Parashat Bechukotai - Between Faith and Trust: Part One
מרן רה"י הרב שבתי סבתו | כו אייר התשעט | 31.05.2019
Rabbi Shabtai Sabato
הרב שבתי סבתו
גבול האמונה והביטחון - א'
Between Faith and Trust: Part One
-- the thin line between unlimited faith in G-d and natural human effort --
The Torah portion Bechukotai begins with the blessings that G-d will shower upon us if we follow His statutes. Let us focus on two of them:
אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ... וַאֲכַלְתֶּם לַחְמְכֶם לָשֹׂבַע וִישַׁבְתֶּם לָבֶטַח בְּאַרְצְכֶם
If you walk in [the way of] My statutes... You will have your fill of bread...
and you will dwell securely in your land. (Vayikra 26,3-5)
The Torah is very generous with Divine promises in the event that Israel acts righteously: timely and generous rains, bountiful crops, peace and security in our land, G-d's presence in our midst, and more. But these promises themselves raise very fundamental questions:
- Will every individual be judged and rewarded, or do these rewards and punishments apply only on a national scale?
- Will the reward be granted in the form of open and obvious miracles, or will it rather be "camouflaged" as natural phenomena?
- Does the fact that we can anticipate the fulfillment of Divine promises require a change in the way we run our every-day lives?
Let us begin by asking if the practice of medicine stands in contradiction to the concept of faith in G-d. Are doctors permitted to intervene in what appears to be a "Divine plan" by healing the sick? May we engage in the profession of medicine and healing, or is this to be left exclusively in G-d's hands? The Mishnah states:
King Hizkiyahu initiated six things on his own. The Sages agreed with him on three of them, while regarding the three others, they did not… When he hid away the Book of Cures, the Sages agreed with him. (Pesachim 4,9)
What was this Book of Cures that King Hizkiyahu sought to hide, and why did he do so? Some explain that this was a genuine book of medicine that listed the known cures for every disease. King Hizkiyahu feared that the Jews would put their faith in this book, causing their faith and trust in Hashem to falter, and that this is why he banned it.
The Rambam (Maimonides) sharply attacked this approach, saying it is based on a fundamental error. Let's say a man is hungry and tired, the Rambam argued, and he takes out a piece of bread and some water to ease his discomfort. Is it conceivable to say that his success in "curing" himself would lead to a decrease in his faith and trust in G-d?!
The opposite is surely true: It should be a reason to thank G-d. Just as we are charged with thanking Him three times a day in Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals) for providing us with our food, so too, when we take medicine, we must thank Him for having created a world with methods and medicines to cure us.
Why, then, did Hizkiyahu ban the Book of Cures? Maimonides explained that it was not a book of pure medicine, but rather a collection of folk remedies. The king banned it simply because it was an unproven book with an unknown record, and likely nothing more than legends and quackery.
The following incident, recounted in the Medrash Shmuel (chapter 4), provides support for the Rambam's position:
- Yishmael and R, Akiva were walking on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and a third man joined up with them. The three of them met a man who was ill, who asked the two rabbis, "My teachers, can you tell me how to cure myself?" They told him, "Take such-and-such medicine until you are healed."
The man who accompanied them objected, saying, "How dare you intervene in G-d's business? Hashem made the man sick, and you come along and cure him?!"
They answered him with a question: "What is your occupation?" He said, "I work the land; here is my scythe." They asked him, "Who created the earth and its vineyards?" He answered, "G-d," and they said, "And you intervene in something that G-d did? He created the land, and you eat from its fruit?!"
The man answered, "Don't you see the scythe in my hand? If not for me going out to plow the land and fertilize it and uproot the weeds, nothing would grow!"
The rabbis then said to him, "Don't you see that a man is similar to the earth? As the verse states, 'Man - his days are like grass' (Psalms 103,15). Just like a tree does not grow if it is not properly taken care of, and does not live if it is not given water, the same is true with man. What fertilizer and water do for a tree, medicines do for a man; and what the farmer does for the earth, a doctor does for people."
The basic idea expressed by Rabbis Yishmael and Akiva is that Hashem created man with several jobs to carry out - and one of them is to keep himself healthy, using the means that He created for this purpose, as we see in this verse:
וַיִּקַּח ה' אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת הָאָדָם וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן עֵדֶן לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָה
Hashem took the man (Adam) and placed him in the Garden of Eden
to work it and preserve it. (B'reshit 2,16)
In other words, even before Adam committed the first sin, he was commanded to take care of the trees in the garden, and to eat from them - in order to keep himself healthy and strong.
When the great Sages Rabbis Yishmael and Akiva implied that it is Hashem Who causes illness, they meant that Hashem removes from a person His close supervision – in which case it could very well transpire that if he eats an inappropriate food, natural law will kick in and he will become sick. If this occurs, the person must use the medicines that Hashem has placed in nature in order to restore himself to health.
I am the Lord Your Doctor
Given the above, however, how are we to understand the following Torah verse that seems to imply the precise opposite? G-d tells Moshe Rabbeinu:
וַיֹּאמֶר, אִם שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע לְקוֹל ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ וְהַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו תַּעֲשֶׂה...
כָּל הַמַּחֲלָה אֲשֶׁר שַׂמְתִּי בְמִצְרַיִם לֹא אָשִׂים עָלֶיךָ כִּי אֲנִי ה' רֹפְאֶךָ
If you hearken to the voice of Hashem your G-d and do that which is right in His eyes… then the diseases I placed upon Egypt I will not place upon you
for I am G-d your doctor. (Shmot 15,26)
This proclamation seems to teach that the field of medicine and healing belongs exclusively to G-d – and that its success depends upon whether or not we observe the Torah's laws!
Furthermore: The renowned 13th-century Torah-commentator Nachmanides, known as the Ramban, addressed this very issue in Parashat Bechukotai. He brings two sources showing that when prophecy abounded in Israel, the proper approach for one who took ill was to go not to doctors, but rather to the prophets. Both proofs are from actions taken by Biblical kings of Judea: King Hizkiyahu and King Asa.
Proof number one is when King Hizkiyahu was praised for praying to Hashem, and not consulting doctors, when he needed medicinal help:
בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם חָלָה חִזְקִיָּהוּ לָמוּת, וַיָּבֹא אֵלָיו יְשַׁעְיָהוּ בֶן אָמוֹץ הַנָּבִיא... וַיַּסֵּב אֶת פָּנָיו אֶל הַקִּיר וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל אֶל ה'. וּדְבַר ה' הָיָה אֵלָיו לֵאמֹר:
Hizkiyahu became deathly ill, and the prophet Yeshayahu son of Amotz
came to him... and turned to the wall and prayed to G-d...
and G-d's word came to Yeshayahu, saying:
שׁוּב וְאָמַרְתָּ אֶל חִזְקִיָּהוּ נְגִיד עַמִּי, כֹּה אָמַר ה'... הִנְנִי רֹפֵא לָךְ...
וְהֹסַפְתִּי עַל יָמֶיךָ חֲמֵשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה
Return and tell Hizkiyahu, the prince of My Nation, that G-d said:
"...I will heal you... and I will add 15 years to your life." (Kings II, chapter 20)
Proof number two is brought in Chronicles II, chapter 16:
וַיֶּחֱלֶא אָסָא בִּשְׁנַת שְׁלוֹשִׁים וָתֵשַׁע לְמַלְכוּתוֹ בְּרַגְלָיו, עַד לְמַעְלָה חָלְיוֹ.
וְגַם בְּחָלְיוֹ לֹא דָרַשׁ אֶת ה', כִּי בָּרֹפְאִים ...
King Asa became ill in the 39th year of his reign, in his legs; his disease became very severe. But even in his illness, he did not turn to G-d, but only to the doctors…
We see that Asa was censured for turning not to G-d, but to doctors.
Both examples show us that G-d, and not doctors, must be our healer. The Ramban emphasizes this point, in his commentary to the following verse – a blessing the Torah promises to those who follow G-d's will: G-d will bless your bread and water,
and will remove disease from your midst. (Shmot 23,25) The Ramban says that those who follow G-d's word will have no need to summon doctors; G-d's blessing will keep them healthy. If the Jewish people internalize this and accustom themselves not to turn to doctors, then a person will be sick for only as long as is appropriate according to the punishment he deserves, and would then recover as G-d sees fit. But because they do turn to medicine, G-d bows out of the picture, and leaves events such as sickness to take their natural course.
A seemingly strong negation of this philosophy is found in the Talmud (Brachot 60a), based on a verse in Shmot 21:
It was taught in R. Yishmael's academy: The Torah states ורפוא ירפא, "[an injured person] shall be healed." We learn from this that a physician is permitted to heal.
Certainly the Ramban knew this teaching, which shows that hiring a doctor does not negate one's faith or belief in G-d! He explains that yes, a physician is permitted to heal - when he is faced with someone who is ill and who has turned to him instead of to Hashem. But the sick person himself must know that he should not come to the doctor for help instead of turning to G-d.
In short: According to the Ramban (who, like the Rambam, was a physician), the doctor has the Torah's permission to heal – but the sick person does not have permission to be healed by him.
Bearing the Responsibility
Let us see if there is a way to reconcile the seemingly conflicting opinions of these two great Torah giants that we have cited.
The Rambam, in his famous work Guide for the Perplexed, notes that most of the sicknesses in the world are caused by people's negligence. Many times they eat and drink unhealthful foods, and in unhealthful amounts. In addition, ugly traits such as envy, hatred, anger, and the like also have negative effects upon their physical health. As such, it makes no logical or ethical sense for those who harm themselves to then turn to Hashem and beg Him to cure them! Before they plead with G-d, let them first take care of themselves via precautions to prevent the onset of disease, by acting nicely and generously, and/or by taking the medicines that G-d provided!
This can be proven by the above-quoted verse from Parashat Mishpatim:
וְכִי יְרִיבֻן אֲנָשִׁים וְהִכָּה אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ בְּאֶבֶן אוֹ בְאֶגְרֹף וְלֹא יָמוּת וְנָפַל לְמִשְׁכָּב...
רַק שִׁבְתּוֹ יִתֵּן וְרַפֹּא יְרַפֵּא
If two men should fight, and one strikes the other with a rock or a fist, and
the other does not die but is rather hurt and bedridden... He who assaulted must pay
for the loss of his time, and cause him to be healed. (Shmot 21,18-19)
We see that one who injures another must pay his medical expenses, i.e., he must pay the doctor to heal him. The Torah thus recognizes such treatment as legitimate, and even as an obligation. We can therefore conclude that just like one who causes harm must pay a doctor to rectify it, similarly, one who harms himself directly or indirectly – such as by not taking proper care of himself – must treat himself by going to a conventional doctor.
But this is not the case when the source of the sickness is not one's own carelessness. When sickness comes directly from Hashem, it is a Divine signal that the person must mend his spiritual path and correct his ways. He must realize that he has sinned ethically or spiritually, and must turn to a prophet, or to a rabbi, or to the Torah directly, in order to understand how he has sinned, what he must rectify, and how to do so. In such a case, turning to a doctor is not the proper approach.
In short: When Hashem wishes to inform a person that he has a spiritual sickness, He sends him a physical sickness with no apparent cause. He will then realize that it is not a medical issue, but rather a spiritual/ethical one, and that he must examine his actions and attempt to "heal" his spiritual degeneration.
Law and Judgement
We can now understand more fully the verse quoted above, I am G-d your doctor. Let us look at it in its full context, during the first incident that befell Israel after the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. The Torah tells us that Israel had come to a place called Marah, and could not drink the water there because it was bitter. When they complained to Moshe, He cried out to Hashem, and Hashem showed him a tree. Moshe threw it into the water, and the water became sweet; there He gave them law and judgement, and there He tested him. That was when G-d said, If you hearken to the voice of your G-d… then the diseases I placed upon Egypt I will not place upon you, for I am G-d your doctor. (Shmot 15,23-26)
Was it simply by coincidence that the People of Israel arrived in Marah? Certainly not, for the Divine Cloud was traveling in front of them to guide their path. In fact, their next stop on the journey was Elim, with its 12 sweet-water wells (verse 27). Clearly, G-d could have brought them first to Elim, but instead He chose quite purposefully to bring them to a place of bitter waters. Why?
It was because G-d wished to teach them an important lesson in faith: Whoever does not follow Divine "law and judgement" – which Israel did not have until now – is considered ill, and his cure is found in acquiring and following a system of law. This is why it is here that Moshe threw a tree into the water to "cure" it and sweeten it – for the tree symbolizes a system of laws. The tree was the cure for the disease of the bitter water; so too, the Torah's commandments are the "cure" for other sicknesses. The Torah then states, "and there He tested him," meaning that Hashem accustomed Israel to walk in His ways.
When we look at the above verses, we see this in greater detail. The Ten Plagues that G-d brought upon Egypt are referred to as the diseases I placed upon Egypt (as quoted above). They had no rational or natural cause, but were rather a Divine signal that the Egyptians had sinned grievously by subjugating the Children of Israel so cruelly and unjustly.
Hashem thus tells Israel: "Since I am your doctor, I hereby direct you to law and judgement. And in order that you understand that you are 'ill,' I am bringing you to a place of bitter water - the disease - and I will also show you the tree, which is the cure. In the same way, I am providing you with a system of law and judgement, as a cure for disease brought upon you by spiritual sins. And "if you hearken to G-d's voice," Hashem continues, "I will not have to bring upon you the same disease I brought upon Egypt in the form of the Ten Plagues; the diseases I placed upon Egypt I will not place upon you. Neither will I have to bring you to a place of bitter waters."
In short, when one has a physical problem caused by negligence, he must take care of himself and find a doctor who will help him. At the same time, he must of course remember that it is Hashem Who provides the knowledge and ability to cure. But when an illness appears that cannot be explained rationally, the solution must be found spiritually, by turning to a prophet or a Torah scholar – one with a proven record in finding the causes of a spiritual disease – and not a doctor.
Let us conclude this first part of this series by noting a critical point: Some diseases attack entire population sectors, including righteous people and babies who have not sinned. This is certainly not an indication that they all suffer from a specific spiritual fault. Epidemics of this nature rather stem from "public" sins, i.e., iniquities that affect a large sector of people or their chosen leaders. In such cases, even those who are not specifically guilty of those sins are liable to be affected.
Our Sages taught:
"Why were the Israelites commanded not to leave their houses on the night of the Plague of the Firstborn? Because once the destroyer has been given permission to destroy, he does not distinguish between the righteous and the evil." (Tr. Bava Kama, p. 60a)
The destroyer is given license to wreak havoc where public sins are rampant. The rectification must be carried out on the national level, by the spiritual and ethical leadership.
Clearly, those who are ill cannot rectify the communal sins, and in such a case, the Ramban would certainly agree that they must utilize the accepted medical services. If they do not do this, they would be guilty of not preserving their health.
The next article in this series will deal with principles of trust in G-d.