When it’s not good to be law-abiding

Most South Africans spend a chunk of their monthly salary on medical insurance. Government medicine here is nightmarish and private medicine is exorbitant. Your only choice is to invest in a robust medical scheme.

If, like us, you have a few children, medical aid (as we call it here) is critical. Our family has been with the same medical insurer for over two decades. In that time, we’ve dealt with them over everything from orthodontics to physiotherapy to surgery, with a bunch of obstetric bills to boot. We’ve learned about hospital codes, chronic medication and the fact that each year we’ll need to apply for some extended benefits for at least half the family.

I’m no fan of the phone, so my wife makes those calls to sort out issues with chronic benefits, additional therapies or unpaid claims. She’s really good. She quickly establishes rapport with the consultants and easily achieves what needs to be done.

Except for last week.

Wednesday’s consultant — the first in 20 years — insisted that she could not assist my wife with our 4-year-old daughter’s chronic medication until we sent in a signed consent form on her behalf. As I said, she’s 4. Thanks to a series of traumatic seizures over a two-year period, she’s delayed in a variety of developmental milestones. She’s still behind on signing consent forms and apparently, her O.T. doesn’t tackle that skill this year.

The consultant wouldn’t budge. No consent form, no discussion. No meds. End of story.

My wife hung up and called again two minutes later. A different consultant answered. He was a star. He asked a few security questions (as they usually do), verified that my wife was my daughter’s bona fide mom and got to work. He was brilliant on the phone. He then worked the case (juggling the pediatric-neurologist, pharmacist and the medical aid) and got us a better result than we had expected in half the time that he had promised.

We took his details and those of his manager, and emailed a glowing commendation.

Consultant One was stuck in protocol; Consultant Two found a way and then still went the extra mile.

Sometimes a minor incident in life opens your eyes to the bigger picture. These two consultants brought to mind a long series of episodes with paramedics, hospital staff and therapists who have helped our daughter over the last three years. We could easily divide them into the rule-followers and the miracle-workers.

Some practitioners wouldn’t budge from official protocol, at one time even endangering our daughter’s life. Thankfully, most of the time, Hatzolah members, nurses and doctors cast aside the rules and focused on the human patient.

On one of our daughter’s ICU visits, her doctor had been concerned about her breathing and had ordered a chest x-ray. The attending pulmonologist had picked up some fluid on her lungs and quickly prescribed antibiotics, citing pneumonia. Not an hour later, the physician popped in to see our daughter, who was happily yanking off vital monitors as she tried to vault over the bedside rail. He checked her, then checked the x-ray and then the pulmonary expert’s recommendations. “Tell that doctor to give the antibiotics to the x-ray!”. He was mad. The protocols indicated a sick child, the child told a different story.

Rules work perfectly in textbooks, but people are dynamic and unique.

When we studied for rabbinical ordination, the teachers would often remind us that there are four volumes to the Code of Jewish Law. Everything a rabbi needs to know about Torah jurisprudence is in those books. But, more importantly, they’d say, there is a fifth volume of the Shulchan Aruch: The unwritten code of understanding the needs of the individual.

Pirkei Avot, the famous “Ethics of the Fathers” is the part of Torah that guides us to live beyond the letter of the Law. We often imagine that Judaism is all about laws. It is. And it is just as much about people, and about stepping beyond the law to help them.

Be law-abiding on Shabbos or during the six hours that you wait after meat before milk. Don’t hold up the law/ your study schedule/ your personal frum-standards as your out when someone needs you. “Frum” is a useful term to use to challenge yourself to greater observance. It’s a horrible word to hide behind to avoid helping someone.  Society needs laws in order to survive. It also needs people who don’t lean on the rules to excuse themselves from caring.

Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi, author of the Mishna and one of Judaism’s greatest scholars, famously opens the second chapter of Pirkei Avot with an unusual question: “What is the path that a Jew should follow?’

Wait, I know this one! He’s a rabbi. If he asks what Jews should do, the answer must be “Observe the Torah”.

Nope. Rebbi, as he is known, answers with “A path that is beautiful to the practitioner and brings beauty to others”. Sure, you need to follow the Torah. That’s obvious. The rabbi doesn’t need to spell it out. What’s less obvious is that the way you observe Torah should be beautiful, attractive and should enhance everyone’s lives. A beautiful Judaism isn’t built on black and white regulations alone; it is the product of deep care and concern for the individual and a strong motivation to go beyond the law to help them.

About the Author
Rabbi Shishler together with his wife, Naomi and their eight children, runs Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, South Africa. Rabbi Shishler is a popular teacher who regularly lectures around the globe. he hosts a weekly radio show in South Africa and is the rabbi of Facebook's largest Ask the Rabbi group.
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