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This Week's Torah Portion: The Only True Source of Healing (Part 32)

We're publishing a weekly series of articles covering each week's Torah portion as a rabbi (such as the author) might do via a talk in a synagogue. The series is tailored so it may also be read by non-Jews who may be interested in how Jews read and interpret Scripture. Click here for the first article in the series.

Devar Torah -- Parashath eChuqqothai (Number 32)

“And I will place My dwelling in your midst and My soul will not loathe you.” (XXVII,11)

Rashi explains the concerpt of “loathing” (gë‘ila) as follows: “Every gë‘ila is an expulsion of something which has been absorbed into something else.” For those readers with a living knowledge of the Hebrew language and observant of Jewish tradition, the idea is perhaps best conveyed in terms of the kashering of metal pots for Passover through hag‘alath hakélim, immersing them in a much larger pot of boiling water in order that any residue of chamétz (“leavened material”) will be “expelled” from the pot. It therefore follows that what G-d is telling us (as the great 12th century sage Avraham ibn ‘Ezra puts it) is “for when I go to the land of your enemies and the Temple is no longer with you, My glory will go about in your midst.” The Jewish people will not be abandoned at any point by Ha-Shem.

On this verse and this concept hangs a famous controversy in which I have a deep and abiding personal interest.

The 13th century sage Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (known affectionately by his initials as Ramban) sees in this a promise of Divine fidelity to Israel as a nation and as individuals; so log as we keep our side of the bargain, Ha-Shem will keep His. To translate the Ramban’s words: “For when a pious man keeps all  the commandments of Ha-Shem his G-d, G-d will keep him from sickness and barrenness and bereavement, and his days will be filled with good.” The Ramban argues this point at some length, and cites examples from the Bible in which famous historical personages consulted prophets, not physicians. He urges their example upon us, too, enjoining consulting physicians or using “natural” means of healing; instead we should throw ourselves upon Divine mercy and have bittachon, trust, in Ha-Shem’s promise not to abandon us.

For the other side of the debate we can turn to Rabbi Bachya ibn Paquda’s classic 11th century ethical work Chovoth Halëvavoth (“Duties of the Hearts”) in which he argues that, to the contrary, we must engage in every possible means of healing in this world, consulting physicians and heeding their advice, taking the drugs and undergoing the therapies prescribed. What the concept of bittachon demands of us is that, even as we undergo these various treatments, we do not place our trust and faith in them. Rather, we need to recognize that the doctors and their drugs are only instruments in the hands of the Divine Healer, that G-d is the only true source of healing, but that He works through the doctors and druggists.

It goes without saying that most people conduct themselves according to the latter view. Certainly all of us are accustomed to consult physicians and pharmacists concerning our physical ailments whenever we feel the need and accompany those treatments with prayer and psalms, Torah learning and donations to tzëdaqa (here defined roughly as “charity”) to promote a rëfu’a shëléyma, a “perfect healing.” The Ramban’s view seems somehow strange and extreme, shades of “faith healing"; after all, we say, the general rule is that one doesn’t rely on miracles and that there must be “an awakening below before there can be an awakening Above.”

Isn’t it?