Tag Archives: Illness

Parshat Vayeira (2013)

Genesis 18 – 22

When is a laugh more than just a chuckle?

Doctors Visit Upset

Have you ever had a nervous reaction caused by fear? What do these reactions to being put on the spot teach us about ourselves? What type inner cues do you hear in a case of uncertainty?

What is a laugh exactly? Why do we do it at all? A laugh isn’t like any other reaction, it is something that is quite automatic. Everybody laughs. People who have studied laughter are amazed that even blind and deaf people laugh. This comes as a surprise to many because we most often think of our responses as being learned and culturally influenced. But we can’t help but notice that even babies laugh. Babies, who have never witnessed another person laugh, will naturally do it themselves; in-fact more often, at about 200 times a day while an infant, as compared to adults at only 20 times a day. It’s something that just impulsively bubbles up out of a person.

Today we are going to begin to take a look at a story about laughter, and how the many facets of laughter are displayed in the Torah. When is a laugh more than just a chuckle? Sometimes it is an appropriate response, at other times it’s merely a bad reaction. Sometimes it is well received, other times it’s something that can be a thing of scorn. People laugh for many reasons. But all forms of outburst reveal a bit of the soul of the person it bellies up out of.

The most notorious of all laughs in the scriptures is presented here, in the following verse from the first aliya of our parsha:

“And Sarah laughed with herself,


‘After I have become old?

Shall I become tender again?

And my master is old!’”

| Vatitzchak Sarah bekirbah

| lemor

| acharei veloti

| hayetah-li ednah

| va’adoni zaken

Genesis 18:12

The story is familiar to us all. Our parsha begins with Avraham entertaining messengers of G-d, the angels are begged to accept his hospitality before continuing on their travels. (v.1-5) They therefore come into his tent and Avraham begins to feverishly prepared many courses of meals and takes to entertaining his honored guests. (v.6-8)

The first thing that is recorded to have been uttered by the guests once they settled themselves in was a question at to where Avraham’s wife Sarah was. Out of modestly she is standing away from them, almost hiding near the entrance which is behind the guests. Knowing that she is close enough to hear the messenger doesn’t wait for her to present herself, he just goes to declare that surely this time next year Sarah will have a son. (v.9-10)

And then Sarah laughs. (v.12) However, not without the Torah first validating the reason why Sarah laughs inside of herself. Both Avraham and Sarah are advanced in age, they are very old. And Sarah has stopped having her menstrual cycle. (v.11) Only then do we see the reason why she laughs. How can a person not laugh? What is being suggested is nothing short of fantastical. So she laughs inside herself. (v.12)

Knowing that she has laughed, G-d asks a question of Avraham, as his wife is still cowering aside from their house-guests. Though sheepishly hidden at first, G-d hears her secret doubts, and confronts them. Asking rhetorically, can there be anything impossible for G-d?

Now the reason that this laugh is so notorious is not just because she is called out on it, but also because she is insistent in denying her laughing. This is not a passing mention, this takes up an unusually large amount of the narrative for something so seemingly trivial. However so much of a central point is this to the story that the second aliyah begins with her denial at its head. We are even told why she denied her laughter, it was because she was afraid. She was intimidated. However, G-d insists, “No, but you did laugh.” (v.15)

Now one of the reasons this story sometimes has troubled me is because we aren’t sure exactly why G-d makes such an incident out of this. Why does she get singled out for such a scolding?

One of the reasons that this seems odd to me is because this isn’t the first time that we see someone laughing in response to something astounding G-d has said. In fact it is none other than Avraham himself who is said to have previously busted-up after hearing a prophecy. A prophecy that was about the very same subject. In the previous chapter and parsha, in Genesis 17:17 we read, “Vayapol Avraham panav vayetzchak / And Avraham fell on his face and laughed…”

G-d had already given Avraham this talk about their bareness before. In fact Avraham already had one son by a concubine, Ishma’el. However, instead of recognizing that son born of a servant Avraham is told that his true wife Sarah is going to bear him a son to carry on their dynasty. When he makes this pact with G-d he accepted everything, even the concept of circumcision and changing their names without even a flinch. But then when Avraham is told that the couple is finally going to have their long-awaited child, he breaks into hysterical laugher and falls to the ground face-first. He asks in his heart how this could be, as he is 100 years old and she is already 90 years old.

What was so different about their laughter? Why does his laughter and doubt only get the slightest correction, and Sarah get such a strong and direct one? They had even laughed in response to the same topic, just on different occasions.

One of the reasons is obviously because of Sarah’s objection. Had she not vehemently denied her laugher the topic would have probably ended there. But instead she was corrected to the extend that she objected.

Though it’s more than that. If we take a good look we can see that there is a difference between the way Avraham and Sarah laughed. Avraham laughed out-loud, but doubted in his heart. Sarah is said to have laughed in her heart, and then doubted out-loud.

The difference between the emotions and attitude behind each reaction may not appear evident to us right away. But there is a substantial difference. Sure both of them reacted to the absurdity of the situation. They needed to release their dissonance with this new reality is some way, and it reveals itself as laughter. They both had this involuntary response. Both of them laughed when they first heard of their amazing destiny. However Avraham’s laughter is one of astonishment, whereas Sarah first reacts with silent mocking. It’s this silent mocking that G-d pulls to the surface and reveals for them to see.

What is also different about the two reactions is that Avraham’s laughter is at least followed-up with a question as to how this is going to happen. In the mind of Avraham it was more of a question of how it was possible, not necessarily if it was truly possible. He wants to think it out. Sure his expression does relate a certain level of disbelief, but not one of doubt. He was open to the possibility. For Sarah it was a closed case, she already doubted it in her heart.

On the surface it clearly appears that she is being singled out here for her cynicism. And that was a major problem that needs to be settled. She is not exposed in this narrative in order to shame her, but to call to attention to her lack of hope. This exchange between her and G-d cannot simply be about knocking her chops for some sort of derision, but instead because she had a deep sense of doubt about herself!

Notice when G-d rebuttals Sarah’s denial of her laughter He doesn’t bring up the unkind things that she said about her husband being an old man. It isn’t repeated that way, G-d instead rephrased it to focuse on the only real obstacle left. Her own doubt about her own ability to make this happen. G-d interpreted her statement for what it was really saying, she felt she was too old and worn out to make it happen now.

This self-doubt ran so deep that she might not have even been fully aware how deeply her cynicism ran. This might explain for her continuous insistence that she hadn’t laughed. The reality is that she had not actually laughed vocally, but she laughed all the same. And it is this deep-seated doubt that is the most debilitating. So deeply does this disbelief and lack of hope run that she might have actually been honest in her own mind about not laughing, she just didn’t recognize that inner voice laughing at herself. So here it is exposed bare for her to face within herself.

As we consider this lesson, I would like us to consider a few questions within ourselves: Do you hear the cues of self-doubt in your head? Is it possible that you just don’t recognize some of your own sense of hopelessness? Have you grown cynical?

It is a very human thing to doubt ourselves, and is certainly is a reality that sometimes we also doubt G-d too. But as we see in the example of Avraham, G-d is okay with our fiery laughter when it comes with a sense of wonder or shock. But what is not acceptable is a passive laugh of cold pessimism.

Responding to Good and Bad News in Our Tradition: A Personal Experience

Is there an appropriate way to respond to tides of good and bad news as they come in our lives? As we see, we are to be careful about the tone of the inner voices. Surely we should take even more care with our outward expressions. Though not all expressions can be easily controlled, as religious Jews we try to be poised and dignified with our responses.

In light of Sarah’s example, it would make sense why we are very careful to say a blessing when we hear good news. The blessing used is also the one we say when we are observing a holiday or special occasion in our lives. Most Jews of all levels of observance know this one intimately:

“Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.”

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ ,וְקִיְמָנוּ ,וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לִזְמַן הַזֶּה:

Baruch ata Hashem, Eloheinu Melech ha’Olam, she’ech’eyanu, ve’ki’eh’manu, va’higiy’anu liz’man hazeh

We also have another blessing exclusively for if one hears good news, but in most tradition its associated with communal good news so it’s another good one to know as well:

“Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the Universe, who is good and does good.”

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֶלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, הַטּוֹב וְהַמֵטִיב:

Baruch ata Hashem, Eloheinu Melech ha’Olam, hatov v’hamaitiv.

It was this type of blessing I had in mind when I first walked into my doctor’s office one day. My health had been improving after several years of suffering with multiple life threatening conditions and surgeries. I had crawled out of the depression, addiction and the rest of the ruin that had come with my collapse into disrepair. I was doing well with my job. My family life was better than ever before. I was even getting ready to move into a new home and focus on some new longterm plans. The she’ech’eyanu was a prayer that I had come to know very well, especially more recently as things just got better and better in my life.

I was so confident that things were going somewhere that I marched in to take my annual physical on schedule, simply to confirm that all was going to be fine. Everything was going to be well, because I was well.

However a few days later my doctor calls me back into his office. My simple physical started to get more complicated as more and more tests were run. The number of tests and visits kept increasing, though without any clear explanation as to why. However, given my experience with strange illnesses I expected just a little bit of oddity. At first I was sure it was something I was going to shrug off. But as the diagnostics went on and on I grew more afraid.

One day during one of the doctor’s visits I began to read the chart myself, and I noticed that my white blood cells and platelets were impossibly low. I had a dangerous case of anemia. So I asked the doctor about this, and he suggested that we run test for leukemia and HIV.

As that point I became overwhelmed with fear. Whereas I understood the nature of each disease, I was terrified at the possibility of either. My own dear sister, one of the closest people to me, she suffered leukemia starting at four years old. Such forms of cancer are common in my family. having to watch the treatment of it up close in all it’s brutality I was traumatized by it.

Having also grown up through the crazy-making of the AIDS crisis I also understood HIV well. Coming of age in a world where the virus was virtually non-treatable, before the anti-retrovirials that were rolled out in the mid-to-late 1990s. I watched many friends and acquaintances die of AIDS, caring for a few of them through the pain of their final months.

Remembering the pain and suffering I had witnessed with my loved ones, I was overwhelmed by the crisis I was facing. The more testing and waiting made me even more worried.

One day the doctor walks into the room and just begins to speak, “Your test results came back, you are HIV-positive….”

The rest of his words were kind of a blur to me. But I remember he just kept on talking, paced and steadily. There was no pause for me to get in a word as he just droned on, I could hear the nervousness in his breath and make out the nervous twitches on his face. It was as though he had to keep going in order to see it through, if he stopped it would overwhelm him too.

And for a moment there I thought I was going to laugh. I felt it come up and then stop. Now far from my mind was my blessing of thanksgiving. I was left sitting there, with this tragedy falling all over me and my hopes all at one. And of all misfortunes, one that I had grown to fear the most. And as he kept talking the news just kept getting worse.

As I sat there trying to take it all in a growing rumble came up inside of me. Then I felt myself lean forward in despair, my arms slightly flailing to the side. But then all at once my hands oddly went right up and over my head, holding my head as it just seemed to thud and spin at the same time. My breath was broken between trembling, wisping and sputtering. I didn’t know what to do or say. And then I heard my own voice achingly blurt out the words: “Baruch diyan ha’emet / Blessed is the True Judge.”

At that point I noticed that the doctor stopped talking, being of middle-eastern origin he seemed to recognize the words. He jerked back in surprise, and his looked showed an equal sense of surprise and pain. As I peered up he gave me a look of, “How can you?” And the truth is that I was wondering the same thing myself.

When religious Jews hear bad news or on the occurrence of a tragic event this is the way that one is taught to respond. For any calamitous event one says, “Blessed is the True Judge.” In our tradition it is the custom to respond to all major events with a way of recognizing G-d’s role in that occurrence. This also applies to calamity.

The reason behind such a blessing is because religious Jews recognize that all events in our lives are opportunities. All opportunities can lead to blessing. When we hear of tragedy we use these strong words to help us stand firm in face of our greatest fears. It might look like an impossibly bad situation, but we need to let G-d be the judge of that. It make look like there is no hope, but we need to G-d to be the judge of that.

Even at life’s end we still find ourself coming to the same conclusion, our final destiny is only judged by G-d alone. Thus “diyan ha’emet” is also the blessing one says when they hear a person has died. We have nothing to fear in death, as we trust that we will stand and face the judgment of a just G-d. We will face the True Judge, we have nothing to fear.

One of the reasons my reaction surprised me so was because I didn’t know I had it in me. This was the worst news I could think of. I knew what I was in store for. And I had a million questions that I couldn’t articulate, as they all collided and pilled up on their way out. I had just heard the worst news of my life. And even more painfully, I began to see all my plans go crumble into ruin. All the progress I thought I had made was lost in a new fight for my life, one that I was quite sure I wasn’t strong enough for. I had grown older, more worn down by my battles up until up until then. This was something my logic told me I had little chance of surviving, my condition being that severe. I felt helpless and for a brief moment. Any sliver of bravery I thought I possessed appeared to escape me.

But then I heard myself say those words. And for a moment I just sat and felt those words echo in my head. Every bit stunned by this statement as the doctors words of doom.

The reason that this both startled and comforted me was because I had always been afraid of the possibility of this type of reality. I had become very careful and extremely mindful of my health because of it. I knew all the science and facts to arm oneself with. I had convinced people so many times before that they could be okay in this situation. But secretly inside myself, I was always afraid that I could never live up to my own words of optimism in the face such a diagnosis. I had seen stronger and nobler people lose this battle. Could I keep the courage of my convictions and maintain my spirit of hope when my life really depended on it? I just wasn’t so sure.

And then I heard myself blurt out those words. “Baruch diyan ha’emet,” blessed is the True Judge.

Even when I was at a total loss, my soul appeared to know what to do and sprung into action. A rarely used blessing bubbled to the surface. Whereas everything else seemed to fail me, these words of our tradition found their usefulness. Though the first words started with a broken voice, each word staggered out stronger than the one before it. But is was enough to convinced me.

As I look over this lesson of Sarah’s laughter, I can most certainly related to the experience of wanting to react with cynicism. I can certainly understand the pain of what it feels like to have one’s body seem to betray them and their dreams. I very much know what it’s like to automatically respond with a knee-jerk reaction. Her story reverberates with me with a different sense of empathy than most. I know what it’s like to want something so bad and to find one’s own body to be the only obstacle.

Though I found myself facing the most trying and painful time in my life, I experienced a bit of awe like never before. In that when my rationality failed me, soulful words of truth came to the rescue. I found that my soul had matured and cherished the truth of my faith in a deeper way than I had realized. My true faith so natural that when pricked all that flowed to the surface was a rebuttal to cognitive dissonance of this situation. Though this diagnosis held itself over my head like a death sentence, I knew that only G-d was the final Judge in this matter. The case was not yet settled. These words reminded me of that truth.

From there I was able to collect myself and then spring into action, talking over the next round of tests and necessary measured that needed to be taken to preserve my life. I picked up my head and started to move into action to help save my life.

Many of us never know the strength that is inside of us until pushed to the limit. Many of us never realize how deep our faith and our sense of hope run until we are put on the spot. Most of us think that when faced with such disastrous circumstances we will be helpless and lost, but your heart knows the truth (ha-emet) if we listen to it. We know that our fate is only determined by G-d and our own faith in a better reality.

Baruch Hashem, thank G-d, I’m still here and thriving. Not because I’m a saint, or even particularly brave. But because I know a Judge that is greater than any. And He that still hasn’t ruled me out. For the first time in my life, this is something I’m sure I’m convinced of on a heart level.

Advice: This week I would like people to spend some time listening to their inner voices and cues. As you face new challenges this week, ask yourself how you feel about it. Is it something you have confidence in, or is there some level of fear, uncertainty or doubt that is still troubling you? Revealing it to the surface helps us confront it.

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Parshat Bechukotai (2012)

Parshat Bechukotai (2012)
Leviticus 26:3–27:34

Answering the Question: “Why did G-d make this happen to me?”

And you will flee when no one is pursuing you” (וְנַסְתֶּם וְאֵין רֹדֵף אֶתְכֶם, Lev. 26:17) – we become overwhelmed by our own sense of paranoia. Instead of being driven out, we run ourselves off from a state of blessing by our own guilt, shame and fear of repercussions of our actions.

With this weeks parsha we are completing the Book of Leviticus. This year this parsha is paired together with Parshat Behar as a double-parsha. This entire book of Leviticus has been related to the establishment of the Miskhan (the Tabernacle) and detailing the service and expectations that was laid upon the people of Israel. As we start this parsha we notice that all of a sudden the tone switches from talking about the responsibilities of the nation, to stating what the benefits and consequences of adherence to the Torah’s commandments are.

This parsha is quite short, less than two complete chapters in it’s entirety. And the aliyot (the individual readings) are also quite short as well. Normally people would be thrilled that they have a shorter section to learn to lein (Yiddish meaning cantillation, read in its proper melody from the Torah scroll), but this is not an easy reading. The sections that detail the curses and judgments are most often read by the most competent reader, because according to our tradition it is to be delivered in a very different fashion from any other Shabbat Torah reading; it is to be read in a whispering tone, and as quickly as possible. We read it this way in order to not arouse or incite judgment, and so that we do not dwell on negativity.

Though the differences become apparent even before the reading begins. Normally being called up to the Torah is the greatest honor one can have. In our tradition we are so repulsed by the idea of leveling judgment against people that the person who is called up to read these sections of curses does not allow themselves to be customarily called up by name to honor them for their reading. No matter how “qualified” one is in Torah learning, we are never to take pride in being associated with the calamity that befalls someone for their wrongdoing.

The world-over it is the general custom of the religious leaders to make themselves famous for preaching fire and brimstone. People literally yelling from the rooftops, with great satisfaction in themselves, all the ways that one can be harmed and punished. But here when it comes to delivering the tragedy of punishment we as Jews are not allowed to raise our voices, nor are we to linger upon the suffering of the sinner. We discuss it because we must, but G-d forbid that this happen to someone. We mildly and quickly get through this task as we take no joy in it.

The difficulty of reading this parsha though really is more in the message, more so than being an issue of skill. It is especially difficult for the Jewish people because it really does seem to begin going through a point-by-point presentation of the sufferings Jews have experienced, even though this was written long before the expulsions and persecutions in exile.Sadly we know the Torah is right about this because it really happened, and so recently in our history that it pains people greatly still to this day in a very raw way. These things can happen, it’s a tragic truth. In light of this the discussion then naturally seems to lead to asking “why,” instead of debating the “if.”

But if we are to answer the question that is expressed as “Why did this happen? Did we really deserve this?” we must first deal with an even less sophisticated question that goes, “How can a good G-d do this? Why did He make this happen?” It’s almost seems like a fair question because the horrors in this parsha are so extreme it seems inconceivable that G-d would do these things to His people. The key error lies in the understanding of the words “do” and “make,” implying such calamity is the work of G-d.

But unsophisticated questions tend to demand equally ill-formed answers. The way the gentile nations have generally answered this question is by turning to polytheism, good gods do good and bad gods cause evil. Their attempts at monotheism are still even colored through this perception, in which evil is personified in “the devil.” However, as Jews we are not permitted this luxury of dualism. We are challenged to have to deal with G-d’s role in all this because the scriptures clearly tell us that both good and evil are caused by Him alone. We read in book of Isaiah the profound declaration:

“From the rising of the sun and from the west

there is nothing besides Me

I am Hashem, there is nothing else.

I form light and create darkness,

makes peace and creates evil;

I Hashem do all these things.”

| “Mimez’rach shemesh umima’aravah

| ki-efes bil’adai:

| ani Hashem v’ain od

| yotzer or uvorei chosech,

| oseh shalom uvorai ra;

| ani Hashem oseh kol eyleh”

Isaiah 45:6-7

Traditional Judaism has always maintained this understanding of G-d, because logic naturally dictates that if G-d is omnipotent (all powerful) then everything must be ordered by Him alone. However, orthodoxy is neither naïve nor trite. It does not place G-d in the position of a tit-for-tat enforcer nor does it over simplify the nature of individual suffering, our tradition can’t because the scriptures do not suggest this at all.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this point, because it really is basic Judaism; but something I can go into volumes with. Verse 7 above is paraphrased as part of our liturgical reading of the morning, it is said daily as part of the blessings to the Shema (our most holy confession). We recognize that G-d creates the world daily. G-d is active in the world, not in just some distant point in history but still today and everyday renewing the act of creation. However this is a distinct difference between what is formed and made, and that which is merely created. In the void He formed the world, fashioning it; G-d made the universe. And when He formed it He created it in a balanced state of fullness and light, He provided everything that was needed to sustain that world. However, evil and woe are like darkness. They not necessarily a thing, it’s the void and aftermath that is left as a result in the breakdown of the proper function and order in our lives. Other times its just a the absence of the good stuff getting to that place yet. There are two lessons in that: 1) that just like life has good times, there are also bad times, 2) woe and hardship are not a formulated response, but merely the unfortunate result of things not going according to ordered plans.

G-d as creator made us to function well, under good and optimum circumstances just like any good designer would. G-d created this world as a brilliant form of craftsmanship, with all the features and accessories needed to help us get the job done. For us to be mad when life breaks-down is like being upset with a manufacturer because our plans for using their product didn’t pan out or we just didn’t use it properly. It isn’t realistic or proper for us to look at the world that way. The responsibility of the Divine was to give us the best chance in real situations, not to vow to save us against from every possible annoying fluke.

When we comprehend that, then we can be a bit more adult in our ways of looking at the words “do” and “make.” G-d doesn’t do anything to us, any more than He makes us do anything; those are very childish words if we use them in this tone. Instead G-d takes responsibility in being the creator who created us to function best when in line with His instructions. He should not been seen as a manufacturer who is designing a product to blow up in our faces at the first wrong step.

So in this mentality G-d nonetheless takes responsibility. He stands behind His product, disclosing what it takes for it to perform properly and warning us of how to troubleshoot when things go wrong. Because things most certainly do have a habit of going wrong at some point, that is the nature of life.

Troubleshooting Life

Do you need to troubleshoot life? I know I do, and often. Any of you who have ever worked for a help-desk know troubleshooting skills not just requires the knowledge of the complex, but also attention to the subtle. The range of what someone points to as “wrong” can span from a total malfunction to merely just someone’s baseless dissatisfaction.

One of the first tedious parts of troubleshooting is to have to go over the instructions. Are we doing everything that we are supposed to do in order to get the appropriate results? Our text explains to us as follows:

“And if you do not listen to Me,

and do not do all these commandments,

and if you grow tired of My orders

and if you loath My laws

so that you will not do all My commandments

and thus break My covenant,

after that I will make this to happen to you…”

| V’im lo tish’mu li;

| v’lo ta’asu et kol ha mitzvot ha’eileh

| v’im bechukotai tim’asu

| v’im et mishpatai

| tig’al nafshechem l’vilti asot et kol mitvotai

| l’hafrecheim et briti,

| Af ani ei’eseh zot lachem

Leviticus 26:14-16a

The Torah warns us if we do not abide by all these ways we are breaking our “terms of service agreement.” If we do this we are gonna break our lives! No really, look at the text again. It first wants to make sure that we understand the seriousness of what we are doing.

Then the text goes into explaining what to look out for, the warning signs of malfunction:

“I will appoint upon you panic;

with consumption and fever,

and I will completely destroy your sight,

and make you depressed,

and you will sow your seed in vain,

and your enemies will eat it.


And I will set my face against you

and you will be defeated before you enemies;

and you will flee

when no one is pursuing you

| V’hifkadeti aleichem behalah

| et ha’mishachepet ve’et hakadachat

| m’chalot einaim,

| umedivot nafesh;

| uz’ra’tem larik zar’achem

| va’achaluhu oi’veichem.


| V’natati panai bachem,

| v’nigaf’tem lifnei oi’veichem;

| v’radu vachem son’eichem

| v’nas’tem v’ain rodeif at’chem

Leviticus 26:16b-17

The first troubles that the Torah presents us with as signs of judgment are subtle and mild, but can easily be mistaken for something else all together.

This first wave of curses is very perplexing and even troublesome. What are we saying about G-d; that He causes us to have panic, depression and such? Are we saying that G-d takes control of our emotions in order to wreck them? And these inflictions, are we suggesting that G-d causes illness in us?

In our tradition the points of free-will and the fairness of such a course of actions is not even an issues to grapple with. The Rambam interprets Midrash Rabba concerning creation to be surmised in the idea that “only good descends from G-d above.” (Rambam, Guide For The Perplexed, III:X; concerning Midrash Rabba Chapter 1, p. 266). When G-d creates He makes everything good, just as we read in the creation story the continual phrase is used “and G-d saw all that He created and behold it was good.” And we firmly believe G-d does not give illness nor does He impose on our emotions. How can it be that here we have G-d being described as causing both physical and mental inflictions?

The Rambam, as a physician, gave us a unique perspective in how to interpret this. In fact he gives us one of the only interpretations from among the classics that we have to examine. That is not to say the commentators didn’t deal with these verses, they wrote lengthy commentary on these sections. However, they could only give us a description of what the symptoms were. The Rambam was more concerned with what the cause was. As a physician he realized that in order to bring remedy we must first recognize the cause, as a condition is not merely a set of symptoms that need to be alleviate. The symptoms of illness are merely a reflection of the extent to which disease has advanced.

As pointed out the world was created “good,” and in fact when all the living creatures were created He declared that everything was “tov me’od / very good;” (Genesis 1:31). He created life and the world good, and then some. Nonetheless as we have learned from Isaiah, G-d does say that He causes ra – harm, evil, and calamity. However, as the Rambam point out early on in the Guide, things such as good and evil are only descriptions in relations to something. He says this is like saying “round” or “flat.” Not either physical property is good or bad necessarily, it is just a description of how we perceive something. How it looks to us. Such words are very similar in meaning and relation to the terms emet and sheker; true and false. It’s a description and qualification, not a judgment or characterization.

The Rambam explains to us that this similarly can also be applied to the words oseh and bara; makes and created. When G-d created to world He created, meaning he made something from nothing. There was nothing, no universe or anything to function. Then He created the world purposefully, everything He made has a function. He points out that that G-d also created things such as the mouth, eyes and ears so that we can speak, see, and hear. Though the Rambam points out the following verse to demonstrate his philosophical view of what happens when something goes wrong in this natural world:

“And Hashem said to him:

Who places a mouth in man,

or who makes one mute,

or deaf

or see

or blind;

I Hashem.”

| Vayomer Hashem elav

| mi sam peh la’adam

| o mi-yasum ilem

| o cheresh

| o fike’ach

| o iver halo

| anochi Hashem.

Exodus 4:11

The Rambam explains that this verse teaches that each of the body parts were created for their function. That when the function is withheld it merely means that the body part doesn’t work properly, we don’t jump to the odd suggestion that a person must not have a mouth if they can’t talk, or eyes if they can’t see, nor ears if they can’t hear. But that G-d as maker of those body parts is the one who takes responsibility for the issue as He is he only thing in the universe, He is solely its creator, there is no one else to blame; He is responsible by default and does not shirk that in any way. Then He sums it up with “I am Hashem,” its okay to hold Me responsible; I’m big enough to take it.

But if we consider it, the above mentioned maladies are examples of things that are not necessarily inflictions, but withholding of an appropriate function; example, He gave a mouth but didn’t give the speech. We need to see the terrible things mentioned in our parsha as a mere result of G-d withholding blessing – and not necessarily imposing a causative and active role of punishment. He just isn’t providing what we need for our lives to work right. Nachon, got it?

Not Being Run Out: Sometimes we run from blessing, instead of being driven

I know I have kept you for a long study, with me ranting on. But it is very important for us to look at the symptoms, the characteristics of these maladies caused by us not living properly and according to the rules set out for our lives in Torah. And by looking at them we will also see that they are really things that have their root more in us than in G-d. They are:

Panic (בֶּהָלָה) – literally fear, and sudden terror. Panic and terror will begin to consume you. One will begin to be overcome by fear and frenzy.

Consumption (הַשַּׁחֶפֶת) – literally wasting disease and emaciation. One’s health looks swept away, they being to look anguished. Rashi says this means consumption of the face, so that one begins to look sad in the face due to wasting. People often used this term historically to describe illnesses like tuberculosis, wasted away and pained to that point.

Fever (הַקַּדַּחַת) – this is very simple to understand, it simple means fever, and the results of sever illness like malaria. But the Radak tells us this can be understood as “fire in the bones;” that is how intense the effects are. Rashi also sees this connotation, and says furthermore it can be understood as being fired up to the point one is enraged, and furious (citing Deut. 32:22) The fire inside, be it in our body or emotions, burns too hot and to our detriment. Fever like fury can overwhelm a person to the point of an overwhelming trembling and loss of control over their functions and composure.

Destroy your sight (מְכַלּוֹת) – G-d will allow our outlook to be destroyed. (Rav Hirsch) We begin to experience impairment of our faculties. As we look into our future all we will see is uncertainty and doubt, which leads to the next infliction…

Depression (וּמְדִיבֹת) – we will become overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness (Rav Hirsch). We will be overcome by debilitating depression and sorrow.

The parsha continues on describing other things that are less easily understood as being rooted in our own defect; that we will sow in vain, our enemies will reap from our hard work instead of us. But in the last clauses of verse 17 we see G-d does have a undeniable hand in all of this, because He sets His attention towards us and yet we are defeated by our enemies. G-d watches on, as we fall into calamity; not coming to our aid.

But before we get carried away and try to relieve ourselves of responsibility the Torah continues and shows a truly tragic truth of what happens when we live a life outside of Torah blessing, we aren’t run out from blessing; quite to the contrary.

And you will flee when no one is pursuing you (וְנַסְתֶּם וְאֵין רֹדֵף אֶתְכֶם) – we become overwhelmed by our own sense of paranoia. Instead of being driven out, we run ourselves off from a state of blessing by our own guilt, shame and fear of repercussions of our actions.

In the end, the yeridah – the descent and fall into bondage and foreign oppression is of our own doing. Often times we aren’t carried away, no one forces us out of a place of peaceful living; we are so haunted and hunted by our avoidance of our Torah responsibilities that we run from ourselves until we find we are not longer free to return on our own terms. It further describes this type of paranoia in verses 36-37, that we will become overwhelmed by insecurity, that even the rustling leaves will send us running in fright, like being chased by a sword though no one is there; that we are so overcome by our invisible fears that we, and those that accompany our descent, stumble over each other; running from insecurities rooted in our own conscience.

Luckily, the story doesn’t end there. Though there are all kinds of unspeakable things displayed for us as hardships for improper living and not honoring the Torah, G-d still holds out to us a hand of mercy. Though we might get worse, and worse, and worse yet the more we run from ourselves; in the end G-d says that He will not just write us off. No, instead He declares that no matter how far we run, He is intent on setting us right in the end; not to leave us ultimately to our disrepair.

“Yet even after all that, even

when they are in the land of their enemies

I will not reject them, nor abhor them,

nor grow tired of them

and then break my covenant with them –

for I am Hashem, your G-d


But I will for their sakes remember

the covenant of their ancestors,

whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt

in the sight of the nations,

that I might be their G-d:

I am Hashem.”

| Ve’af-gam-zot

| biheiotam be’eretz oiveihem

| lo-me’astim velo-ge’altim

| lechalotam

| lehafer briti itam

| ki ani Hashem Eloheihem.


| Vezacharti lahem

| brit rishonim

| asher hotzeti-otam me’eretz Mitzrayim

| le’einei hagoyim

| lihiot lahem le-Elohim

| ani Hashem

Leviticus 26:44-45

Though G-d does not write us off, and promises to ultimately grant redemption to use all, liberating us eventually; it does not necessarily say this life, though. It is true that all Israel has a share in the world to come (Pirkei Avot). But ignoring Torah has consequences. G-d does not cast people out of His kingdom for their humanity and faults; He will make a place for us all, in a way only He understands. It will come about by Him remembering His promise and the merit of our ancestors. This should comfort us. But on the other hand we should be a bit saddened by this explanation; because the truth is the suffering and being run amok could end at any time if we just decided to remember His covenant and the meritorious lives displayed by our Jewish ancestors.

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