The Jordan River has been the subject of many songs. “The Jordan River is deep and wide, Hallelujah.” Or “I looked over the Jordan and what did I see, coming for to carry me home.”

With songs such as this one, one could imagine that the Jordan River is indeed a major and mighty river. Imagine the surprise of those who travel to Israel when they actually see the Jordan River for the first time. The so-called “river” is actually a creek. It is a part of the Syrian-African rift, a great rift that extends hundreds of miles north to south in that part of the world.

The Jordan starts in northern Israel and is fed by several small tributaries, including the Dan, Banias and Hatzbani rivers. It is then collected in the swamps of the Hula valley. From there, it flows as a river south until it reaches the Sea of Galilee or, as it is called in Hebrew, the Kinneret. From the Kinneret, it flows south until it reaches the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is actually the lowest point on Earth, some 400 meters below sea level.

A rabbinical midrash paints a far different and more realistic impression of the Jordan River and its role in this great Syrian-African rift. The rabbis noted that the Jordan River flows into and out of the Sea of Galilee. The Sea of Galilee is the fresh water reservoir for the state of Israel. It provides vacation spots, delicious fish, wonderful eucalyptus trees and more. It’s teeming with life.

The Dead Sea, however, is entirely different. No fish. Its salt and phosphate content is so high that a human being cannot sink in it. Woe be unto the one who enters the Dead Sea with an open cut. Getting Dead Sea water in one’s eyes is unbearable, and swallowing the water of the Dead Sea can be fatal.

What is the difference between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea? Both are fed by the Jordan River, but one is alive while the other is dead. The rabbis teach us that the difference between the two seas is found in the fact that the Jordan River flows both in and out of the Sea of Galilee, but only into the Dead Sea. The Sea of Galilee is alive because it is a receiver and a giver. The Dead Sea is dead precisely because it is only a receiver of Jordan’s waters; it does not give in return.

I was thinking about this midrash in reference to the news – specifically, news that Anthem Blue Cross was going to raise its insurance rates to Californians purchasing their own coverage by some 39 percent. This occurred after the company reported massive fourth-quarter profits. This rate increase would affect some 800,000 Californians.

The Health and Human Services Department says similar pressure on premiums is being felt in at least six other states and possibly more. The department noted that this is coming after a time of growth in company profits. This is also the result of the lack of competition found for many people in the country when it comes to heath care.

Friends, it is time for us to tell the truth. I think many of us like our doctors, but I know few of us who like our health care companies. I know that this is strong language, but in my opinion, health care companies have become nothing less than “leeches” on American society that threaten the health of so many.

The cost of health care is an impediment to the rebounding of our economy and to the general economic health of the United States. If Anthem Blue Cross is allowed to raise its rates by 39 percent, some families will see their health care premiums increase by $7,000 in one year.

It is indeed sad that Congress has been unable to pass health care legislation. Such legislation would have required that all health care insurance companies spend a minimum of 85 percent of their premiums on actual health care and not on advertisements, overhead or bonuses for CEOs and top leadership.

I am amazed at how the health care industry has frightened the American people through its advertising campaign and thus prevented real health care reform. I find it incredible that there are only two major industries that are exempt from federal antitrust laws. These are major league baseball and health insurance companies.

So I find it noteworthy that in light of this outrageous behavior by health care companies, 18 Democratic senators have asked Congress and the administration to reconsider a public option for health care as a way to increase competition and to bring down health care premiums.

The rabbis tell us that he who saves a life saves the world. Jewish tradition throughout the Middle Ages taught that providing health care is a communal responsibility. As such, from a Jewish perspective, the issue of affordable health care is not merely an issue of economics, but a profound moral issue of our time.

Yes, there are two seas in Israel fed by the Jordan River. One teems with life; one doesn’t. The behavior of the health care insurance companies of late resembles the Dead Sea far more than it does the Sea of Galilee. Such behavior is indeed deadly because of its effect on our community and on the health and well-being of our citizens.

May it be God’s will and our task that health care in our country will be less like the Dead Sea, which only receives but does not give, and more like the Sea of Galilee, which not only receives but gives. It not only teems with life but supports life in all of its God-given diversity and beauty.

Rabbi Fred Guttman is rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, N.C.

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