On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: Breaking Barriers and Saving Lives - Parashat B'haalot'cha

In this week’s ParashahB'haalot'cha, Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses - leading to Miriam's affliction of leprosy. When Moses sees his sister’s illness he exclaims “Oh God, please heal her!" Rabbi Rick Jacobs and his guest, Dr. Raphael Walden, explore what it means to both spiritually and literally heal the world, regardless of the boundaries that lie before us. And as Dr. Walden’s story proves, sometimes building bridges, saving lives, and creating connections can happen even in the most unlikely times and places.

Three ways to listen:


[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. Some weeks, he has a guest.

This week, Rabbi Jacobs was joined by Professor Raphael Walden, the president of Physicians for Human Rights Israel, the chair of the Public Council of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, and a surgeon at Sheba Medical Center. Dr. Walden and Rabbi Jacobs talked about Parashat B'haalot'cha. They talked about healing, both the physical and spiritual kind, and the biases we sometimes hold.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat B'haalot'cha from the book of Numbers, a Torah portion filled with so many different segments. And we're going to focus on chapter 12, which tells the remarkable narrative of Miriam and Aaron, who speak against their brother. And Miriam is afflicted with leprosy.

She is afflicted all over with this painful disease called leprosy. We also find in this parashah that Moses, our teacher, when he sees his sister, he doesn't go into a whole narrative of what happened, why did you become ill? All he feels is a deep concern, and he erupts into a beautiful and simple and eloquent prayer with five Hebrew words-- [SPEAKING HEBREW]. (meaning) Please, God, heal her.

We are so privileged today to have one of our great healers in our Jewish community, Professor Raphael Walden. Raphael, Raphi to all of us who know and love him-- Raphael, because that means the healing of God. So how appropriate that this name describes who you are and what you do? And a leader of our reform movement in Israel-- it is such an honor, Raphi, to have you here today and to be able to talk with you about not just the parashah and what healing was in the time of the Bible but what healing is today. So welcome.

Yeah, thank you. What it is, this is a very powerful prayer Moses expresses in only five words, as you say, which sounds in Hebrew like there was an exclamation sign after each word-- [SPEAKING HEBREW], which, will God please heal, please, her. Now, this is extremely powerful, and it is a primal cry of a few words.

But its resonance is answered by God, eventually forgives Miriam. So Miriam is excluded from the camp just for a certain time. But she's completely healed from her disease. So it's not-- God did not punish her with a chronic disease but just as a temporary-- as a kind of a warning for response to-- by the way, Moses, who had suffered so much with the ingratitude of the children of Israel, when he is attacked by his siblings, by his own brother and sister, he does not react.

He doesn't say a word. God reacts for him, and God says-- well, Miriam says, has God spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well? And Moses doesn't respond at all.

It's God who says. And God says, he speaks for Moses-- was a very humble leader, more so than any human being on Earth. This is God who is taking the response for Moses to himself.

So definitely this disease is seen rather as a warning and rather than any definite punishment. And Miriam is actually-- and the whole crowd, the whole camp of Israel, waits seven days in the desert for Miriam to heal. This is again a proof of the great respect which the people of Israel pay to Miriam and her personality.

Yes, indeed, indeed, and beautiful teaching. And also, the humility, I have to say, Professor Walden, I see that same humility in you. When we have had the chance to walk through your medical center, the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv, which is one of the 10 very best hospitals, medical centers, on the planet-- and you as the deputy director, you as the vascular surgeon, you as the leader of Physicians for Human Rights Israel, you embody the healing.

And I have to ask, are there examples of the difficult places-- one of the things I know that you do because I've been with you when you have been very much building bridges between Palestinian Israelis and Palestinians and Israelis in terms of bringing healing. Are there any examples that you could share of how sometimes difficult it is to be that healer in the midst of this very tense Israel-Palestine that we're all living through?

[Professor Walden] Yes, it is. It is a very difficult and long conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine on which we in the Organization of Physicians for Human Rights are trying to bridge and to create a better understanding. But sometimes, it's really awkward. Let me tell you a small anecdote which occurred to me some time ago which has quite an effect on me.

I am a vascular surgeon. I am called one night to the emergency ward of the Sheba Medical Center where I practice to treat a severely wounded young man. And as I come in, I'm getting some notes. It's a Palestinian boy, 15-year-old boy, who was wounded by the IDF during probably a stone-throwing incident.

He was very severely wounded. And he got some first aid in a local hospital. And due to the severity and complexity of his injury, he was transferred to my hospital.

But there was this very brief note from the doctor who treated him in the first place, stating his name, Ahmed, and a few brief details about his injury and the first aid he was given. And that's about it. So I entered the emergency ward, and I put this young boy.

And the first thing that struck me was his eyes. His eyes were very black. He was extremely pale. He had lost a lot, tremendous amount of blood. He was very pale. And from his eyes, one could see the expression of all the hatred in the world one can imagine, towards us will be considered part of the enemy. So I speak some basic Arabic. I approach him and say, Ahmed, I'm your doctor.

Can you look at me? Can you tell me what you feel? Not a single response, only this hatred look in his eyes. So Ahmed, can you move your leg? Let me help you. Not a single word.

After a long minute, a long moment, through his clenched teeth, just one single word-- jihad. Well, everybody knows what jihad. Jihad means a holy war against infidels.

And I hear the curse of ones all that is behind my back said, well, we are trying to save his life, and he's giving us this terrorist Islamic propaganda. Send him back where he's coming from. Let them take care of him.

And I came back, Ahmed, stop the nonsense. Can you tell me what you feel? Can you move your hand? Can you move your leg?

Say no to me. Say something. After a long moment again with his dark look, again he says, jihad.

At this point, I gave away any attempt to create a fruitful dialogue with him, productive dialogue with them. I take him to the operating room. The operation was very long and tedious and complicated and ended successfully.

And when it was over, it was morning already. So I ask, is there somebody from the family? I'm told, yes, his father is outside.

So I went out of the operating room, and there was a group of men there. And the father came out. And he appeared to be a doctor who spoke decent English.

So I must say, during the operation, I couldn't help feeling respect for this young boy who in this extreme situation had the guts to defy us. You know, that was a talking piece between us and-- so I approach the father and he approached me. And I give him a report, a medical on what happened.

And I said, then, listen. I can't help telling you. Your Ahmed is a really tough cookie.

So the father says to me, well, professor, until my last breath, I'll ever be grateful to you for saving the life of my son. Permit me once to small correction. I am Ahmed. The name of the kid is Jihad.

So I realized that-- I learned later on that jihad, the meaning of a jihad is just aspire to spiritual perfection. It was taken over by the terrorists, by extreme Islamic. But the deep meaning is one that is purely spiritual.

And it's a rather common name, you know? There is a, there is a brigadier general in the Israeli army from the Jewish community whose name is Jihad. So myself in a considerable [INAUDIBLE] great humanist, I fell into the trap of tagging and preconceived ideas. So this was a good lesson.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Oh my god. That is an unbelievably powerful story, and I think it gives an example of the work that you do, which is obviously to heal patients and through the work of Physicians for Human Rights and your role in the hospital at the Sheba Medical Center. But also, you're healing more than patients.

You're healing a very intractable conflict where there is less contact, more and more, between Palestinians and Israelis and around something so essential like health care. It's remarkable. So would you reflect on-- sometimes we say tikkum olam means repair the world. Sometimes we say it means heal the world. There's something larger that you're healing, Raphi. You're healing lives, but you're healing the sense of hopelessness and the sense that we actually can bring people together and break through some of those boundaries.

[Professor Walden] Yeah, we do get people together. We have every weekend a mobile clinic, going into the West Bank of Palestine with a group of 10 to 12 Israeli doctors. And we opened this free clinic.

And we treat 300, 400 patients each time. And since there is a great problem of unemployment and poverty in the West Bank, so we provide them with medication free of charge and bring along with us a mobile pharmacy. And this day we create a marvelous microcosm of goodwill and understanding, which is so striking, which is so in contradiction to the general atmosphere which exists in the country between Arabs and Jews in Israel and Palestine.

So beyond the medical treatment that people are offered, we give them an opportunity to see other Israelis. As a matter of fact, we are practically the only friendly contact they ever have with Israelis.

And this is, I think, of greatest importance. Since we do it every week and since we have done it for many, many years, so you know, of these 300 or 400 people we practically treated, they are the family and the neighbors and the neighborhood village and so on. So on each day, we touch the hearts of thousands of people.

And since we do it every week, we have touched lots of many, many Palestinians. And it's not only the simple people who depend on us because we treat them. It's every time we have the mayor of the city coming to welcome us.

We have the governor of the district. We have the military officer who come not-- we don't need a protection for the individuals. They come just to pay their respect to us and to express our appreciation of what we're doing.

Now another aspect of what we are doing is training medical personnel. So in this surrealistic situation of the Middle East, we brought some time ago a group of 11 emergency room doctors from Gaza, which is an incredible feat. You know, getting people out of Gaza, you need the authorization of the  Hamas, authority. So we brought them for a crash course in emergency medicine in a hospital.

In my city we have a center for-- medical simulation center, which is one of the most advanced in the world. So they spent 3 and 1/2 days there, which was extremely-- a lot of benefit to them, you know, to improve your skills. And on the last day, we took them to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, which for them was an incredible dream fulfilled. And then they went back to Gaza.

And the next day, they had to treat 110 wounded people on Gaza from the IDF forces. So this is again an example of the incredible surrealistic situation we are facing in the Middle East. But we are doing our best.

And you mentioned tikkun olam. It is my very strong feeling as a Reform liberal Jew, that what we are doing in this organization of Physicians for Human Rights is actually practicing the basic ideals and values of Reform Judaism. I talked the other day to a group of Israeli businessmen here in New York and reminded them that the obligation to take care of the stranger-- the [HEBREW] as it is spoken of [SPEAKING HEBREW], because you were strangers in the land of Egypt, appears in the Torah no less in 36 times, by far more than any other mitzvah. So it is definitely an obligation I feel as a Jew, a liberal Jew, to take care and to observe the rights and the privilege of the minority of the stranger, of the asylum seekers, all those who do not benefit in my field of access to proper medical care.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] What an inspiring narrative of hope and of building bridges and of healing from the Torah, from Parashat B'haalot'cha to contemporary times. Professor Raphi Walden, you are an inspiration, and you exemplify our Reform Jewish tradition in its very best. You are involved in your synagogue, Beit Daniel in Tel Aviv. Your rabbi, Rabbi Meir Azari is one of our great rabbis in our entire world movement.

And you live those values. Those values are about study and about practice and about holy days. But it's also about doing right, doing what is Bet Tzedek, what is justice, and what will build a world of deep interconnection.

And many people are losing hope today that we could ever build those bridges of understanding. You do it every day. It's who you have been your whole career.

And we are so proud of the work that you do and the example that you set. We say the five words, El Na Rafa Na La, that Moses said-- please, God heal her. You say and do that healing every day not only for the lucky Israelis, both Jewish and Muslim and Christian who benefit, but also to spread that healing across some very difficult boundaries and borders. You are an exemplar of this teaching and of this tradition. And we are so grateful for you being on the podcast today. And we send you back. I know you return to Israel tonight. And we send you back with our hopes and dreams. You'll continue. To be a beacon of light in a sometimes very hopeless place. But you fill us with hope.

[Professor Walden] Thank you very much.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend. For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit ReformJudaism.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJPresident.

On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in discussion of modern Jewish life.

And until next week, L'hitraot!