G-d is our healer
In this week’s portion, just as the Jewish People begin their journey through the desert after they miraculously cross the Red Sea and witness the Egyptian army drowning, they run out of water shortly after they reach the other side. They cry out to G-d and start complaining. There was a spring of water there but it was very bitter – that is why they called the place Marah, bitterness. Moses then put a piece of wood into the water; miraculously the waters were sweetened and the people were able to drink. Immediately after that incident, in chapter 15 verse 26, it says “Behold if you will obey and listen to the voice of the Lord your G-d and that which is straight and upright in His eyes you will do, and you will listen to His commandments and observe His statutes then all of the illnesses I placed on Egypt I will not place on you because I am the Lord your Doctor.”
The commentators grapple with this verse. What is the promise that is being made here? What does it mean that G-d is the Doctor? Does that mean we don’t go to human doctors? After all, if G-d is our doctor and He says He will heal us if we follow His commandments, then why go to a human doctor?
Permission was given to doctors to heal
That cannot possibly be the interpretation, because there is another passage later on, in the portion of Mishpatim, which deals with the laws of damages when one person assaults another, and it talks about the payments he is required to pay in compensation for having caused damage. It says in chapter 21, verse 19 that part of the payments one has to make in compensation is unemployment, i.e. loss of income, and “you shall surely heal,” which the Talmud says means he has to pay for the doctor’s bills. The Talmud further states, regarding “and you shall surely heal” that “from here [we learn] that permission was given to the doctor to heal.”
Why does the doctor need permission to heal? The reason is because it might appear as though he is overturning G-d’s decree. One might say, why should a doctor intervene and try to heal the person? If G-d wants him to be well, he will be well, and if G-d wants him to be sick, he will be sick; so what’s the point of a doctor intervening? Nevertheless, it says permission was given to doctors to heal.
There is a repetition in the verse verapoh yerapeh, “you shall surely heal,” which Tosafot, one of our commentators on the Talmud from the Middle Ages, explains as referring to two kinds of illness: one inflicted by a fellow human being – for example, a wound – which a doctor is given permission to heal because it was damage inflicted by another person, and another type of illness, one that comes from heaven and is not related to human action. In the second case, one may think the doctor is not allowed to intervene. Therefore, a double language is used, verapoh yerapeh, “you shall surely heal,” to say in all circumstances the doctor was given permission to heal.
This is a very important concept. How do we square that away with the fact that everything is in G-d’s Hands, as we say in our portion, “I am the Lord your Doctor”? Either Hashem is the doctor or human beings are the doctors. How do the two concepts work together?
We must not rely on miracles
Judaism maintains that although everything is in G-d’s hands, He nevertheless expects us to work on our own, using the instruments of this world. There are many challenges in this world, many difficulties, many areas of human suffering. We have a commandment – a moral duty – to go out and improve the world. Sometimes that takes place in the form of medicine, literally healing a person. At other times it can take other forms, for example, in the realm of justice. The Talmud says that any judge who dispenses true justice becomes a partner in creation with G-d; the pursuit of justice is a G-dly pursuit. G-d calls upon us to become His partners in creation by following His lead, making a difference and improving the world.
G-d’s message to us is, become My partner and do your best to improve the world. But we have to realise all the time that ultimately “I am the Lord your Doctor,” meaning, the doctors are the instruments through which G-d works on this earth. Whatever happens, whether the outcome is positive or negative from our personal perspective, it is ultimately G-d’s decision and our response is gam zu l’tovah, this too is for the best. Even though we cannot always see it, whatever G-d decides is ultimately for the good.
Our destiny is in G-d’s hands
We must be careful to realise that while we are commanded to use the instruments of this world to improve it, real faith in G-d means that we understand that He is merely working through us and that we are not in control of our destiny. We have to do our best, but ultimately our fate lies in G-d’s hands.
This applies not only in the area of medicine but in all areas of life. Take, for example, the area of business: everyone has to earn a living, yet it does say that parnasa, how much we are going to earn, is determined every Rosh Hashanah. So a person might say, well, if it has already been set aside at Rosh Hashanah, let me put my feet up and relax because the money is coming anyway. The commentators explain, however, that what this actually means – that a person’s livelihood is determined on Rosh Hashanah – is that it depends on the effort. G-d is saying, I decree this for you on Rosh Hashanah if you put in a certain amount of effort, but if you put in less effort, then your allocated amount is less. (Of course, there are certain cases where people work very hard and earn very little and yet other cases where people work very little and earn a lot; these are G-d’s decrees, and for whatever reason He is allocating a certain amount to a certain person irrespective of how hard he works and irrespective of his ability. That is G-d’s Decree for whatever reason and as we say this, too, is for the good.)
Thus, we have to put in our effort. This is the Talmudic principle of ain somchin al ha’ness, we do not rely on miracles. We cannot expect G-d to overturn the normal laws of nature to help us. He may intervene in certain ways and everything that happens in this world is ultimately a miracle, but we cannot rely on His changing the normal course of events to suit our needs. We have to try and earn a living following the normal order of events. We have to try and heal ourselves using normal means, all the while realising that it is ultimately in G-d’s hands.
G-d relates to us the way we relate to Him
Rav Bachya Ibn Pekuda, one of our great philosophers from the Middle Ages, says in his classic work of Jewish philosophy called Chovos HaLevavos, Duties of the Heart, that G-d deals with us in the same way that we deal with Him. Meaning, if we really believe that G-d has no role to play in the events in our lives and we put all of our hope and faith in the instruments and in human endeavours here on this earth, then G-d says fine, if you want to put all your faith in the physical norms and means of this world, then that will be what will govern your life. I will leave you to the fate of those random forces. If, on the other hand, we believe in G-d and that whatever we do on this earth is really just facilitating G-d’s involvement in this world, then G-d says because you put your faith in Me, I will take a personal interest in your life.
Thus, it is very important that we get a proper perspective on G-d’s role in our lives because G-d deals with us according to the way we perceive Him. I am the ultimate healer, G-d says. Realise that whatever happens, I am the ultimate doctor. The doctors on this earth are My emissaries to carry out My decrees. But remember, I am the source of all healing.
G-d is not just our physical healer, but our spiritual healer as well
There is another way to understand this, and that is not to read the verse “I am the Lord your Doctor” in the physical sense but rather in the spiritual sense. The Kli Yakar, one of our great commentators on the Chumash who lived a few hundred years ago, says that this verse is to be understood on a spiritual level. When the verse refers to the illnesses of Egypt which G-d will never let afflict us, it is talking about the spiritual illnesses of Egypt. Egypt at that time was the super-power of the world. It was also a very immoral society in terms of its worshipping of idols, in terms of its promiscuity, in terms of its blatant disregard for human rights, as evidenced by Pharaoh enslaving an entire nation – he instituted forced labour and wouldn’t let the people go. G-d says, I am your healer, your spiritual healer. I am coming to give you the Torah – My word, My principles – so that you do not suffer from the spiritual afflictions and the moral afflictions that you saw in Egypt.
The prerequisite for receiving the Torah is to know that we don’t know everything and that G-d is the ultimate source of knowledge
It is not insignificant that this promise that G-d is our healer was given specifically at Marah, the place of bitterness, where the bitter waters turned sweet by placing a piece of wood in it. According to Talmudic tradition the piece of wood that was placed in the waters was from the olive tree, which is actually bitter. Moshe put a bitter piece of wood in bitter water and made it sweet.
There was a very important message in this incident, in preparation for their receiving of the Torah. They could not just arrive at Mount Sinai and receive the Torah; they needed to learn certain lessons and develop a particular perspective, because they had just been redeemed from being a slave nation, from within a completely immoral society. The Kli Yakar explains that what happened at Marah – Moshe sweetening bitter waters by immersing a bitter wood in it – happened in order to teach that sometimes we see G-d’s laws which appear to be bitter and restrictive, but if we stick with these laws, they turn sweet. Sometimes the bitterness that we experience by these laws is because we are unwell – spiritually unwell – and therefore we are bothered by these principles and the laws that G-d gives us, because we are not ready for them. But if we stick with these laws, they eventually turn sweet for us.
The Kli Yakar touches on this point very briefly, but we can elaborate on it further. Often we don’t know what is good for us. That the water was bitter and the wood was bitter and it turned sweet doesn’t seem to make sense. The message is that we don’t actually understand how the world functions. Scientists can describe the world – for example, if you ask a scientist what electricity is, he will describe the flow of electrons to you – but that is only a description of what occurs, and only under certain physical circumstances. Do we really understand exactly what it is? Do we really understand how the world works? The laws of nature are not necessarily understood by simple common sense because they are devised by G-d. By showing the people how the bitter wood sweetens the bitter waters, G-d was demonstrating that we don’t actually understand how the world functions.
This was a prerequisite to receiving the Torah. G-d was saying, I am going to give you this Torah. You might think, oh, this law doesn’t make sense to me, that law I don’t agree with, the other I do agree with. G-d says, I know these laws because I created the world. I can take bitter and bitter and make sweet. You think these laws are bitter to you but they will actually make your life sweet. This is the mindset necessary for receiving the Torah.
The Torah is the manufacturer’s guide to life
The Torah is our manufacturer’s manual for life. If you use a washing machine, for example, and you don’t follow the instructions in the manual, then you cannot fault the manufacturer when the product malfunctions. If you tell them a certain rule in the manual didn’t make sense, that you don’t understand why you were told to do such and such and therefore decided to do it your own way, the manufacturer won’t accept that as a valid claim because they wrote the manual, and since when did you become an expert in manufacturing washing machines?
That is just a washing machine; we don’t understand how washing machines work, and we certainly don’t understand the complexity of the human being, the body, the soul, the emotions, society – and all of their respective dynamics. G-d in His infinite wisdom has given us all of the instructions on how to deal with these complexities and their dynamics, and we bow before His infinite wisdom because he is the ultimate Doctor.
When a doctor gives us medicine we don’t necessarily understand how it works. Sometimes the medicine tastes bitter but it makes us better. He says these pills are going to do this or that; we don’t understand, but we take them on faith because we trust the doctor. In a sense, the doctor himself doesn’t understand how it works. They describe the reality of how the body functions based on experiments that have been done. It’s a description of reality, but there is a domain of reality that even they cannot begin to penetrate. Hence doctors will be the first to acknowledge that medicine is an art and not a science, because they are merely describing physical phenomena and are not fully capable of understanding the depth of those phenomena and the many variables within the human body.
This is the prerequisite to going to Mount Sinai: G-d says, I am your Doctor, trust Me. And if there is one doctor in the world that we can trust that is G-d Himself. That is why, according to Talmudic tradition, some laws were actually given to them while at Marah, at the bitter waters. One of these was the commandment to keep Shabbos.
The timelessness of Shabbos
The Kli Yakar explains that the commandment of Shabbos was given at Marah because Shabbos testifies to the fact that G-d created the world. G-d is saying, I am the Creator of the world. I created the world from nothing, and I can make bitter plus bitter equal sweet. Therefore, keep My Shabbos to acknowledge that I am the Creator.
Shabbos especially is one of those laws about which people think they know better, that they can find a way out of it. Some question, why do we have to do this? Why can’t we drive a car? Why can’t we turn on electricity? And all of these types of questions. But Shabbos is actually amazing in that here in the modern world we have the opportunity of having more than 24 hours every single week, in complete peace and tranquillity: no telephones, no television sets, no noise of cars. We walk wherever we go; families sit around a table together, sing together, study together, chat together, go to shul together; families bond, communities connect.
Some people think, well, in the modern world, who needs Shabbos? That was for the olden days. Yet G-d says, I am your Doctor. This law was given for all times and you might not realise it but this is your healing for all times. We need Shabbos. Sometimes people say, “but you know Shabbos just isn’t for modern times.” I always laugh when I hear people say this, because if anything, Shabbos is more relevant now than it has ever been before.
In olden times, people lived much less pressurised lives. If you wanted to write to someone you sent a letter by boat and it arrived three months later. By the time you got a reply, another few months had passed. Nowadays, if an email comes and you haven’t replied by mid-morning, your clients think, what sort of an office is this? Why don’t they reply to emails? We are living under much more stressful conditions than in previous generations. Says G-d, I am the Lord your Doctor, your Healer; you need Shabbos, it is good for you.
Judaism is holistic
These two dimensions of the verse “I am the Lord your Doctor,” – that G-d is the source of all physical and all spiritual healing in this world – really go to the heart of what Judaism is about. Judaism is holistic and views a human being as an integrated whole, comprised of body and of soul, intellect and emotion. Judaism does not claim that we are merely intellectual, or merely emotional or physical. We are a combination of all of these and that is what true healing is about: holistic spiritual health. G-d gave us commandments which relate to every dimension of what it means to be a human being.
The trend in medicine today is that doctors should not only focus on healing sickness but on promoting healthy living and fostering health. That is what Judaism is about: not just healing from illness but providing guidelines for healthy living. Healthy living means integrated, wholesome living where every dimension of the human being is functioning well and is given full expression, be it in the social sphere, the family sphere, or the communal sphere, and the intellectual, emotional, and physical realm. Thus we have commandments that relate to marriage, to children, to community, and how to relate to our fellow human beings with kindness, compassion and dignity; commandments that relate to our emotions and characters, such as prayer, not to be arrogant, not to be quick to anger; commandments that relate to the intellectual side, for example, connecting to G-d through Torah study; and commandments that relate to the physical side, namely, commandments we perform by physical actions, such as putting on tefillin or lighting Shabbos candles.
Health is about integrated, well-balanced living. G-d is saying, I have the recipe for good healthy living, I am the Lord your Doctor, your Healer, in every dimension. Thus G-d’s laws cover every facet of human existence, with the ultimate goal to be shalem, complete, in every dimension. The commentaries explain that this concept, shalem, being complete relates to the Hebrew word shalom, peace, that magical quality we all seek. This is not referring to peace around the world, but to an inner peace, which comes from being complete. This completeness comes from healthy living, living a balanced, integrated, wholesome life in accordance with the Will of G-d in every aspect of our lives.