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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.”
It is interesting that the Ramban himself in another context makes much the same argument. The occasion is Noah’s mission to build the ark and fill it with two, and in some cases seven, of each land animal in the world. There are so many species of animals, and some, such as elephants and hippopotami, are so huge, and then sufficient food for each creature had to be stored for a year – surely it was impossible for the ark to begin to provide enough room by nature; clearly a miracle was going to happen.
If so, what did it matter that Noah had to make so large a box? He could have slapped together a small box and the same miracle would have taken place. The difference is not qualitative, one might argue, but merely quantitative.
Perhaps that might be so, counters the Ramban, but Noah had received a specific, Divine command to build it to certain dimensions, “for thus is the way of all the miracles in the Torah or by means of a prophet, to do everything which is within the grasp of man to do, and the rest will be in the hands of Heaven.”
If so, why doesn’t he say the same thing of healing? What is the real difference between the sides in this dispute?
To understand what the Ramban really thinks, let’s examine his approach to another passage in the Torah. In Genesis XII,1 we read that immediately after Avraham had reached the promised land to which Ha-Shem had led him, he was forced to leave: “And there was a famine in the land, and Avram descended to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was heavy in the land.”
Rashi ad loc. tells us that this famine was unique to Canaan, sent by G-d to test Avram’s faith by driving him away from the very destination to which he had been directed. The implication is that Avraham passed the test by refusing to question Ha-Shem’s purpose in first directing him to a place, then immediately diving him thence, and was rewarded for it (cf. also Rabbi ‘Ovadya mi-Bartenura on Avoth V,3).
But the Ramban sees the incident and its implications differently: “And know that Avraham our father sinned a great sin inadvertently [chét’ gadol bishgaga]…and he should have trusted that Ha-Shem would rescue him…for G-d has power to help and to rescue…the sin which he sinned was that G-d would have redeemed him in the famine from death; because of this act, it was decreed that his descendants would be exiled to Egypt under Pharaoh’s hand….”
Arguably we have a dispute here between Rashi and the Ramban (as, indeed, some later commentators conclude; cf. e.g. Radal on Pirqei dëRabbi Eli‘ezer 26). However, Rabbi Ya ‘aqov Kaminetsky in his Emeth lëYa‘aqov argues that there is no dispute here at all. Rashi, he explains, is addressing the level of spiritual development at which Avraham found himself at that moment, “for he had not yet reached the pinnacle of perfection (not yet become a shalém gamur, to quote his exact words).” At that level, to head for a land which was unaffected by the famine was a perfectly rational and reasonable act; to do so without questioning Ha-Shem’s purpose in having brought him to the famine-stricken county in the first place was laudable.
However, the Ramban, he argues, is addressing what Avraham was destined to become, the greatness already present in him in potential, even though it had not yet been realized. In my humble opinion, this is why the Ramban refers to Avraham’s transgression as a chét’ gadol bishgaga; the term shëgaga denotes an inadvertent or unintentional action which occurred because of inattention or unawareness, an “accident” not due to circumstances beyond one’s control (for which the technical Hebrew term is ones) but because one was not sufficiently vigilant or insightful to prevent its happening. By using this term the Ramban would seem to suggest that, wherever Avraham was at this time in his spiritual development, he had it in him to be greater, and therefore inadvertently sinned.
This, I believe, is also the distinction to be drawn between the Ramban and the Chovoth Halëvavoth in the matter of bittachon and the practice of medicine. The Ramban wants us to know what we should be, what we can aspire to be; he wants us to know of the innate greatness of which every human being is potentially capable right now, wherever he or she actually is on the spiritual spectrum.
However, Ha-Shem in His mercy does not hold us to our potential, only to what and where we actually are. As the Ramban himself says of those who have not yet reached this level of perfection: “Ha-Shem has left them to natural occurrences….Whence [we see] that permission is granted to the physician to heal.” In short, we have the position of the Chovoth Halëvavoth, that the true source of healing is Ha-Shem Who only grants permission to the physicians to act as His instruments.
Until or unless we achieve the status of a shalém gamur, this is the course we must follow. It is the course which, with G-d’s help, I am following.