Barney Frank leaving a town-hall meeting on health-care reform this week.(Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
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Brothers’ Keepers

A Torah portion of speaking up and standing out

Liel Leibovitz
August 21, 2009
Barney Frank leaving a town-hall meeting on health-care reform this week.(Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

It’s August, dear readers, and the temperature, at least here in Manhattan, has climbed into registers more befitting a slow-cooking boeuf bourguignon approaching its third hour than a human being trying to make it through the day.

The political climate is even hotter. Every town seems to hold town hall meetings, and in every town hall a gaggle of goons, screaming and making obscene charges, turns up the heat some more.

I would hate, dear readers, to add to the exhaustion and exasperation this summer has wrought. I would feel terrible knowing I’ve contributed yet another voice to the cacophonous choir screaming from every channel on air. And so, let us abandon the ides of summer for something completely different.

Like Moses.

If President Obama thinks the gun-toting maniacs lurking outside his public appearances are a tough lot to govern, he should take a peek at Deuteronomy; both physically and politically, the Israelites’ desert makes Washington’s swamps seem cool and calm in comparison.

Increasingly weary, nearing the end of his term and the end of his life, Moses speaks to the people. And as he orates, his tone grows angrier, more impatient. He has no time for platitudes. What he doesn’t get across, he realizes, might be forgotten as soon as he passes away. He speaks in growingly strong sentences.

Here’s one, from this week’s parasha, a short quip that had since come to adorn many a synagogue wall. “Justice,” Moses booms, “justice shall you pursue.”

To hear the aging leader tell it, it’s a fairly simple pursuit. As long as we are truthful and diligent, as long as we take great care before we wildly throw around accusations, as long as we respect and obey the hierarchy we set in place to govern us and adjudicate in our quarrels, we’ll be just fine.

Reading Moses’s dictates, however, it’s hard not to find oneself back in the present moment, in the thicket that is the debate over health-care reform. The pursuit of justice, the curbing of baseless accusations, the basic respect for our institutions, these are the fronts on which we fail miserably.

Consider the business of death panels. Distorting language in the proposed health care bill that seeks to require Medicare to cover counseling sessions on sensitive end-of-life issues if a person wishes to receive such consultation, Republicans—most notably former vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin and Sen. Chuck Grassley—have been assiduously and insidiously promoting the patently false idea that the government was secretly interested in erecting committees that would determine who among the old and fragile is simply too expensive to be kept alive.

Or the equally hideous canard that health care reform is really just one big front for a devilish plan to divert federal funding into abortions. Having pulled the plug on grandma, goes this libelous logic, the government is now looking for ways to end little babies’ lives before they even begin. That the proposed bill says nothing about overriding the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal money for abortions, seems to matter not at all to the kooks who carry signs like “No Tax $$$ for Killing Babies.”

As many of the loudest liars purport to be religious folk, and as the Hebrew Bible is a staple both Jews and Christians share, here’s an idea: instead of repeating the scandalous allegations and giving them undue credibility, the media should consider running instead this week’s Torah portion. If it’s too long, or the language too archaic, here’s a fair summary: enough with the malicious falsehoods. Enough with the rabid disrespect for members of the House. Enough with the violent overtones, like the ones William Kostric, an armed New Hampshire citizen, menacingly expressed outside an Obama speech recently when he said, ominously, that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time by the blood of tyrants and patriots.”

In even simpler terms, enough.

But this week’s parasha carries not only a condemnation of those who are malicious but also delivers a warning to those who witness evil and do nothing to stop it. Detailing the ceremony of Egla Arufa, or decapitated calf, Moses speaks of a particular form of sacrifice a community could perform to atone for bloodletting it was not able to stop. Even if the community’s members are innocent of the murder itself, by failing to prevent it they are nonetheless tainted with endless guilt.

Before an evil wingnut raises his arms and takes a shot at a congressman, before a town hall debate turns bloody, before more harm is inflicted, we must realize that it is we, no less than the maniacs, who are responsible for this intolerably hot summer. If we don’t intervene, if we don’t—regardless of our political worldviews—silence the lies and curb the violence, we may find ourselves with a chronicle of a death very much foretold.

But, dear readers, it’s summer – did I mention it? – and a thundering speech is far too stifling for such temperatures. Let us end, then, on a lighter note, with an example of just how we all should act and sound when encountered with our unhinged brethren. Barney Frank, the stage is all yours:

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.