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Weekly Davar - Mishpatim - Doctors are not God


(Exodus 21:1-24:18)

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

Torah Portion

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.

Davar Torah
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.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt

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