THE BLOG
11/10/2014 03:45 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2015

Learning From Abraham: Why I Stand With the Nurses

Yesterday I visited the hospital. While this is not remarkable in and of itself, as I visit people in the hospital all of the time as part of my job, yesterday I went for a different reason. I was invited to stand with the nurses of Huntington Memorial Hospital, in Pasadena, CA, in their quest to organize themselves and fight for better working conditions and better patient care for the thousands of people they serve 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

I gave an opening prayer, and then several nurses spoke about their challenges in trying to improve their work life. I was proud that Congresswoman Chu and Pasadena City Councilman Victor Gordo came and spoke strongly, that other clergy were in attendance and that several members of my synagogue, in their different professional capacities, were also there. In describing their challenges, several of the nurses, men and women, were in tears because they are facing such tremendous push back from the Huntington Memorial Hospital administration. Anyone who has ever been in the hospital, or cared for loved ones in the hospital, know how important and dedicated nurses are. I can't tell you how many times I have heard that nurses are the ones to befriend and work with in getting the best care in a hospital setting, of course with no offense to any doctors in the pews! While I could give a whole sermon on healthcare and how our country continues to lag behind every developed country in regard to quality and affordable healthcare being available to all citizens, that is not my subject now. This is about the right of workers to organize for a better workplace, a right that is a stalwart component of Jewish values, and a part of the Torah we cherish. And, when read in this context, can be found in the words of the portion this week, when Abraham challenges God to act justly.

In one of the more famous moments between Abraham and God, we read of the debate about the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah. God decides that Sodom is a place filled with evil and must be wiped out. Abraham engages in a back and forth with God, "Will You sweep away the innocent with the guilty? What if there are fifty innocent within the city...?" The debate goes on, down to 10, and within it, Abraham continues to repeat the line, "far be it for You to do such a thing." And, at the beginning of this interaction, Abraham has the audacity to say, in an oft-quoted verse in regard to social justice and modern day efforts, "Shall the Judge of all the earth not act justly? Ha'shofet kol ha'aretz lo ya'aseh mishpat?" (Gen. 18:25) Abraham is not willing to stand by and allow God to act in a way that is unjust, even in a place that is filled with lawlessness and evil. While I love this interaction, and know how important a role it plays in our understanding of what it means to be Jews, and therefore defenders and agitators for tzedek and mishpat, for righteousness and just laws, it is one word at the beginning of this dialogue that interests me most in relationship to the nurses that I stood with yesterday.

The Torah uses the word "va'yigash" in describing how Abraham came before God. In the literal sense, it just means "and he approached/drew near." However, you may recognize this word "va'yigash," because it is the name of another Torah portion that we will read in just a few weeks, near the end of Genesis. There, it is Judah approaching the master of Egypt, a man that he doesn't know is his brother Joseph. In commenting on that word in the context of Judah and Joseph, Midrash Rabbah says that Judah "drew close emotionally as well as physically." (Gen. Rabbah 93:4). The chasidic master known as S'fat Emet takes it further when he says that "va'yigash" means, "Judah approached himself," namely that he discovered who he really was in that moment. Like Judah, I think we can understand the use of the word "va'yigash" in our story of Abraham in a similar fashion.

Abraham approaches God to fight for justice and in doing so, finds himself. Obviously, this is a complicated self, as just a few chapters later, at the end of this parsha, we have the binding of Isaac, where many people, over many generations, question why Abraham took such a strong position on Sodom and didn't raise any argument when asked to potentially sacrifice his son. That is for another post! However, for us, in this moment, we learn that even God is held to the high standards of justice and righteousness, and Abraham is not afraid to go toe-to-toe.

I stood with the nurses yesterday, and became even more disturbed when we went in to deliver a letter to the administration of the hospital and were stopped by security, because hardworking people deserve the right to have decent pay, safe conditions, and in the case of the hospital, better treatment for the patients. Fighting unions and organizing has been a hallmark of big business since the advent of workers rights at the beginning of the 20th century.

Jews fought for justice in the tenements and in the garment industry; Jews were some of the strongest, and early, labor leaders, and Jews continued to stand with those in need, whether during the Civil Rights movement, against apartheid in South Africa, and today leading the charge against genocide in many African countries. We are not afraid to stand up and speak out; in fact, we know that because of Abraham, in this Torah portion, we are obligated to stand up and speak out. We might not win every fight, as we know Sodom was eventually destroyed, but we don't shy away from the debate. I will continue to stand with the nurses, and all of those in the hospital fighting for better conditions, because that is what Abraham teaches me to do. Many of the nurses were in tears as they described how hard it is to care for their patients without adequate breaks, with insufficient supplies, by being understaffed and having wages cut. There are classic union busting tactics taking place, which I witnessed firsthand as security refused to let me and three other clergy leaders join the nurses to deliver the signed letters. A hospital is not just a business, but it is a place of caring and deep healing. Will the Judge of all the Earth not act justly?

Do you know why, according to the midrash, God was so upset with Sodom? While we might think it was about sexual immorality, based on certain readings of the text, the rabbinic commentators say that greed and a blatant disregard for human rights were the gravest sins of Sodom. Like the Tower of Babel a few weeks ago, where we learn that the builders of the tower cried when a brick fell and broke but just kept working when a human fell and died, the people of Sodom were known to be uncaring, unkind, greedy and ugly human beings. Abraham still fought, just in case there were innocent, namely good, people, in their midst. Allowing the bottom line, allowing wealth and greed, and lack of basic human decency to drive our businesses, our policies and our at the highest level, our government, is only going to lead us down the road of the tower and Sodom: destruction.

While I was standing with the nurses, you may have heard about the story I will leave you with. A 90-year-old man, Arnold Abbott, was arrested earlier this week in Florida for feeding the homeless. A new ordinance in Broward County stipulates that nobody may feed homeless people in pubic. Abbott was told by police to drop his plate of food and put his hands in the air. He faces up to sixty days in jail. Sodom was a place with laws like this. When asked why he was feeding people, he said, "I believe I am my brother's keeper." We read that verse a few weeks ago too. The same can be said for why I was standing with the nurses. Obviously, as a community and as a nation, we have much work to do. Lets be like Abraham, approaching God and humans alike, to fight for justice, kindness, righteousness and goodness. In doing so, we may, like Judah, discover who we really are meant to be in this life.