The year 1989. On a global scale it was a memorable year. It was the year that the Berlin Wall came down. It was the year of the Tianamen Square incident. It was the year that the Exxon Valdez spilled oil off the coast of Alaska. 1989 was a memorable year for me personally as well. You see, 1989 was the year that it was discovered that I had a 16 centimeter in diameter spherical tumor on my left ovary. It was gnarly.
It had skin cells, hair cells, its own tooth. It was called a Teratoma–latin for “Monster Tumor”- and it needed to be taken out STAT! And it was. And, yes, I am fine. But back then, I had a lot of time in the hospital and then at home to recover. This was before iPhones, and so, I had a lot of time to think about the whirlwind of my particular ailment.
Why do people get sick? Why did I get sick? First, I launched a scientific exploration of Teratomas and their genesis- was it a genetic predisposition? Was it caused by anything specific that I might have done? Scientifically speaking, the answer was “no.” It was a simple mutation– something went awry and my body began to produce life matter.
But, this answer left me disappointed– there had to be a reason, right? Something that caused this effect, right? Was it something I did that brought this out? And so, 1989 was the year I began my theological exploration of illness.
Out of curiosity, how many of us assembled here have been to the doctor because of illness in the past 6 months? How many of you have accompanied a loved one to a doctor’s appointment for an illness in the past 6 months? Is that all of us?
Have you ever thought about the theology of that? You know, the theology of illness? Where is God in illness? What does Judaism say?
This week’s Torah portion, Metzora, is all about physical ailments–particularly afflictions of the skin called Tzara’at. It is a white scaly illness that strikes people. In the book of Leviticus, the High Priest is instructed to diagnose and prescribe treatment for the afflicted. But, on
the whole, it is treated as a spiritual deficiency. It is treated as a malady of the spirit– a person needs to perform a ritual, sit outside the camp for 7 days before being declared clean, then perform a second ritual sacrifice before finally being able to return.1 And, even after that, the priest shall also then perform an atonement sacrifice for the afflicted as well.2 So, here in the Torah, the cure for disease was spirit related– it was through prayer and sacrifice that a person would be purified. Moreover, the disease was a clear way that the Divine was trying to convey a
message to the afflicted– disease revealed Divine displeasure in a person’s moral behavior. The rabbis explain that leprosy itself is the result of immoral behavior– specifically, of gossip. They cite the fact that Miriam, Moses’ sister is afflicted with tzara’at immediately following mention that she gossiped about Moses’ wife.
But, over time, the rabbis, disheartened by the idea that those around them were stricken with illness as Divine punishment, minimized this suggested explanation for illness significantly. For example, 16th century Italian Rabbi Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforno insisted that the principle not be applied to all illness, and not even to all skin illnesses, but to be reserved only specifically to some disease called Tzara’at which is something that we think is like leprosy or psoraiasis, and therefore, who really knows if anyone really has it anyway, and therefore no one REALLY would fall under the category of “an ill person who is being Divinely punished.” That means that illness is NOT the result of Divine punishment! Thank goodness he and others worked out the concept thoughtfully — 500 years before the right wing were saying that the AIDS epidemic was the result of God’s dissatisfaction with gay men.
So, what is illness then, theologically, anyway? In a 1994 article in Sh’ma Magazine, Rabbi Nancy Flam reflected on this question.
A woman who she calls “Rebekah” was a successful psychologist who was diagnosed with a dangerous form of breast cancer. Though, interestingly, she responded with gratitude for the fact that being diagnosed with such an illness forced her to stop and examine the significance of her life. She didn’t experience it as God sending her this disease with “the intent of helping her reorder her life.” Instead, she related to it as a difficult random event in the universe, and from this random event, she simply chose to create some goods. And, she did.
Jewish theologian Victor Frankel would agree with Rebekah’s analysis–that bad things, like disease, aren’t the work of an angry God; rather, they are simply “painful fractures of physical creation.”3 I’m going to say that again: bad things, like disease, aren’t the work of an angry God; rather, they are simply “painful fractures of physical creation.”4 Rabbi Nancy Flam eloquently relates, “Physical bodies are limited; they are created with a finite capacity for life and health. They are vulnerable to disease, injury and decay. We are created and, without exception, pass away. This is part of God’s holy design.”5 That is to say: If you are ill, or someone you know is ill, it is not punishment. It is not because of something you did. It just is. It is part of life in the way it was designed.
Debbie Friedman wrote that powerful and lovely melody and translation of the Mi Sheberach. The quintessential prayer for healing. And in the forward to the book, Jewish Paths toward Healing and Wholeness, she shared:
I have been engaged in the process of healing for all my adult life. Once faced with the physical limitations imposed upon me, I found that the healing process took on new dimensions. It was no longer enough to intellectually acknowledge the constant struggle in which I was engaged. My challenge was different now. I had to move beyond my seeking out a place in the world which was safe and comfortable…At this time I was forced to take part in what was to be a constant battle with my body. I often had no choice but to surrender to the power of its constraints.6 Knowing that we will all ultimately finally surrender to the power of the body’s constraints, how do we help those around us do so with dignity or with honor?
We begin to realize that comforting someone who suffers from illness is a great mitzvah. Bringing rachamim/mercy/dignity/ care into their suffering is a great human kindness. We may learn from Rabbi Akiva, who, upon visiting his sick disciple, cleaned his room. When that was done, the man was revived!7 Now it sounds odd that he cleaned the ill person’s room, doesn’t it? Maybe Rabbi Akiva didn’t know what to do once he got there. But the point is that he showed up. And he tried to give human dignity to the person; to show him decency. And, that was a blessing.
Cantor Sue Deutsch, who some of you know from Cantor Juval’s concerts, wrote in her book, The Healing Hand, about how the power of prayer may different than one might think. She shares,
When I went to visit a congregant in the hospital, I arrived to her screaming. She was afraid of having medication that had to be injected into her belly. As I arrived, I asked the nurses if I could pray with her to calm her down. Was the woman locked her gaze with mine while I held her hand, I said the Shemah, one of the most-known Hebrew prayers, and she responded in kind, not even flinching as the needle went into her belly. As she had been refusing food for three days, I told her that the next prayer might be better if she took a spoonful of soup in between each word and then proceeded to feed her while singing. Prayer can be chicken soup for the body and soul indeed.8
One may not know the difference a visit can make until one is truly present. But, even simply being present with the person is a sacred act. It is interesting that even on Shabbat, the day that we theologically think that God is resting, Jewish tradition permits petitions for healing. Requests for health are never off limits. They are always welcome, even to a resting God.
1 Leviticus 14:8
2 Leviticus 14:31
3 Deutsch, Sue in The Healing Hand.
6 Friedman, Debbie, in Kerry Olitzsky’s Jewish Paths Toward Healing and Wholeness, Forward page xv.
7 BT Berachot 39b
8 Deutsch, Cantor Sue. The Healing Hand.