And earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice. (Merchant of Venice act 4, scene 1)
This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 8/27/16 –
I would like you to think with me for a few minutes this morning about two starkly contrasting stories that came out of the health care industry this week. On the one hand if you follow the news you heard a lot about the epipen. This is the mechanism that will quickly inject medication into someone’s thigh if they are having a serious allergic reaction. The best example probably is allergy to bees – if you are highly allergic to bees and you are stung it can be very dangerous, even life threatening. So you carry an epipen with you. If you are stung, you inject yourself with the device and the allergic reaction is stopped. Just out of curiosity – how many people in the room have an epipen?
This week, Mylan, the pharmaceutical company that makes the epipen, announced a fairly significant price hike in the device, which will now cost you around $600 for two pens. The public outrage was immediate and vociferous. Internet campaigns were launched, social media was brought to bear, and just Thursday the company announced that they would give some consumers access to coupons which would make the devices more affordable. But they didn’t change the price – that stayed at the $600 level. And the fear is that some families will not be able to afford the devices which I believe are supposed to be replaced every year – and that potentially someone will need it and not have. That is story number one.
The second story is the opposite side of that coin. In Orlando the major health care network and the hospital where many of the shooting victims from the Pulse nightclub were treated announced they would not charge the victims for any of the services they provided. Health insurance they’ll take – whatever it pays will go to the hospital. But the patients will not be asked to cover any additional costs.
Now on the surface, just in and of itself, it is an odd thing to see those two stories sitting side by side in your morning newspaper. And I don’t mean to suggest that the pharmaceutical company should give up all of its profits and do its work purely for charitable purposes. To me it is a question of a number of things. Balance is one of them – what is the proper balance? If you are in an industry where you are creating life saving medications, how much should you be making? Should you be making profit to the point where some people will not be able to afford you medication? How much is enough? How much is maybe too much?
The idea of ‘doing well and doing good’ has been floating around in the business world now for a number of years. I remember that as far back as 2009 Bill Gates, the multibillionaire founder of Microsoft, began to publicly talk about the idea of large corporations figuring out how to make money and maximize prophets, while at the same time maintaining a conscience and a sense of social justice. His argument was that doing good – in other words, giving something back, and making the world a better place – in the end will enable the business to do well, also – to make money and be profitable.
That idea always struck me as a very Jewish idea. Judaism never – at least in any serious way – was attracted to asceticism, to giving up all of your worldly possessions. In fact Judaism says there is nothing wrong with doing well – it is something you should strive for, that material goods and wealth are not inherently bad or immoral – they can in fact enhance the quality of your life. At the same time Judaism does remind us of the importance of giving back, mostly through its idea about tzedakah, the giving of charity, considered in the tradition to be a commandment that every person must fulfill. So in Judaism it is about balance – you should certainly strive to do well, to succeed and be financially comfortable. But as you do well, you should also do good – have a social conscience, make the world a better place, and give something back along the way.
In this morning’s Torah portion there is one of those verses that just captures my attention in a particular way. I do in my life – and I know may of you do as well – try to figure out what God wants of me. What are the actions I can take in the course of a day, or in the course of a year, or in the course of a life, that would cause God to look down and say ‘that was pretty well done.’ B+ And in this morning’s portion there is one of those verses that raises that question, and answers it. מה ה׳ א׳ שואל מעמך – what is it that the Lord your God requires of you? Asks of you? And the answer the Torah gives is this: to love God, to serve God with all of your heart and soul, and to keep God’s commandments.
Now, as they say in the vernacular today, TBH – what does that mean? To be honest, although I like the question quite a bit, I am not a big fan of the answer. Not that I reject it – I understand the idea that you need to have a spiritual life, that tradition and faith and God should play a role in determining who you are. What I don’t like about the answer is that it doesn’t give me any practical information that I can take with me when I go out into the world. It just all sounds a bit vague to me – ‘serve God with my heart and soul, keep God’s commandments’ – I want some specifics.
Luckily for me there is another verse – a very famous verse – which echoes the verse from this morning’s Torah portion that gives me the specifics I am looking for. It comes from the prophet Micah, we read it as part of the haftara just a few weeks ago, it is the concluding verse of that haftara. And in that verse Micah the prophet asks the same question the Torah is asking this morning – מה ה׳ דורש ממך – what is it that Lord requires of you? And then the famous answer – Only to do justice, to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.
As you may imagine there is a wealth of commentary on that one verse – pages and pages and pages. I’ve always understood the three parts working together, in two ways. First, if you apply the ideas of justice and goodness to everything that you do, at the end of the day you will be able to walk humbly with God. This is classic Jewish thought! Do what you are supposed to do, do things the right way, and the rest will follow.
But also you need to have both justice and goodness to bring God’s presence into the world. Justice and goodness are very different animals. Justice is cold, calculating – think of the image of the scales of justice, always held by a woman, and the woman is always blindfolded – justice is impartial, at least in theory. So it shouldn’t matter if someone is rich or poor, black or white, it simply is what it is.
But that kind of blind justice needs to be tempered by, combined with, mixed up in goodness. It is when justice and goodness are working together that a sense of the sacred can be felt in our world. It is not just about doing it by the books. It is also about doing it the right way, with goodness and kindness and mercy. It is not just about doing well – it is also very much about doing good. May we all remember that – as individuals, as a synagogue community, and even in the corporate world, a place where maybe that idea is needed most.