Were you puzzled at all, as I was, over “comedian” Wanda Sykes’s stand-up routine at the White House Correspondents dinner and her curious choice of a medical image in assailing Rush Limbaugh? As President Obama smiled fondly and guffawed behind her, Sykes declared that since Limbaugh hopes Obama’s administration fails, “I hope his kidneys fail, how ’bout that?”
Quite the wit. The cruelty of this was obvious and shocking, but why specifically Rush’s kidneys? There are lots of things that could stop working right in a person’s life. Why not his heart, liver, lungs, or other vital organs? Why not his radio show? Why not his subscription to Cigar Aficionado?
It took me almost a week but I remembered something interesting about kidneys. In the Hebrew Bible’s system of symbols, kidneys are treated as if they were the seat of wisdom, the most fundamental source of wise counsel.
In the Jewish liturgical calendar, the idea comes up in this very week’s reading from the Prophets, specifically from the book of Jeremiah: “I, God, probe the heart and test the kidneys, repaying each man according to the ways of his [heart] and the product of his [thoughts, which are the] deeds [of the heart]” (17:10).
The same metaphor, kidneys as the source of thought, occurs in Jeremiah 11:20, 12:2, Psalm 16:7, and elsewhere.
Why kidneys? Because there are two of them, one on the left and one on the right. And do you know what else Biblical tradition says about the kidneys, regarding the distinction between left and right? “The heart of the wise man is to his right and the heart of the fool is to his left” (Ecclesiastes 10:2).
On the same verse, the Talmud notes, “A person has two kidneys. One counsels him to do good and one counsels him to do evil. It follows logically that good [counsel] comes from his right, while evil [counsel] comes from his left” (Berachot 61a).
Wisdom from the Right? Foolishness from the Left? Represented by the kidneys. Wanda Sykes wishes kidney failure upon Rush Limbaugh, an idea that President Obama seemed to find enjoyable. Do I really need to belabor the point any further?