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Doctor of Doctors

Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24 )

by Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt

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.

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