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Parshas Chukas - Balak (5769)

The "Best" Doctors

The “rod of Asclepius” is an ancient symbol associated with astrology and healing. It consists of a serpent entwined around a staff. The name of the symbol derives from its early and widespread association with Asclepius, the son of Apollo, who was a practitioner of medicine in ancient Greek Mythology.

Some have suggested that the origin of this famous symbol of healing can be traced to a story that is related in this week’s jam-packed double portion, Parshas Chukas-Balak. The Torah tells of the Israelites complaining to Moses and to God about their desperate situation: "Why did you bring us up from Egypt ... to die in this Wilderness? For there is no food and no water..." (Numbers 21:5). This angered God, and He sent fiery serpents that attacked the Israelites, and many died. The Israelites came to Moses with an appeal to God, repenting for their sin and asking forgiveness. God then spoke to Moses, telling him to make a (bronze) serpent set upon a pole. Anyone who was bitten by one of the fiery serpents was to look at the bronze serpent and he or she immediately was healed.

Indeed, the medical profession has been around for about as long as illness has been around – a very long time. The Torah itself “promoted” doctors over 3300 years ago when it taught "…and he shall provide for healing" (Exodus 21:19), and the Talmud tells us that from this verse the school of Rabbi Yishmael learned that “G-d gives doctors permission to heal others” (see Berachos 60a).

This “trend” to become a doctor and heal people has continued among our people until this very day. In fact, some of our greatest sages, such as the Ramba”m (Maimonides), the Ibn Ezra and others were doctors. You know the old joke: The Catholics believe that life begins at conception. In Jewish tradition, however, the fetus is not considered viable until after it graduates from medical school.

Which make it all the more strange and difficult to understand the strong statement made by the Talmud in Kiddushin 82a: “Tov she’berofim leGehinnom — the best of doctors are destined to go to Gehinnom [Hell].” How can the Talmud condemn the medical profession so harshly when the Torah itself encourages doctors to heal people??

The Maharsh”a, a famous commentator on the Talmud, explains that this statement refers to a doctor who thinks that he is the best doctor. Such a doctor doesn’t turn to G-d for help, and he feels no compunction to seek Divine permission to practice. He is destined for Gehinnom because, due to his arrogance, he relies completely on his own judgment and refuses to consult with other doctors, which can often leads to tragic results.

Other commentaries explain the Talmud’s statement homiletically: The blessing of Refa-ainu - one of the original eighteen blessings of the Shemoneh Esrei, the Silent Prayer recited three times daily in prayer to G-d – designates G-d as the Ultimate Healer, an idea which is repugnant to the haughty doctor who thinks he is the one who is healing his patients. So he deletes it, or recites it without sincere intent, thus reducing the original number of blessings from 18 to 17. The Talmud sarcastically refers to such a doctor as tov, the “best”, because the numerical value of the Hebrew word tov is seventeen, alluding to the fact that this arrogant doctor recites only seventeen blessings in the Shemoneh Esrei.

Thankfully, most doctors are fine human beings who know that they are really just G-d’s messengers here on earth to heal others, and the way they treat their patients reflects that attitude. If anything, these “angels of G-d” are destined to go to Heaven for all the wonderful things they do for all of us.

But, unfortunately, there are some doctors out there – the Lord knows I’ve met a few in my time - who are quite arrogant and haughty in the way they act with and treat others, and about whom the Talmud’s statement is probably not far off the mark:

Q. What is the difference between God and a top doctor? A. God doesn't think he’s a top doctor!

Doc tells a guy he has a bad heart. The guy says "I want another opinion." The doc says "OK, you're ugly too."

Still other doctors are far more interested in making money and maintaining a “high-society” lifestyle through their job than in actually healing people:

My doctor put his hand on my wallet and said, "Cough!"

Nurse: "Doctor, the man you just gave a clean bill of health to dropped dead right as he was leaving the office". Doctor: "Turn him around, make it look like he was walking in."

"The doctor said he would have me on my feet in two weeks." "And did he?" "Yes, I had to sell the car to pay the bill."

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if every doctor would follow Maimonides’ lead and repeat the prayer that he said each day before treating his patients?:

Maimonides’ Prayer for the Physician

Before I begin the Holy Work of healing the creations of your hands, I place my eternity before the throne of Your Glory that You grant me strength of spirit and fortitude to faithfully execute my work. Let not desire for wealth or benefit blind me from seeing truth. Deem me worthy of seeing in the sufferer who seeks my advice - a person - neither rich nor poor, friend or foe, good man or bad, or a man in need; show me only the man. If Doctors wiser than I seek to help me understand, grant me the desire to learn from them, for the knowledge of healing is boundless. But when fools deride me, give me fortitude. Let my love for my profession strengthen my resolve to withstand the derision even of men of high station. Illuminate the way for me, for any lapse in my knowledge can bring illness and death upon Your creations. I beseech You, merciful and gracious God, strengthen me in body and soul, and instill within me a perfect spirit.

This time-honored Jewish belief that the doctor and the medicine which he prescribes are merely messengers of G-d Who is the Ultimate Healer, is not just for the doctor to have in my mind when treating patients – the patient, too, must realize this and not place too much faith in the doctor and his medical degrees but only in our Father and Healer in Heaven in whose hands lie the power of life and death.

This idea is illustrated in the episode in this week’s Torah portion mentioned above, where the Jewish people had merely to look at the serpent on the pole and be healed: Regarding the healing through the serpent on the staff, our Rabbis commented: "Could the serpent [on the pole] cause death [by not looking at it] or give life [by looking at it]? Rather, at the time Israel would look upward and subject their heart to their Father in Heaven, they would be cured; but if not, they would waste away" (Rash”i, from Rosh HaShanah 29a). The Jewish people’s healing consisted solely in comprehending that man does not live by medicine alone but through the grace of G-d. By looking at the snake and then upward, they repented and then reaffirmed their trust in G-d and His healing power, and were cured.

Rashb”a (Responsa Part 1:413), a famous medieval commentator, echoes this very Jewish sentiment when he warns that even though we must turn to doctors for medical treatment, we should place our hopes and confidence only in G-d. The doctor and his medicine are merely tools in the hands of G-d, and we must beseech G-d to cure us through this doctor and this medicine.

This is also reflected in the Jewish law as it is practiced today. The Talmud says (and it is quoted in the Code of Jewish Law in Orach Chaim 230:4) that someone who “lets blood” (a common form of medical treatment in ancient times) for health reasons should say a special prayer before and after. Before the procedure he should say "May it be Your will, Lord, my G-d, that this procedure have a healing effect, for You are the free healer." Afterwards he should say, "Blessed are You, Who heals the sick." The purpose of this prayer is to remind a person that it is G-d Who heals, not the medicine. So whether 'letting-blood', taking medicine or undergoing any other medical treatment, one should say this prayer.

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