If men fight and one strikes his fellow with a stone or a fist…he shall pay for healing. (21:18-19).
The Talmud (Berachos 60a) infers from this verse that “permission was given to a doctor to heal.” This is a difficult idea to accept; do we really need an explicit verse in the Torah to let us know that it is okay to go to a doctor? Are we Christian Scientists, who believe that one need only pray when there is an illness but that (s)he should not go to a doctor? In “Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures,” Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, wrote that anyone who goes to a doctor “invites defeat.” If not for the verse above, is this really something that would fit our theology?
The Talmud (Bava Basra 10a) relates a discussion between Turnus Rufus, a 2nd century Roman governor who fought against the Jews, and Rabbi Akiva. He (Turnus Rufus) postulated that G-d will punish us for giving charity to the poor; if G-d choose to make this person poor, what right do we have to go against His will? He compared it to a king who was angry at one of his servants, imprisoned him, and ordered that he not be given any food or drink. If someone came and fed him, the king would surely be angry. So, too, if G-d has decreed that a person be ill, what right do we have to interfere with that decree?
Rabbi Akiva argued that the analogy was not accurate. The true comparison was that of a king who loved his son but was angry at him. Even though he gave an order to imprison him without food or drink, he would not be angry with someone who decided to feed him; he would even be pleased. We are called children, as it says (Deuteronomy 4:1), “You are children to Hashem, your G-d.” Turnus Rufus rejoined that the Jews are considered G-d’s children only when they do His will. Rabbi Akiva answered that even when they are rebellious, they are still called his children. As the verse states, Distribute your bread to the hungry, and bring the poor, who are cast out, into your house. (Isaiah 58:7). The verse instructs the people to “distribute your bread to the hungry” when the poor are “cast out,” meaning even when they do not abide by G-d’s will.
Rabbi Akiva’s reply might make us feel good but Turnus Rufus’s argument is a logical one. If G-d punishes a person, do we have the right to interfere by bettering his or her lot? Perhaps this is why the Sages sought an explicit verse that a doctor was, indeed, granted permission to heal someone who, for whatever reason, G-d choose to make ill.
The theological tension between God’s control of health and the role of the human healer is encapsulated by the opening words of the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) in its discussion of the laws applying to physicians : “The Torah gives permission to the physician to heal; moreover, this is a mitzvah (religious obligation) and it is included in the mitzvah of saving a life; and, if (s)he withholds his services, (s)he is considered as one who sheds blood.”
If one is supposed to go to a doctor and the doctor has a mitzvah to heal, how do we understand the following incident in the biblical book of Chronicles: King Asa became ill and “did not seek out G-d, but only doctors” (II Chronicles 16:12).
If healing and guarding health are mitzvos, what did King Asa do wrong? The answer is obvious; he ignored G-d and went directly to doctors. Healing is a partnership between G-d and a humanity. While G-d is the ultimate healer, He delegates part of His role to humans and asks the physician to practice medicine for the good of humanity. In addition, one must pray that (s)he finds the right doctor who can cure him or her.
The Jewish approach to illness and medicine requires us to recognize the preeminent role of G-d in healing, while seeking appropriate medical care. We view doctors as G-d’s agents. Asa’s mistake was seeking out the doctors only, without recognizing G-d as the ultimate healer.
But one does not need to be a doctor to be an agent of G-d. Sara and I realized this last week while visiting my parents. We were having a conversation at dinner and my mother began coughing softly. It seemed to be a regular cough until she went into the kitchen and continued to cough; Sara and I followed her into the kitchen. She made a frightening facial expression and we knew something was wrong. Sara came from behind and performed the Heimlich Maneuver. A few seconds later, a piece of food became dislodged from her throat and she was fine. It was a frightening moment and we slowly made our way back to the table while reflecting on what had just occurred. My father asked Sara what she did and how she knew how to do it. She said, “I learned how to do the Heimlich Maneuver in a Red Cross First Aid course in 9th grade and haven’t thought about it since then until tonight. I said a prayer while I was doing it; I was merely an agent.” We were grateful not only for everything that happened but also the living lesson Sara taught us by acting with alacrity-both physically and spiritually.
The next time someone needs a doctor, or has the opportunity to help someone, (s)he must remember that we all have a mitzvah to guard our health and express gratitude to any doctor who allows us to do so and the doctor or responder must also remember that (s)he is an agent and pray that the treatment is effective.
May we always remember the One who is the Source of all healing.