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Parshiyyot BeHar-Bechukotai 5777 — 05/20/2017

Parshiyyot BeHar-Bechukotai 5777 — 05/20/2017

BeHar: Vayikra 25:1-26:2

Bechukotai: Vayikra 26:3-27:34

I will assign upon you panic, swelling lesions and burning fever which cause eyes to long and souls to suffer (15:26).

…if you heed His Mitzvot and guard His decrees, all of the afflictions which I placed upon Egypt I will not place upon you, for I am Hashem your Healer (Shemot 16:26)

Our verses seem to indicate that health and disease are directly correlated with our actions in the moral sphere.  If we are righteous we will be healthy, if not, we will be visited with diseases.  If this is the case, if we get sick, there is no need to visit a physician, we merely have to repent truly for our wrongdoing and correct our ways, and the disease will disappear.

Ramchal writes:

Many mistakenly believe that afflictions result from natural causes and immediately seek out a physician.  They must understand that affliction results from negative actions and they should work on self-introspection to uncover the spiritual cause of the affliction.  When they identify these negative actions they must repent in order for the suffering to come to an end.  There will be no need for a physician because Hashem’s holy people are not bound by any laws of nature, for He is above all nature.

Ramban, who was himself a physician, makes the same point (some 500 years earlier).

When the Jewish People are in a state of spiritual perfection, neither their physical bodies nor their country, nor any of their other affairs are governed by nature at all. This applies to the nation as a whole and to each individual Jew. For Gd `will bless their bread and their water, and remove illness from their midst’ (Exodus 23:25). They will have no need of doctors, nor will they have to follow medical procedures even as precautionary measures, `For I, Gd, am your healer’ (Exodus 15:26). In the era of prophecy, the tzaddikim acted accordingly. Even if they happened to sin and became sick, they consulted not doctors but prophets, as did King Hezekiah when he was sick (Kings II, 20, 2-3). …

   What place do doctors have in the house of those who carry out the will of Gd, after He promised that `He will bless their bread and their water, and remove illness from their midst’? The only function of the medical profession should be to give nutritional advice – what to eat and drink and what to avoid. …

   As for the rabbinic comment on the verse, `He shall cause him to be thoroughly healed’ (Exodus 21:19) – `from here we learn that the physician has been given sanction to heal’ (Berachot 60a) – they did not say that license has been given to the sick to resort to medicine! … But when a person’s ways find favor in Gd’s eyes, he has no business with doctors.”

   (Commentary to Vayikra 26:11) [Here is the full quote]

A disclaimer – the FDA has not evaluated these statements.  The advice to seek out a prophet instead of a physician is not strictly applicable in our times, when there are no prophets to consult.  If you are sick, please seek appropriate medical care!

Despite these verses, we see around us that many evil people enjoy good health, or heal quickly from their afflictions without repentance, while many righteous people do get sick and die, sometimes in a great deal of pain.  Ramchal gives the standard Rabbinical answers: afflictions are brought by Gd to induce a person to repent – if he doesn’t respond, Gd either has to figure out a new pedagogic approach or just let him go his own way to perdition.  And if a righteous person suffers, seemingly undeservedly, in this world, it is to completely purify his soul so that he gains maximum reward in the world to come.

What we appear to have here is a very different view of the way nature functions than the scientific worldview with which we are familiar in Western culture.  The entire basis of science is that there are laws of nature that assure that nature functions in a regular manner, one that can be predicted, and, at times, manipulated.  These laws of nature exist independently of any Creator; when queried about Divine intervention in the workings of nature, the great French scientist Laplace is supposed to have told Napoleon “I have no need for that hypothesis.”  Of course the Bible is rife with instances of Divine intervention, for example, the splitting of the Sea, and Elijah’s test at Mt. Carmel (I Kings Chapter 18).

Ramban states very clearly elsewhere that laws of nature don’t really exist – whatever happens is directly the Will of Gd, Who oversees every minute bit of creation at every moment in time.  But Gd “hides” as it were behind the regularity of nature.  The nature of this hiding is that if we only use our senses to derive knowledge of the world, we will come to the mistaken conclusion that the created world is self-sufficient.  If we refine our vision however, we come to the conclusion that the regularity we see around us is not a given, self-sufficient reality, but rather an expression of Gd’s Will.  The laws of nature, nature’s regular functioning, are what he calls “hidden miracles,” while the instances of obvious Divine intervention are “open miracles.”

It appears to me that Ramban comes perilously close to abandoning free will with this argument, for if Gd not only foresees everything, but actually manipulates everything, then what room is there for moral choices?  Reconciling free will with Gd’s omniscience is hard enough!

In general, when we have a conundrum like this, it is because we are approaching the problem from fundamentally different perspectives.  On the level of our normal waking state things are either black or white, objects are discrete, bound in space and time.  What you see is what you get.  It is only when we begin to peer more deeply into phenomena that we find that our assumptions may be wrong.  For example, our assumption that objects are discrete particles moving through space and time is belied by the quantum-mechanical behavior of very small particles.  On that scale of time, space and energy, particles actually act as waves, and therefore are not really localized at all.  On an even deeper level, physicists believe that there is actually one unified underlying field whose modes of vibration are what we perceive on the surface as particles and their interactions.  From this perspective, everything is controlled by the internal dynamics of the one unified field.

In our tradition we find the same kind of situation in the human realm.  On the surface, we appear to be individual actors, autonomous but related, interacting.  Within us, however, we each have a soul, which is unbounded and eternal, “a piece of the Divine from Above” as the Sages put it.  At the basis of all creation, from the surface to the depths of the soul, is Gd.  Gd is unchanging, eternal, transcendental to the creation, yet intimately involved in it.  In fact, our tradition tells us that Gd is all that exists – ayn od milvado / “there is nothing but Him” does not mean that there are no other gods besides Hashem, but that nothing at all exists outside of Hashem.  From this perspective, everything is, so-to-speak, Gd’s internal dynamics.  How can Gd have internal dynamics if Gd is a pure, unchanging Unity?  That is a very good question, and the only answer I can think of is that these dynamics are a kind of virtual dynamics, but the truth is that this is a reality that is beyond words and ideas and conceptions.

So perhaps our conundrum boils down to what state of consciousness we’re using to approach the issue.  From the normal, waking state of consciousness, we go to a doctor when we’re sick.  We get sick due to natural reasons – microbes we ingest, toxins in the air or water or food, imbalances in our body chemistry.  We are cured by ingesting something with properties that counteract the improper substance in our body. Whether that something be a pharmaceutical, an herb, or whatever, the principle is the same.  The body is governed by natural laws, and if we manipulate those laws correctly, we can get rid of afflictions.

From a deeper level of appreciation, we begin to see that our moral choices may also affect our bodies.  Sometimes modern medicine attempts to take these effects into account, by positing psychological causes for imbalances or incorrect behavior of internal systems.  This is not so far-fetched of course, as our behavior is mediated by our nervous systems, and incorrect behavior could easily result in incorrect functioning of the nervous system, which would then cascade into the other bodily systems the nervous system controls.  But there are, or were, afflictions that are purely spiritual in nature, the one most prominently featured in our tradition being tzara’at, usually mistranslated as leprosy, which we discussed in parshiyot Tazria and Metzora.  These afflictions are sent as a message directly from Gd that there are spiritual issues that are obstructing our souls from functioning properly, and they must be corrected if we are to accomplish what we have been put on earth to accomplish.  Diseases that seem intractable to modern and/or traditional medicine may also fall in this category.

It appears that Ramban’s and Ramchal’s position is that all disease falls into the latter category.  Certainly, if we feel that natural law does not really exist, that it is just a smoke screen for Gd’s operation of the world, then indeed, this is the only category of disease that there is!

This position may reflect a deeper level of consciousness and appreciation of creation.  If we are “carrying out the Will of Gd,” then perhaps we will have the insight to be able to correct our thinking and our behavior when we get the message that something is out of order.  If we are not, and almost everyone falls in this latter category, then we need to rely on doctors and natural law, since we no longer seem to have any prophets to consult and learn from.  We do have a tradition which can help us align our behavior and our perception with Gd’s Will.  If we make use of this tradition properly, perhaps we will no longer need to suffer afflictions to begin with.

Chazak! Chazak! v’Nitchazeik!


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parashat Behar

“Behar” means “on the mountain”, literally, Mt. Sinai; symbolically, that level of our awareness when we are able to hear Gd and to express Gd’s Will in our actions in our familiar everyday world.

Also, since Rabbinic tradition derives “Sinai” from “sin-ah”, “hatred”, a reference to the hatred of other nations for the Jews who received the Word of Gd, we might see Mt. Sinai as being the mountain of hatred, above which is Gd, freeing the mountain, Moses, and through Torah given to Moses, all of us.

Hatred comes from fear which comes from restrictions and the suffering that goes with living life at a level less than we feel we need, deserve. But contact with Gd, through attunement, through rest, loosens the restrictions, opens the awareness to fuller happiness and ability, and dissolves fear and hatred.  The Sabbath and the Sabbatical Year are examples of means to gain this rest and to gain the experience that brings trust and releases doubt and fear.

In this parshah, Gd tells Moses about the Sabbatical year: every seventh year, no work is to be done on a field and the produce is free for anyone to take: human or animal.

Lev 25: 21. Gd says that in the sixth year, He will bless the land so that it produces enough for three years, and, thus have not only enough for the sixth year, but for the seventh and the eighth also.

Symbolically, the Sabbatical can mean that when we are fully attuned to Gd, our work is easy, and the benefits of it do not feel hard-earned but like Gifts from Gd, Gifts that we can share freely, KNOWING that Gd is our Shepherd, we shall not want. So the Sabbath is not only every seventh year, or day, but the all-time reality of our life; each moment Gd is giving us rest, each moment is bearing fruit for itself and for the future.

And the seventh Sabbatical, the 49th year, all work ceases, all indentured servants are set free.

Symbolically, this can mean that the restrictions we place on the freedom of our thoughts and feelings to flow into action–restrictions that come from, for example, from our choice of professions, daily routines, residence – the restrictions are released and we can live life freely in the confidence that Gd is blessing our thoughts and feelings, renewing our lives.

Interestingly, when we look at the cortex of the brain, the grey matter, we see it has six layers and below the cortex is white matter. We can look at this as symbolizing the six days in which Gd created/revealed the separation between Heaven (the subtle) and Earth (the gross); the seventh is the day of rest. Similarly, in terms of years, and in terms of seven times seven years — each group of six is a subtler level of the cortex and of the affairs of the physiology and of our lives governed by that level; each seventh is, similarly, a transcendence within the layer to a more restful level of functioning.

The main thing that we can learn from this parshah is to schedule regular periods of rest into our lives and schedule deeper, longer rest also regularly.

Baruch HaShem