Most people don’t experience an existential crisis while labeling something, but those of you that know me know that, for better or worse, I am not most people. I had to make a label for one of the medical devices that was being lent out of Beth Shalom Medical Devices Lending Library - aka ‘the gemach’, a hebrew acronym of gimilut chasadim or ‘act of lovingkindness and humanity’.
The gemach was a little project that I created as a member just before the pandemic set in, and, along with the help of Chris Hall, Rich Feder, and Ronna Askin, went from an idea to a reality. The idea was really a simple one - my synagogue in Denver had a coat room. And in the coat room was a wheelchair. And I asked a few people about the wheelchair, and nobody seemed to know where it had come from or to whom it belonged. So I did what smart people do who have been around the block a few times - I asked the maintenance guy, JR, who’d worked there for 25 years. Pro tip - the two most important people at any institution are the longest tenured maintenance person and the receptionist. Be nice to them. They know everything, including, literally, where the bodies are buried. Anyhow, JR tells me that the wheelchair belonged to Betty, because she had two wheelchairs, so she left one at shul, and when she passed away, it just sat there, unused, for years.
Meanwhile, at roughly the same time, my wife Noa was finishing her third year as a physical therapy study at the University of Colorado, doing one of the many internship rotations that all medical professionals do. Her current rotation was doing home health PT - the kind of house-call medicine that doctors in the good old days of the 1950s were known for. But on at least a few occasions, she came home from her home health trips deeply shaken. She would enter someone’s house and be overwhelmed by that person’s life, and the degree of chaos that it was in. She visited people whose homes were filled with garbage. Homes with holes in walls or doors. Homes with visible rat droppings all over. Homes where the light and the heat had been turned off for non-payment. Homes where there was no food in the cupboard. And homes where the individual had been referred for physical therapy because this person needed to increase their mobility, but for lack of a walker, a wheelchair, or a wheeled walker known as a rollater, they really couldn’t do anything more than lie in bed all day or sit on the couch watching tv.
When my wife came upon a home in an advanced state such as this, she stopped wearing her physical therapist hat and she instead became an impromptu social worker. The exercises he planned to do were put aside, as the home health PTs called social services, and the electric company, and the hospital, and the primary care physician, to report on all the overlapping difficulties this person faced. A side note here, which is related to Dr. Jonathan Weinkle’s brilliant dvar torah from a few weeks ago, but the reason a person can get a home visit from a physical therapist easier than they can get food, heat, and home repairs is that our society’s social safety net is a mess. We decided decades ago that very poor people can get health care for free, and very old people can get a check for $256 a month, but there are massive gaps as to who is checking in on all the many other needs a person might have on maslows hierarchy, and of course that it requires people who know all the ins and outs of the system to get everything, but we haven’t prioritized or invested in those things for whatever reason. Medicaid and medicare, all faults aside, are two of the most functional, most interventionist safety nets we have, but they can’t do everything. Side note is now over.
As my wife continued on to becoming a physical therapist, she informed me that the system was still a mess, but in other ways. She regularly saw patients in her PT clinic who needed a wheelchair, but couldn’t get one, because they had already been given a rollator 18 months earlier by medicaid; or needed a walker, but their insurance wouldn’t cover it. And I immediately thought of Betty’s unused wheelchair in the coatroom at Rodef Shalom in Denver. I thought - there are hundreds of devices sitting in garages and basements and coat rooms all over America. And there are hundreds of Walters and Bettys and Derricks all around America, stuck in front of the TV for lack of a mobility assistance device. We ought to do something about that. So we did, and it’s good. We want to do a lot more and expand, but it’s a start. So far, we’ve collected a dozen devices and answered about six calls, and that’s a good start.
So I was going out on a call to deliver a rollator to a lady in Munhall, and I was labeling this thing. By the way, this was the cadillac of rollators. Clean handgrips, extra saddlebags for groceries, a nice seat cushion, a cupholder. I was thrilled we could provide this thing. And I labeled it so that after the loan it would hopefully be returned. But the reality of the medical gemach is that we’re mostly lending devices to people with serious physical decline, who are mostly very old. They aren’t likely to use the device, improve significantly, call me up and say ‘I don’t need this wheelchair rabbi - I’m going out dancing the chacha!’ If this loaner device ever comes back to me, it’s because the user has passed on from this world. And by the way, that’s the way most of these devices come to us. The interesting gmilut chassadim opportunity that the gemach presents is that, as a rabbi, I get to talk to a family donating wheelchairs and walkers when they’re cleaning out their dearly departed parents apartment and processing the loss, and also give them a sense that their father or mothers belongings will go to a good place and to a person who needs them. And then I get to hand the device off to someone who will give it a good use. Which brings me back to the label.
We call ourselves a lending library, but some of the devices we lend out, we likely won’t see for 5 or 10 years. Some devices we might never see again. So, how exactly is that a lending library? And why am I even putting a label on it if it may not return for another decade, or ever?
It reminded me of a principle that recurs frequently in the Hassidic literature that I am so very fond of - the battle between materialism and spirituality - gashmiut and ruchaniut. The tension is, of course, that Judaism constantly promotes a spiritual culture - Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh we say, rising up on our toes in order to emulate the angels. We step back three steps in order to disappear from this universe and three steps forward that we apparate into the Divine universe for our amidah prayers. We are not here in body, but in spirit alone. To quote the great hassidic master Sting, we are spirits in the material world. The hassidic attitude is that life in this reality is temporary - you can’t take it with you - so rather than focus on the acquisition of material possessions, one should maximize their spiritual capabilities.
A great hassidic story is told to illustrate the point:
Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonia, the ‘Baal HaToldot’ visited the house of the great Maggid Rabbi Dov Bear of Medzeritch. The house was noticeably, terribly poor in every way. A stool served as a chair, and a wooden crate was the only table.
Rabbi Yaakov Yosef asked the Maggid: ‘Where is your furniture, master?’
The Maggid replied with a question himself: ‘And where is your furniture, master?’
The Baal HaToldot was astonished: ‘My furniture? But I am only here as a passing visitor. My furniture is at home…’
The Maggid replied: ‘So too am I just a passing visitor in this world!’
The hassidic attitude is the gemach attitude - nothing belongs to us. We only rent our possessions for extended periods of time. We are all just passerbys in this world. This attitude closely mirrors a principle we see in the buddhist world - one of the four noble truths of the religion - the Buddha said that attachment, and especially the attachment to material objects, is the root of all suffering.
In this week’s Torah portion, we learn in the first line
וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית לַמָּאוֹר לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִיד׃
You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.
In explaining why they used extra virgin, lightly beaten clear oil and not the more common pressed oil, the Avnei Nezer, Rabbi Abraham Borznstain of Sochatchov, a student of the great and famous Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, taught the following:
The olives are pounded by a mortar and not grinded by millstones so that it should not contain sediment/pulp. And after one extracts the first drop, one can put it in a mill and grind it. This second oil is invalid for a menorah and permitted for a meal offering, as it is said ‘beaten for lighting’ but it does not say beaten for offerings (Rashi, based on Menachot 86a). What is the meaning of this? The light of the candles on the menorah are a metaphor for the Torah, and the Torah requires that everything be refined - without intermixing of the dregs. Just as the sediment befouls the clarity of the oil, so too materialism befouls the clarity of reason. And this befouling ultimately gives birth to error. Thus, in order to be worthy of the logic of Torah, a person needs to become separated from the material, from the sediment / dregs. Thus it was commanded of us to use pure olive oil, that there should be no sediment.
Becoming more detached from material items helps us to remember that stuff is temporary, and helps us to experience Torah in a state of pure reason. By extricating ourselves, at least on occasion from the material pursuits of life, we remember that people, relationships, community, spirituality, and good deeds are the central purpose of our existence. When we care less about our own possessions, we care more about the needs of others - we are more communal, and more spiritual.
Generally in life, the labels we put on our things remind us that those things belong to us. In our medical gemach, we label things to remind the recipient that they do not belong to the current holder of the item - that this rollator, or this walker, or this wheelchair, belongs to everyone, because it’s material nature transcends the individual and ascends to being communal. It is an item that is spiritually elevated - it is part of the act of gmilut chasadim, of Divine lovingkindness, because it is not restricted to the one, but available to the many. We do not let materialism befoul the clarity of reason.
The gemach, as you probably noted as I explained it earlier, is an unfortunate byproduct of a broken system. Beth Shalom isn’t really to be commended for filling in temporarily on a problem that our society has dropped on us - a disabled person that needs a wheelchair ought to be provided a damn wheelchair, without having to have the right insurance and regardless of whether they recently requisitioned a device 18 months prior. The fact that a rabbi in Squirrel Hill is collecting medical supplies in his basement isn’t really laudable - it’s a low down shame. It’s like the recurring story we see in the newspaper - “local kids hold bake sale and car wash to pay off student lunch debt.” The local news wants to spin it as a heart-warming tale of kids doing charity, but the pernicious underlying story is the real headline - there are families in this country that have to go into debt so their kids can get an apple and a baloney sandwich from the cafeteria. To that end, the gemach speaks to the greater purpose of being spiritual, and of eschewing materialism as an all-encompassing ethos and philosophy. The goal, short term, is to collect wheelchairs for those that need them. The goal, writ large, is to bring awareness to the injustices and systemic inequalities and hierarchical economic systems that create huge gaps between haves and have nots . The message of hassidut, and of Torah, is that if more of us are willing to create a society where we aren’t preoccupied by our furniture, then more people will have what they need. If more of us are preoccupied by worrying about those that lack food, or heat, or wheelchairs, then we can begin to construct a society in which none of those things is lacking, for anybody.