Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 21 November 2009 / 3 Kislev 5770

Malady or Medicine

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Jennie

Dear Rabbi,

What is the Torah’s position on healing? Since everything is from G-d, do sickness and ailments have to be suffered because that’s G-d’s will? Or can we try to cure the maladies sent by G-d? If so, doesn’t that undermine His intentions?

Dear Jennie,

According to Judaism, everything that happens, whether we perceive it as good or as bad, comes from G-d – including illness and ailments.

Of course, in the case of physical sickness, there are natural causes and venues through which the illness or malady is contracted or occurs. But the root of the illness and a person’s susceptibility to it are from G-d.

G-d often sends the sickness as a warning signal that something is not only physically out of balance, but spiritually out of sync as well. This is not a curse but rather a blessing in disguise because it enables us to do spiritual reckoning and find out where we need correcting.

Would a person moving his hand toward fire resent the pain from the heat causing him to recoil before roasting his fingers? Would he complain, “Why did G-d have to cause me this pain?” Of course not! He’d be thankful for the pain that saved him from serious harm. So too sickness is viewed as a warning sign that he may need to recoil from or adjust what he’s doing wrong before causing serious damage.

The converse is also true: Just as one wouldn’t reconcile himself to the pain from the flame based on the reasoning that it’s from G-d but would rather recoil, so too in healing. Our recognition that illness comes from G-d does not mean we are to reconcile ourselves to the pain but rather we must remove the malady – spiritually by recoiling from transgression and physically by seeking a cure.

This is the meaning of the teaching of the Sages that G-d gives permission and allows the doctor to heal. G-d brings sickness not because He wants there to be sickness, but because He wants there to be healing, both physical and spiritual. A person’s attempt to cure his body must be accompanied by an attempt to mend his ways.

The Torah describes how the People, audaciously complaining about their condition in the desert despite G-d’s miraculous provision for them, were smitten by a plague of poisonous snakes in which many died. The people realized they were being punished for their venomous speech against G-d and Moses and repented. G-d told Moses to fashion a snake and place it on a pole for the people to see (probably the original source for the well-known symbol of Medicine, see our article The Healing Serpent). So, “Moses made a copper snake and put it on a pole, and whenever a snake bit a man, he would gaze upon the copper snake and live” (Numbers 21:5-9).

Commenting on this event, our Sages challenged, “And does the copper snake cause life or death? Rather, those who saw the snake and humbled themselves before G-d in repentance were cured, those who didn’t were not” (Rosh Hashanah 29a).

From these sources we see that illness comes from G-d not because He wants illness but rather because He wants us to correct our ways. If we focus on the spiritual malady underlying the sickness, G-d finds favor in the doctor’s attempt to heal. After all, the illness was only brought in order to alarm us to the need for spiritual realigning. With this approach, healing does not undermine G-d’s intention; it brings us in line with His will.

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