Weekly Davar - Mishpatim - Doctors are not God
16th February 2012
23rd of Shvat 5772
GOOD AFTERNOON!! I am in America this week and hence
unable to find the time to write. So I’m sending an old davar from 4
years ago. I’ll hopefully be back and running with something fresh and
new next week
This week’s portion is absolutely packed. You name it, it’s talked
about: murder, kidnap, murderous bulls, stoned oxen, dangerous holes,
witches, seduction, swearing and slavery. It also contains one of the
most misunderstood phrases in the Torah: ‘an eye for an eye’ - which of
course refers to monetary restitution.
This portion also contains the punishment for one who hits their
parents: the death penalty - someone so unappreciative of the gift of
life that they could hit the one who gave it, is not worthy of
participating in a life they deem to be of such little value.
Doctors are not God
Among the 5 categories of damage one pays for personal injury is that of
medical bills. The Rabbis cite this verse as evidence that a doctor has
‘permission’ to heal. It seems strange that a doctor should need
permission to heal, but think of the logic for a moment. Jewish
understanding is that sickness is not a ‘chance’ happening. A person
only becomes sick if God wants them to be sick. That being the case, one
might be tempted to say that perhaps one’s trust should be only in the
true Doctor of doctors. The Torah teaches that this type of thinking is
incorrect. We Jews never rely on miracles. To go to a doctor when one is
ill is the responsibility of every person. The one who relies solely on
God is no great saint. He is simply irresponsible.
The Vilna Gaon, one of the great Rabbis of the 17th Century makes an
important clarification of the Torah’s attitude. A man once came to him
in despair. The doctors had told him that nothing could be done about
his illness. He was going to die very soon. The Vilna Gaon quoted the
verse from this portion. Yes, permission is given to the doctors to
heal. Permission, however, is not given to a doctor to say that a person
can not be healed.
The Jewish concept is that the doctors put in their efforts, but it is
God Who ultimately provides (or does not provide, as the case may be)
the cure. No one but God can say when a person is going to die. There
are those who are given weeks to live who live long and healthy lives.
Others are given a clean bill of health and die the next day. Who is a
doctor to believe himself to be the determiner of life and death?
The Talmud says that, ‘the best doctors are destined for hell’. This
does not mean that if you are a good doctor, you’d better become a bad
one, or you are going to hell. What it means is that if a doctor starts
to believe that he has control over life and death, and this usually
happens only with the best doctors, then his arrogance will lead him on a
slippery slope downwards.
I remember being shocked by the confidence of our oncologist when she
told me at one point that it was ‘absolutely impossible’ for my late
wife, Elana, to survive for more than two weeks. Elana, in fact, lived
for more than six weeks after this false prophecy. For a doctor to say
with certainty that a person has ‘x’ amount of time to live is not only
arrogant, but extremely unproductive. It may just become
self-fulfilling. When dealing with serious illness, people who are
certain they are going to die, rarely survive.
Being a doctor is not an easy job - healing and saving lives under
difficult conditions and often without sufficient, if any, appreciation;
especially if you work for the National Health. There are many great
doctors – but they must be careful to retain their humility whilst
holding the keys to life and death in their hands.
Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt
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