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Mishpatim(Exodus 21-24)

Doctor of Doctors

The Torah lists five categories of damages that one pays for personal injury, and one of these is medical bills. The Sages 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." God is intimately involved in our lives, and a person only becomes sick if God wants him to be sick.

That being the case, one might be tempted to trust 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 appropriate effort. The one who relies solely on God is no great saint. He is simply stupid and 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 doctors to heal. Permission, however, is not given to say that a person cannot 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, and go on to live long and healthy lives. Others are given a clean bill of health and drop dead the next day. Who ever said that a doctor is the determiner of life and death?

The Talmud makes a bold statement: "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 does not recognize God's ultimate 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.

A few years ago, I was shocked by the confidence of our oncologist when she told me at that it was "absolutely impossible" for my wife, Elana, to survive more than two weeks. (Elana lived for six more weeks.) For a doctor to say with certainty that a person has "X months to live" is not only arrogant, but extremely unproductive. It may just become self-fulfilling. When someone with a serious illness is certain he is going to die, he rarely survives.

Being a doctor is not an easy job. They heal and save lives under difficult conditions, and often without sufficient, if any, appreciation. And there are many great doctors. But they must be careful to retain humility, while holding the keys to life and death, seemingly, in their hands.

Published: December 25, 2007

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Visitor Comments: 4

(4) Chris, February 2, 2008 2:46 AM

I agree with just about every thing that was said here and it is amazing how well this fits with some of the things I've been reading in my own personal Bible studies. I want to say that there is only one portion of this teaching which I find I differ from what is written here. I agree with the person who commented here that yes it very faulty thinking to rely on miracles and not go to the doctor when you are sick. As you said nothing is ever a chance happening and as much as this may go against my way of thinking G-d may have a reason why this person became sick. However I believe we should rely upon G-d in all circumstances both when he heals us and when he allows us to continue in our sickness. It is ultimately in His hands and He knows best what I need. G-d may choose to use a human agent as He often does like a doctor or like Moses in the wilderness and something that totally goes against our human thinking like a bronze snake. In every instance and whatever the case may be I should learn to trust in G-d and draw closer to Him.

(3) Yehudis, January 31, 2008 7:53 AM

Great article!

(2) Terri, January 30, 2008 7:43 AM

I so much enjoy all your teaching. I get so excited reading them every week. In reference to this teaching I was diagnosed with Cancer in 1989. I was told by my oncologist I only had 6 months to live. To get things ready. Today 2008 I am still alive and enjoying life to its fullist. God is awesome. He and only He Blessed be He, gave me another opportunity to live for Him. Blessings! Terri

(1) debbi rubin, January 28, 2008 8:50 AM

comments on doctors calls

My husband was told that there was nothing his doctor( whom I trusted with his life) did not say a word but the look in her eyes said millions. It give us the time to say all the things that had to be said.I asked G-d for one more day with my husband Mark and he blessed me(and Mark) with 90 days of blessing. The more time we spend together the more we laugh and cryed together. I was blessed beyond blessing to have him in my life for 32 years.
So you are right that G-d has the final say in the life or death which only means that we must take every day as if its are last.

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