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Is G‑d My Doctor?

Is G‑d My Doctor?

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There’s a well-known Kabbalistic teaching that characterizes the Hebrew month of Iyar as an auspicious time for healing. Numerous reasons are offered to explain this idea, some more mystical than others.

But an immediate question that comes to mind in response to this rather magical notion is: why on earth should there be an “auspicious time” for healing at all? Whether we view the practice of medicine as purely a function of biological science (as most do in the modern era) or as a traditional body of knowledge based upon an age-old understanding of nature’s ways (as exemplified by the field of Oriental medicine, in which I am trained), the treatment of illness is first and foremost logical and down-to-earth. Medical professionals and patients alike are looking for medicine, not mysticism. What’s Kabbalah doing butting in?

Why on earth should there be an “auspicious time” for healing altogether?

I’ll soon suggest an answer to that. But let’s first examine some of the rationales behind this idea that Iyar is a healing month.

In biblical history we find that it was during the month of Iyar that the Children of Israel, newly liberated from Egyptian slavery, began eating the manna—that magical, fresh-daily, heavenly health food that healed all our afflictions and sustained us for forty years in the wilderness.1 Makes sense, more or less: eat well, get well.

In a more esoteric vein, the Hebrew name of the month itself, spelled aleph, yud, yud, reish, is an acronym for “ani Hashem (represented by two yuds) rof’echa.”2 That was G‑d’s proclamation at the beginning of Iyar, as we made our way toward Mount Sinai, by which He announced His healthcare coverage guarantee: “Keep My commandments, and you won’t get sick . . . because I am the L‑rd, your healer.”3

In the context of all the signs and wonders of the biblical narrative, this fits in pretty well. We had just witnessed ten awesome plagues in Egypt—rivers of blood; frogs and pestilence and fiery hail; darkness in daytime and the slaying of the firstborn—and the unimaginable spectacle of the splitting of the sea. Soon we would experience divine revelation at Sinai, and hear the voice of G‑d. With all that going on, what’s a little miraculous faith healing among friends? Doesn’t seem too far-fetched.

But the Torah, we are told, is intended as a practical guide and a teaching for all time. In the world we inhabit, miracles are somewhat harder to come by than in biblical times. In fact, the consensus of rabbinical counsel today is that we are not to rely on miracles, that a sick person should consult a doctor, that we should avail ourselves of the best of medical care. Doctors are called “physicians,” because a physical illness calls for a physical cure. And there is a biblical source for that as well. One whose negligence causes injury is obliged to pay for the injured party’s losses and medical care: “V’rapo yerapei—and he shall take responsibility for his healing.”4 The Talmud5 goes on to say, “From here we derive that the physician is permitted to heal.”

Who is the healer, really: G‑d or the physician?

Is there a conflict here? Who is the healer, really: G‑d or the physician? (Let’s not get into the old gag about the difference between the Almighty and a surgeon: “G‑d doesn’t think He’s a doctor.”)

Our plot thickens when we consider that in Judaism there appears to be, on the one hand, a significant legacy of practical medical teachings; and on the other hand, a strong tradition of eschewing medical intervention in favor of faith. Many of the great luminaries—Noah, Shem, Moses, King Solomon, King Hezekiah, Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, the Baal Shem Tov, to name just a few throughout history—were healers, herbalists, physicians or keepers of the healing secrets. Yet the Talmud6 unequivocally praises King Hezekiah for hiding the Sefer Refuot (Book of Remedies), because people had come to rely on medical techniques rather than turn to G‑d for a cure. The Book of Chronicles records that King Asa of Judah died from an ailment of the feet because he chose to consult doctors and failed to seek divine mercy.7

From a Torah perspective, illness is seen as a red flag, a wakeup call. It’s a sign that we have somehow compromised our connection to G‑d, the source of health and wellbeing. To heal ourselves, we restore the connection. That may very well include some logical, common-sense choices about the ways we eat and exercise and breathe and behave—but not to the exclusion of attending to the spiritual connection as well. It may also involve consulting a doctor and receiving medical treatment—on the understanding that the physician is the agent of G‑d’s healing power.

Illness is seen as a red flag, a wakeup call.

It’s not either/or—either G‑d as Healer, or the physician’s “permission” to heal. Faith and reason, spirituality and science, meet in the treatment room. Faith is not blind; it is not irrational. It is the willingness to acknowledge and embrace that which is beyond our understanding, without having to forfeit our ability to understand. It is the cultivation of trust in a Higher Power whose power may not yet be evident to us, while doing everything in our power to think well, do well and be well.

Those who cultivate such trust are the most likely to experience the positive effects of medicine. Why do some people get better, while others with similar illnesses and similar treatment do not? There’s no one simple answer to that question, but the latest research8 into the “placebo effect”—the aspect of medical care that creates positive expectations—is demonstrating scientifically how such factors as faith, trust, and the quality of the therapeutic relationship can contribute significantly to a successful cure. The ideal approach to healthcare combines a trusting, optimistic attitude with intelligent, responsible medical expertise.

So what does this have to do with Iyar as a month of healing? In the Hebrew calendar, Iyar follows the month of Nissan—the month of Passover, our miraculous escape from Egyptian slavery. (Even the name Nissan is derived from the word nes, “miracle.”) There was nothing rational or natural about our exodus from Egypt. We weren’t ready; freedom was not our achievement, but a gift from G‑d. We fled as though on eagles’ wings, uncertain of where we might touch down. But in the weeks that followed, in the month of Iyar, we proceeded step by step, day by day, on foot, toward Sinai. Still shaking with the awe and enthusiasm of the miracles of Nissan, now we needed to make steady progress, under our own steam, in Iyar. With every daily meal of manna, we internalized G‑d’s healing power and learned to take responsibility for our own growth and our own freedom. At the very end of Iyar we arrived at the foot of Mount Sinai, healed from the trauma of Egyptian bondage, ready to receive and embrace the Torah.

Freedom was not our achievement, but a gift from G‑d.

In our modern-day commemoration of these events, we follow up the high-flying celebration of the Passover miracles in Nissan with the daily, disciplined mitzvah of counting the Omer throughout Iyar. The Kabbalistic significance of these days of counting involves the step-by-step rectification of our character traits. Inspired and energized by the sudden freedom bestowed upon us at Passover, in Iyar we learn to internalize and apply the divine power by taking personal responsibility for getting better every day.

Now we can see why Iyar is considered, in the Kabbalah, such an auspicious time for healing: it is the meeting place of the miraculous healing hand of G‑d (ani Hashem rof’echa) and a human being’s everyday practical commitment to personal improvement (v’rapo yerapei). Each day of the month of Iyar we take another step on the road to revelation at Sinai, where heaven descends down to earth, and earthly beings learn to rise above their pain. Man and his Maker: what a healing team!

Footnotes
1.

R. Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, B’nei Yisaschar, first discourse on Iyar.

2.

Chatam Sofer, Shabbat 147b.

5.

Bava Kamma 85a.

6.

Pesachim 56a.

7.

Some commentators emphasize the fact that there are healing practices which are not just medicinal, but idolatrous, and therefore forbidden. However, even natural cures have been criticized as constituting a failure to rely on G‑d. For an excellent, scholarly discussion of Judaism’s evolving attitude toward doctors, see Nigel Allan, “The Physician in Ancient Israel: His Status and Function,” Medical History 45 (2001): 377–394.

8.

For example, the ground-breaking work that is being done at Harvard Medical School’s Program in Placebo Studies.

Simcha Gottlieb's pioneering contributions to the evolution of Jewish programming include some of the earliest offerings of Chabad.org and Jewish Educational Media.
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Malka Miami, Fl May 3, 2012

very clear, yet spiritual (the two don't always go hand in hand...) Maybe this should be printed, laminated, and left in doctor office waiting rooms--wise words to ponder while waiting for Hashem's agent to do the physical aspect of the healing. (and by the way, something tells me that your wife had a hand in the writing of this article---ya'asher koach to you both!) Reply