- The Washington Times - Monday, April 18, 2005

The following are excerpts of a sermon given recently by Rabbi Jeffrey A. Wohlberg at Adas Israel Synagogue in the District:

The agony surrounding the death of Terri Schiavo captured the attention as well as the emotions of the nation, reaching from the street to the courts, to Congress and even the White House. The sad and tragic case of this one young woman became a symbol of other issues and intensified the social and religious conflicts, which have caused divisiveness and served as touchstones for debate.

Who is right? What is right? Who should decide? These questions weigh on all of us. I feel a great sadness for Ms. Schiavo and for those who love her, but you will pardon me if I also express a degree of cynicism and even anger about what we have seen happen. I am offended … the lack of commensurate interest and emotion, let alone concern, about other issues of life and death, for others in need, and others whom we could help save but do not.

Concern for life demands that we speak with intensity and act with determination for the many — for example, the deaths each year of millions of children around the world due to war and disease, 73 percent of whom, according to the World Health Organization, could have easily been saved at a very small cost, or that we express the same magnitude of concern because of the thousands who die on our own highways each year who could be better protected, or the thousands killed in the U.S. with guns because of our lax gun laws and weak enforcement.

Where is the passion concerning the 45 million Americans who lack health insurance, let alone the countless numbers of the world who are without daily nourishment, clean water, basic sanitation or minimal housing? Too many lives are “lost” each year because we, who proclaim that we care about life, do not evidence the same passion or compassion elicited by the case of Terri Schiavo.

I feel sad, as we all do, for Ms. Schiavo and for her family. There are serious moral and ethical issues which tie us in knots. But spare me the moralizing and the pontificating. It only serves to accentuate the insincerity of many politicians and the misguided maneuvering of some who claim to speak for religion principles. They have manipulated the country over one at the expense of the many.

Many are caught up in proclaiming what is called a “culture of life,” although that same intensity is not visible regarding other issues which involve many more lives than this one young woman. We who remember the Holocaust, in which the Nazis murdered 6 million Jews, or who recall the murders of countless numbers in Cambodia, Darfur, Rwanda and elsewhere, well understand how much easier it is to focus on one rather than on millions.

There are in life overwhelming moments and gut-wrenching issues, which need to be faced and which many confront continually: To treat, not to treat and how to treat? To save, not to save and how to save? Who should live? Who should decide? What is life? What is death? Are the questions medical or legal or religious? What is society’s role in deciding?

My own Jewish tradition emphasizes the sanctity of life initially expressed though the Commandments in the Bible, including “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19), “be holy” (Leviticus 19:18), and “justice, justice shalt thou pursue” (Deuteronomy 15:20). Although it is considered inappropriate to add to them, it is clear to me that by extension today these include other mandates incumbent on all of us:

1. To give blood if we can because we know how needed donors are.

2. To make certain that we are included in the bone-marrow registry because this, too, is a means of saving lives.

3. To sign the Uniform Donor Card and donate organs, helping to save the 80,000 Americans who are on the lists waiting for transplants.

4. To sign a living will so that our families and medical surrogates will know our wishes should they have to make end-of-life decisions on our behalf.

Life is a gift, finite and perishable. Nevertheless, it is filled with opportunities to share blessings and to do good. Let us not waste our potential and let us demonstrate our commitment to the sanctity of life, not through words alone, but through life-preserving acts.

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