Tag Archives: Congress

Committed to the Cause

Last week saw the beginning of the 116th Congress of the United States, with Republicans controlling the Senate and Democrats controlling the House, and Mitch McConnell remaining in control as the Majority Leader of the Senate and Nancy Pelosi returning to the role of Speaker of the House. Additionally, we saw a record 102 women sworn in the House and 15 in the Senate. 36 women are freshman members of Congress; 23 Freshman House members are people of color. There are also currently more than 10 out openly LGBTQ members of Congress. We saw the first Muslim women and the first Native Americans sworn into Congress as well. This Congress is without a doubt the most swearinginbooksdiverse in our country’s history. CNN shared a picture of the variety of books that members of Congress chose to place their hands on when taking the oath of office. This included the Christian Bible, the Tanakh, the Book of Mormon, the Quran, the Buddhist Sutra, the Hindu Vera, and the Constitution itself. Locally, new members of Congress are veterans, former employees of the state department, and worked in previous presidential administrations.

I was mesmerized by the social media posts of these newest members of Congress, documenting the beginning of their tenure as elected officials, promising to represent, We the People. No matter our views on their positions or promises, their documenting this experience is truly incredible:

Or newly sworn-in Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer for Iowa’s First Congressional District:

Or Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who tweeted:

Or Congressman Brian Mast, a military veteran who congratulated two new freshman members of Congress who are also military veterans with the tweet:

To see these individuals enter a leadership role is a reminder of the power that each of us has to become leaders. Parashat Va’era focuses on the first seven of the ten plagues that fall upon the people of Egypt. Prior to those ten plagues though, the Torah recounts the genealogy of Aaron and Moses, linking them all the way back to Jacob’s children, and in doing so, linking the leaders of this exodus narrative to our biblical patriarchs and matriarchs that made up much of the Genesis narrative. Exodus 6:20 notes Amram took to wife his father’s sister Yocheved and she bore him Aaron and Moses. The Torah then says something a bit odd:

This is the same Aaron and Moses to whom God said, ‘Bring forth the Israelites from the land of Egypt, tribe by tribe. It was they who spoke to Pharaoh, King of Egypt, to free the Israelites from the Egyptians; these are the same Moses and Aaron (Ex. 6:26-27).

Most biblical commentators wonder why the Torah awkwardly states that “these are the same Moses and Aaron.” Rashi explains that the reason it is repeated and stipulated that these are the same Moses and Aaron is because the Torah is clarifying that they remain committed to their cause. Quoting Tractate Megillah of the Babylonian Talmud, Rashi writes: They remained in their mission and in their righteousness, from beginning until the end.

It is common for leaders to change, to become different people than they were when they rose to leadership. Most elected officials end up disappointing us, because they change their views, because they don’t live up to campaign promises – many of which were unattainable to begin with, because they might cozy up to lobbyist and special interests, or because they are more concerned with reelection than they are with governing or passing legislation.

So let us pray that the members of the 116th Congress live up to the values found in the books that they placed their hands on as they were sworn into office. Let us pray that they live up to the ideals of the Constitution that they promised to protect. And let us pray that they, like Moses and Aaron, remain the same people they were before the titles “Representative” or “Senator” were place in front of their names. May they still be driven by the same mission; may they live a life full of the same righteousness. And may they be guided by the same principles. May they not become burnt out, or corrupted, or influenced, or bigheaded. Instead, may they be who they were meant to be. These are the same people as they were before, the Torah tells us. May they lead. And may our nation be better off as a result.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Do Not Stand Idly By…

This article was originally published on May 10th, 2017, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

This past week, we had a different sort of Shehechiyanu moment. My three-year-old son was the first of our children to visit the emergency room, after slicing his finger on a sharp piece of metal. He’d return with quite the souvenir: five stitches. He was proud. He showed off his bandage of gauze and medical tape like he was a hero, and this was a necessary battle scar. As parents, my spouse and I worried and panicked. And yet, looking back, we realized that this was something small, only a laceration, and we are grateful that such an emergency room visit was a minor expense, literally a couple of bills in my wallet. I also understand that his handful of stitches on a small finger pale in comparison to the serious illnesses and diseases that others at the hospital were being treated for. I am grateful that we now live in a country where someone cannot be denied healthcare or treatment because of lack of finances or because of pre-existing conditions. I fear that this reality will change.

This past Shabbat, we read the joint Torah portion of Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, which began with the command “be Holy, for I, the Lord, Your God, am Holy.” Such a command means that we must see everyone as holy and see the divine spark within each person. Therefore, denying the rights of any individual means that one refuses to acknowledge the holiness of that person, and denies that they are made in the image of God. If we are to all strive to be holy like God, then we must strive to treat each individual in the same way our faith teaches us to treat God, with sanctity, honor, and respect.

In Tractate Taanit of the Babylonian Talmud, we learn of Abba Umana, the surgeon who saves lives. The text compares him to Abaye and Rava, to great rabbis who appear throughout the Talmud and offer their own rabbinic teachings. Abaye and Rava often offer differing opinions, but it’s their opinions that often conclude rabbinic debate about a topic. More often than not, it was Abaye’s opinion that was deemed correct. Still, Abba Umana is seemingly seen as more sacred than these learned rabbis. It is taught here that Rava would receive greetings every year on Yom Kippur from the celestial beings, the angels on high, and God. The same text teaches that Abaye, whose teachings the people sided with far more than Rava, would receiving greetings from God weekly, on Shabbat evening. Abba Umana though, the surgeon, would receive these greetings every day. Abaye, upset by this wants to know why Abba Umana encounters God more frequently than he — an incredible rabbi and scholar — does. The celestial beings respond to him that “he cannot do what Abba Umana is able to do”, referring to saving a life. This helps us to understand how important and essential healthcare is in the eyes of the Talmud.

In addition to the command to be holy in last Shabbat’s Torah reading, we are also commanded “do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood” (Lev. 19:15). In Tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud, we find an interpretation of this verse. The Talmud says that one must go out of one’s way to save a neighbor from danger. In fact, the Talmud says that one must even use one’s own resources to hire another individual to help assist and care for this person. The Talmud in this case is pretty clear: we have an obligation to ensure that all receive medical care, even if that means that our costs ensure that our neighbors who are ill get the medical treatment that they need and deserve.

The Torah is clear that we must do all that we can to prevent further harm to our neighbors. The Talmud goes into great detail about how we must ensure the health and safety of our neighbors, and even sees medical treatment as a holy and sacred act, with medical professionals placed on a higher level than Torah scholars. The Shulchan Aruch, often referred to as the leading Jewish law code and most widely cited law code, also confirms our halachic obligation to ensure everyone receives the healthcare they need and deserve. The Shulchan Aruch teaches that taking care of those who are ill is a religious obligation and that if a physician withholding treatment is the equivalent of bloodshed (YD 336:1). The text adds that if there is medicine that will help a sick individual, one is forbidden from charging more than what is appropriate for that medicine (YD 336:3).

I can’t speak about all the details of the latest version of the AHCA because I, like most people, haven’t read it in its entirety. I can’t speak to the economic impact it would have on our country, because the House voted on it before the CBO scored it. I can only speak as a rabbi, regarding what I believe the Torah, Talmud, and Halacha teach us. We are taught that it is our responsibility to do whatever we can to save a life. We are taught that saving a life is so important it supersedes every other mitzvah. The values of our Torah are meaningless if they do not guide us to act. Therefore, I am saddened by the House of Representative’s vote last week that makes it harder and more expensive for those with pre-existing conditions to get health care coverage. This hurts the poor and the elderly more than anyone else, but it especially hurts anyone with a pre-existing condition. And this hurts all of us, because when a law is passed that denies the rights of an individual to be treated, that denies the holiness of that individual, we fail to live up to our responsibility and obligation. When a law is passed that is antithetical to who we are as Jews and to what we stand for, then we must take a stand. We cannot stand idly by. One who saves a life, saves the world. Let us do all in our power to ensure that many lives, and many worlds are saved.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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My Response to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

I’ve officially been nominated three times – by my brother Rabbi Avi Olitzky, by my colleague Rabbi Dahlia Bernstein, and my friend Adam Shapiro – to participate in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Many more have asked wondered where my video is, wanting to know why they haven’t yet seen me embarrass myself on YouTube by pouring ice water on my head. It’s not that I’m against pouring a bucket of ice over my head. 

ice-bucketThis challenge, to raise money to cure ALS and to raise awareness for what ALS – Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease – is, has taken social media by storm. In just a couple of weeks, it has raised well over $42 million for the ALS Association. Athletes, former Presidents, even Oprah has poured a bucket of water on their head to raise awareness. Incredible. 

Yet, I question the need of so many to get a thrill out of this challenge, to make it about pouring a bucket of ice on your head instead of about ALS. When kids take turn challenging each other, without learning what ALS is or what they can do to raise awareness, I wonder if we have lost sight of the point of this challenge. It is true that it shouldn’t matter what people are doing to raise money and raise awareness. With only roughy 12,000 people in the United States affected by ALS, raising awareness is just as important as raising money. 

I know many fighting ALS. I also know others fighting some not-so-well-known degenerative neurological disorders such as PLS (Primary Lateral Sclerosis) and Huntington’s Disease, which hits particularly close to home as my father-in-law passed away over six years ago as a result of HD. I know firsthand the importance of educating and raising awareness, for awareness leads to action. Action cannot be just dumping a bucket of water on your head. If you want to dump water on your head, then do it. But this challenge cannot be and either-or scenario. You cannot either dump water on your head or donate. You must dump water on your head and donate. 

We are commanded to donate. We are command to help someone when they are in need. We should not ignore their pain and suffering. After all, we read only weeks ago in Deuteronomy 15:7:

If there is a someone in need among you, do not harden your heart and shut out the person. Open your hand and lend him whatever he needs

This viral sensation has done exactly that by raising millions to help those in need. Yet, we cannot ignore the charge found only verses before in Deuteronomy 15:4:

There shall be no needy among you

We must strive to rid this world of such devastating diseases and illnesses as well. So, while $40+ million is remarkable, that won’t do it. Such fundraising is only a drop in the bucket – pun intended.

According to NBC News, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) gives out roughly $30 billion in medical research. Not only has Congress failed to increase the NIH budget to keep up with inflation, it has also slashed its budget by over 20%, over $6 billion, over the past decade. As a result, the NIH has cut in half the number of research funding grant it now approves, making it even more difficult to provide cutting edge medical treatment for these devastating diseases and making it more of a challenge to work towards a cure for these illnesses. 

So despite our best efforts, despite our viral campaigns and use of social media, despite our willingness to dump ice water on our heads, despite our attempt to truly follow the command of Deuteronomy 15:7 — to help those in need — we have a long way to go to fulfill our commitment to make Deuteronomy 15:4 a reality. We cannot forget about our charge to end illness, to end disease, to find a cure.

I donated money to ALS research, as well as Huntington’s Disease research, but I have another challenge for all of you. Dump a bucket of ice on your head if you really want to, but donate as well. However, that is not the challenge. I challenge you to also write your congressional representatives. Call them. Vote. Ask them to increase the budget of the NIH. If they refuse, ask them to explain to you why they won’t. Ask them to explain where money going towards medical research, money towards finding a cure, would be better spent. To make real change, we can’t just donate. To make real change, congress needs to recommit to supporting the National Institutes of Health. 

Let us live in a world where we aren’t just committed to giving tzedakah, but committed to curing pain, suffering, and illness. Let us live in a world where there shall be no needy. I’ll certainly pour a bucket of ice on my head for that! 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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