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Simple Things Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

April 18, 2015

There is almost nothing simpler than washing your hands and yet we know that failures of hand washing continue to cause infections in hospitals even today, 200+ years after the dangers of poor hand washing were proven.

Hospital training materials teach that:

“Proper hand washing is the single most important factor in preventing the spread of pathogens and antibiotic resistance in healthcare settings.”

Yet the CDC, the Center for Disease Control, estimates that each year nearly 2 million patients in the United States get an infection in hospitals, and about 90,000 of these patients die as a result of their infection.

In general, adherence of healthcare workers to recommended hand hygiene procedures has been poor, averaging only 40%.

Even with trainings and reminders it is still hard to get the behavioral change that makes a difference to health and safety. How can it be that health workers won’t take this simple step?

It’s a simple thing but it has to be done over and over. It’s a simple thing but it has to be done even in the face of competing needs and calls for attention. It’s such a simple thing, it is simple to overlook just this one time.

Let’s bring it closer to home- many of us don’t work in a hospital. Yet there are things we know that we should do, that are simple things, I’m thinking about eating, exercise, sleeping, finding natural ways to relax and find times of peace in our lives, yet perhaps our compliance is no better than the hospital workers 40%.

Michael Pollen, the well respected author of the Omnivore’s Dilemma, and other books, offers some advice for eating:

  • Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Pretty simple stuff but if one really followed his advice, it could make a big difference to one’s health and wellbeing. How well do we do with this, or other good and simple advice about leading a healthier life?

In this week’s Haftarah, Naaman is prepared to do something complicated and difficult to cure his leprosy, but is initially unwilling to take the simple step of washing in the Jordan river. In our own day we often find ourselves taking the complicated and difficult steps of medication and other expensive and even dangerous medical procedures to cure things that would have been better addressed earlier on by simpler measures. Yet these simple measures aren’t so simple, as like handwashing, they need to be practiced over and over, and even in the face of distractions, like stressful days or busy seasons.

The Talmud tells a story in conjunction with this Haftarah portion.

In Tzippori, an important city of the time, just outside of modern day Haifa, there was a wandering preacher who drew a big crowd. He walked through the busy marketplace shouting: Who wants to buy the elixir of life? Who wants to buy the elixir of life?

Sure enough people gathered around him.

Everyone wanted to buy the elixir of life.

When the crowd was full and excited in anticipation, he quoted the words of the Psalms ( 34:13-14):

Who is the person, who desires life, who longs to live for many days?
Then this is what you must do. Keep your tongue from deceitful speech, and your mouth from speaking gossip. Steer away from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.

The crowd was angry. This wasn’t what they wanted to hear. They wanted a potion, a magic cure, a secret spell. But Rabbi Yannai calmed them saying: “All my life I have read this verse and did not truly understand it, until this peddler came and clarified it for me.”

I stood in the ruins of Tzippori, just a few weeks ago when I was in Israel. The city of the rabbis is gone, except for the archeological excavations and the signs explaining what has been uncovered. But the desire to live longer and better, is still as strong as it was in those days. And the instructions for living a better life, given by the peddler, given by our ancient tradition, remain relevant:

“Keep your tongue from deceitful speech, and your mouth from speaking gossip. Steer away from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.”

Even today, two thousand plus years later, gossip and its accompaniments- worry, hatred, anger, quarrels, all these jeopardize our fitness and even our life. What we need to do to live a better life may be difficult, may be hard to sustain on an ongoing basis, but it isn’t complicated.

This is what the prophet Micah said to us as well, when we worried that Jewish teaching was too complicated, too difficult to fulfill. He taught: It has been told to you, what is good and what God wants from you, only to love justice, to do mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

 

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