutions of our faith, then we can and should speak to those who represent us and tell them we want to see some of these common sense solutions to restore our country’s financial footing.
8. Judaism looks at the entire entitlement picture differently. Judaism declares in many places, that we have obligations to others. The Talmud reminds us that saving a life is the same as saving the entire world. Jews are not allowed to live in a community that does not have adequate health care for all. Rambam teaches that if we find a person who is dying, we have an obligation to save him no matter if what we need to cure him physically, is with money or with knowledge. Rambam goes on to say that the reason there are drugs and cures is so that we may use them to heal those who are ill. The Shulchan Aruch teaches that you can sell the drugs to those in need but you are forbidden to raise the prices beyond what is appropriate, just because they are needed.
9. In modern times, the posek, “Tzitz Eliezer” teaches that every place a Jew lives, there must be set aside a fund to care for the sick. And when the poor need medical attention, the doctor is summoned and paid for out of this fund. The Torah teaches “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor”, which is taken to mean that we have to do everything to save someone from illness. Rabbi David Bleich, the famous Orthodox posek in the United States has written. “The community clearly has an obligation to provide for the medical needs of the indigent. This establishment of a fund to defray medical expenses represents both a needed social amenity as well a a charitable obligation, and the community is fully empowered to levy a tax for either purpose.”
10. When Judaism talks about “entitlements”, we are talking about what the poor and vulnerable in our society are entitled to. It is as simple as that. These programs are a vital part of a security web that insures that those most likely to fail will not fall though the cracks and suffer, due to the stinginess of those in power. The Torah teaches that God defends those who society will not defend and societies that do not look out for the poor and the weak, are soon undermined by these very elements of society that they have ignored. A fair tax to provide these services to those in need is not only appropriate, but an obligation for all members of society.
11. That being said, this does not mean that there is not waste and fraud in these programs. Remember, Social Security is almost 80 years old. Medicare and Medicaid date to the 1960’s. The world has changed a lot over these years. People live longer, There are many breakthroughs in medicine and technology that have changed the way we look at medical care. There are people who have long scammed these federal programs to illegally obtain federal funding that should go to those in need.
12. There is much waste in the way the funds are delivered. Both Social Security and Medicare have bloated bureaucracies that waste time and the money that should be going to help those in need. The health care bill that passed Congress last year is another example of how this legislation was cobbled together with the idea of political needs rather than the needs of those who require the services. A major overhaul of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is certainly something that we should welcome. But the overhaul needs to be conducted by those who are serving those in need. Politicians, seniors and service agencies should work together to craft a new way of providing Social Security. Politicians, doctors, and medical agencies need to streamline the Medicare, Medicaid and Health Care programs to provide a full range of coverage that takes into account the needs of all Americans. These programs should not be designed to make anyone wealthy, but to provide needed care at affordable prices to all citizens. We should also remember that if we exclude any segment of society from health care, including immigrants, the poor or those with severe medical conditions, we will be creating breeding grounds for many known and unknown communicable diseases. We would be well advised to cover everyone lest we all suffer an epidemic.
13. These programs need to be adequately funded. Frankly the tax structure in this country is as badly cobbled together as the social services are. If everyone paid their fair share of taxes, without exemptions and loopholes, we could all pay taxes at a lesser rate and it would not take two weeks to fill in the tax forms. A simpler system could mean that our fair share could be less than what we may pay today, although some who pay very little might find that they may have to pay more than they did in the past. I find it interesting that there are many famous wealthy people, led by Warren Buffet, who say that they really don’t mind paying more if it will help those in need and help the country.
14. Clearly the problem with entitlements is not the idea of society looking out for those who are in need; it is in the way our country has slapped together the system that is in place today. We must first affirm our vow to look after the weakest elements of society, an oath that their very lives depend upon. We should also take a new vow to be more deliberate in the way we provide for those in need and in the way we pay for them. In this manner we can fulfill our obligations to the elderly, poor, and defenseless in our communities and we can honestly fulfill our financial obligations to our country. The path to this kind of change will be long, hard and we must be persistent but the rewards for ourselves, for society and for those in need more than pay for the time and energy they may require. Let us live up to our commitments but let us do it smarter, better and fairly.
May God grant us the wisdom, faith and endurance to see our society change each day for the betterment of all citizens as we say….AMEN AND SHABBAT SHALOM
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