The Best Approach to Adversity

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

In this striking drasha, Ran urges his listeners to rethink their whole approach to illness.  His points apply equally to us and, sadly, might feel as foreign to us as to his original audience. This is another example of how we make progress in some areas of life, such as technology, but progress slowly, if at all, in our understanding of morality, spirituality, and religion.

Prior essays in this series

As we’ve seen before, Ran writes discursively, traveling interesting byways on the way to his message. For this sixth drasha, let’s begin with his main point and then go back to the most stimulating of the digressions.

So far, Ran has spoken about the metaphysical world and then about halachah. Here, he brings them together to argue that the best way to meet the troubles of his time is by repenting. Setting our halachic world in order will metaphysically improve our odds of avoiding physical troubles. I believe the troubles in question were the Black Death, the plague that hit Europe in 1348 and returned every 10-15 years for the next four centuries, killing half or more of the affected populations each time it came.  Ran never names it but he lived during its first appearance. The ways he describes people as trying to avoid it match what people did for the plague; if it wasn’t that, it was something else that greatly disturbed his listeners.

Paying Attention to the Proper Concerns

Ran gets to the crucial issue in the middle of the drasha, where he says that the best approach to “these times” is to worry about רפואת הנפש, the healing of the soul, more than and prior to the healing of the body.  Most people in his day worried about the foods they ate or the quality of the air they breathed. Today we would also worry about finding the right medicine or medical procedure. Ran wants them to understand that their first concern should be spiritual health.

Many of us today, consciously or not, reject this as well. We are convinced by the medical community’s over-certainty that our improved medical understanding negates the possibility that our spiritual health affects our physical health. Ran’s ideas push us to question Orthodox Jews’ relatively common acceptance of Western society’s materialism, its confidence that there is nothing other than the physical.  Ran disagrees.

Proper Prioritizing

Ran starts by pointing out that doctors would agree that we would triage our treatment of physical illnesses by these three rules (perhaps others as well, but these three buttress Ran’s point): 1) Treat the more dangerous illness first, 2) Treat first the disease that causes the others, and 3) Treat first any disease that must be healed before the others can be.

To Ran, spiritual ills qualify for early treatment on all three counts.  Spiritual ills are more dangerous than physical ones, since they threaten our eternal souls.  They cause our other ills (because spiritually healthy people are more immune to physical problems) and we cannot be truly healed without the soul being healed.

Those claims are independent of each other—we can accept all, two, or one. The third seems particularly difficult in our times, since science and medicine have clearly succeeded at healing by looking at the physical alone.

It’s difficult in Jewish terms as well, since Ran knew that tradition assumes some evildoers will be rewarded for any and all of their good deeds in this life, leaving only punishment for the next world.  If so, it’s not necessarily true that taking care of our spiritual side will improve our lives. We might switch ourselves from the rubric of getting our reward in this world to the more usual mixed bag, in which case our immediate experience would be of decreased quality of life.

Given that Ran knew that, I think he would emphasize that the true healing of the body, a healing that doesn’t involve burning up all one’s merits, requires a prior healing of the soul.

The Metaphysical Isnt Meta

Underlying all three of Ran’s claims is a perspective of how the metaphysical interacts with the physical. We speak of belief in God and even of miracles today. But how many of us believe that our vulnerability to disease (and the likelihood that we’ll be healed of those diseases that hit us) is at least somewhat a function of our spiritual state, positively impacted by repentance?

Part of what makes that hard is that the world around us is so sure it’s not true. That doesn’t make it so, but it makes it harder for us to assert that it’s so. We have lost that part of Avraham Avinu’s legacy where he knew the rest of the civilized world was just plain wrong.

Which doesn’t make it any more or less true; it’s an example of our having lost touch with a traditional Jewish belief, leaving us to grapple with how to handle that. One way, I suggest, is to be open to Ran’s reminder that a prominent strand of Jewish tradition believes that Hashem created a world in which the physical and metaphysical intermix, with the metaphysical actively affecting us in the here and now.  (I note that many people assume Rambam accepted nature as it is and avoided the intrusion of the metaphysical on the physical; I have written elsewhere about why I believe that that doesn’t quite capture what Rambam meant).

Looking for Help in All the Wrong Places

Looking only to physical remedies, Ran says, also mistakes the immediate cause for the real cause. If a person being flogged for violating the king’s laws mistook the whip for the king as the cause of his pain, that would be the shortsighted mistake we make in seeing our troubles as physical. The best way to avoid the pain of the whip is to act such that the king decides not to have us whipped.  In our lives, too, the best way to avoid pain from Hashem is to act such that Hashem sees no need to have us suffer physical pain.

As support, he notes that II Melachim 18; 21-24 blames the Jews for turning to Egypt for help when the Assyrians were at the gates of Jerusalem, and II Divrei HaYamim 16;12 blames Asa, the king of Judea, for consulting with doctors when he was ill. (In the fascinating first chapter of Ramat Rachel, a small book on visiting the sick R. Waldenberg includes in Tsits Eliezer, vol. 5, he objects to Aruch haShulchan’s saying we must also pray to Hashem when ill; heheld we have to believe it’s all from Hashem, that the doctors are only the vehicle of Hashem’s healing).

So too, Ran says, people who put all their efforts towards finding better air or food are mistaking immediate causes for ultimate ones, and failing to take the most effective possible action. Note that he doesn’t deny the validity or importance of taking care of the physical, he only objects to focusing solely on that part of the problem.

Ran challenges us to realize that the first hurdle in a time of danger is remembering the dual tracks we have to take.  Next time, we’ll define the spiritual track better.  For now, we ask whether we accept his view of the fundamental approach we need to take to our problems.

About Gidon Rothstein

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