4 Oct


Rosh Hashanah 5772

Brooklyn Heights Synagogue

Rabbi Molly G. Kane

Our creation story that we read today asserts,

V’yivar elohim et ha’adam b’tzalmo b’tzelem elohim.

And God created human beings in God’s image.


What does this verse mean?

If we are created in the image of God,

why do our bodies suffer sometimes?

If God has lasted in this world for thousands of years,

why won’t we?

Why won’t our families, our friends,

members of our community?


The Rabbis wondered the same thing

and understood the concept of b’tzelem elohim

not as a description of the physical likeness

between humanity and God,

but rather as evidence of the divinity inherent in each human being.

Meaning, when we try and ensure the well-being for all individuals

we perpetuate the divine presence in this world.

And when we cause injury to others we

diminish God’s presence.


When we suffer it seems that God suffers too.

A rabbinic text asks, “When a person suffers,

what language does God use?”

God’s response:

“My head is too heavy! My arm is too heavy!”

God’s arms are heavy with the weight of our pain.

Just like we often feel the weight of our loved one’s pain

when they suffer.

We pray, we care for them, we hope to ease their suffering.

We wish we could heal them.

Yet, so often we have to rely on

doctors, nurses, and other caregivers,

to provide the healing.

This type of surrender can be tough.


A few years ago my sister suffered from

terrible vertigo and nausea and could not get out of bed.

The symptoms resulted from a flare up of her multiple sclerosis.

I went to her apartment on the upper west side to take care of her.

After seeing her condition,

it became clear she needed to go to the hospital.

I called 911 and described the situation.

They told me an ambulance would be on its way.

We waited for perhaps 30-40 minutes and no ambulance arrived.

I felt so helpless. And began to brainstorm…

Maybe I could carry her down to the lobby

and we could get into a cab?

Maybe the building had a wheelchair we could use?

But she was so dizzy and so nauseous

she couldn’t be moved.

I called 911 again.

They told me unless the situation was life-threatening

we would just have to wait.

So we continued to wait.

And I continued to feel helpless.

All I wanted was to make my sister feel better.

Finally after an hour or so the medics arrive

and transported my sister and I to Mt. Sinai hospital.

My sister was wheeled in

and transported to a bed at the

entrance of the emergency room.

And then we waited to be checked in.

I was shocked by the chaos in the room.

Beds with patients in every corner of space available.

Nurses upset and cranky at the disarray.

No one had the time or the patience

to take care of one more patient,

namely my sister.

And again, I felt helpless.

She was still in so much distress.


Luckily, my sister works at Mt. Sinai in their fundraising department

and after several phone calls to her boss from my mother

she received the attention that she needed.

Fortunately for her, she had a “connection.”

But, I wondered about all the others,

desperately in need of care in that overcrowded emergency room.


Being sick is hard enough,

but then having to seek care from a system

that is unable to put a patient’s needs first

is all the more unbearable.


Our tradition teaches,

that the provision of medical care is a mitzvah.

Not an optional mitzvah based on

medical history, health insurance, or financial situation.

A commandment, something that one is obligated to do.

In the Jewish law code, Shulchan Aurkh, Joseph Caro writes,

“The Torah gave permission to the physician to heal;

moreover, this is a religious precept

and is included in the category of saving life,

and if the physician

(and I would also add today an insurance company)

with holds services, it is considered as shedding blood…”


Our belief that human beings

are created in the image of God

serves as the theological foundation to save life.

And for this reason the Talmud states,

that whoever destroys a single soul

it’s as if this person had destroyed a complete world;

and whoever preserves a single soul,

it’s as if this person saved a complete world.


This is what Judaism prescribes as good healthcare.

A system devoted to saving lives.

A system that sees every living soul

as divine and therefore deserving of

compassion, treatment, and care.


This past spring my girlfriend Michelle’s 91 year-old

Grandfather passed away.

Abba Noach, as he is known in the family

survived the holocaust,

made aliyah to Israel after the war,

and then ultimately came to the United States

to raise his family in Brooklyn.

He became ill in early December.

The first hospital he received care from

failed to treat his initial symptoms correctly.

Their attitude was that because he was old

it was not necessary to take all the steps they could to treat him.

Due to the lack of care,

an additional infection emerged in his body.

The family moved him to a second hospital

in order to get him better care

This hospital did not change his diaper and sheets regularly,

ordered wrong medication,

and several times sent hospice to the room

who suggested a morphine drip

despite the families insistence

over and over for him to be treated.

Michelle did her own research to find cures for his infections.

She googled his symptoms and diagnosis

and read several medical journals online.

She presented what she found to his doctors.

And as result, they prescribed a new course of action.

The same doctors who repeatedly had said

there was no way to treat his infection

used Michelle’s research to prescribed a different treatment.

This did not ultimately save his life,

but it did stop the infection from growing.


We do not need to feel like props or scenery

in the hospital rooms of our loved ones.

We should not have to feel helpless in a system meant to help.


I recently attended a funeral where the former mayor

David Dinkins spoke and said,

“We have no power over death,

but we certainly have power over life.”

We should use that power to overhaul

a broken system that is meant for saving lives.

Jewish law mandates the establishment of funds for the sick

and forbids the reappropriation of this money

for any other purposes.

Joseph Caro rules,

that it is forbidden to charge

more than the appropriate price for medicine

that a sick person needs.

Even if the sick person agrees to a high price out of urgent need,

and the medicine is no where else to be found

one can still only accept the appropriate price.

An Italian Jewish doctor and Rabbi from the 18th century stated,

“It has been enacted that in every place in which Jews live,

the community sets aside a fund for care of the sick.

When poor people are ill and cannot afford medical expense,

the community sends them a doctor to visit them,

and the medicine is paid for by the communal fund.”

Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven of Gerona know as the Ran

who lived in Barcelona in the 14th century noted that

these funds that are set aside

are not just for the poor of the community,

but for the poor of the world.

Meaning that every person’s health is everyone’s responsibility.


When we pray for healing for the sick

as a community we follow through on this responsibility.

We can also hold ourselves accountable to each other’s health

by being God’s partners in healing.

Faith alone does not help to mend broken systems.

We must also act and speak out

using our tradition

as a guide to help promote change.

A midrash reminds,

that not only did God create humans in God’s likeness,

But God also gifted us with reason, intellect, and understanding.

And perhaps, we need to use these divine gifts,

at this critical time of debate over healthcare to

find creative solutions to problems longing for resolution.


Illness and death are hard enough,

we should not have to also then worry about healthcare bills,

hours on the phone with health insurance companies,

and worry about getting the best care.


Seeing the divine image in every human being can be tough.

But we must try.

And creating a healthcare system

that uses b’tzelem elohim as its driving value

might seem impossible.

But here too we can try…

because it seems that our lives depend on it.


Shanah Tovah.










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