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Judaism's Mind-Body Connection

May 9, 2009 | by Yisrael Rutman

Why are so many hospitals named after Mount Sinai?

Mount Sinai was the place in the desert where the Jewish people received the Torah. But as we all know, that's not the only Mount Sinai. There is also a Mount Sinai in New York City, and Mount Sinais in Los Angeles, Miami and Toronto -- hospitals, presumably named after the original Mount Sinai.

We understand why a hospital would be named after certain individuals, such as a philanthropist or a famous doctor. But why should Mount Sinai, the site where the Torah was given, be the name of a hospital?

I began asking around, but nobody seemed to know, including friends in the medical profession. So I wrote to the hospitals, and received this from the public affairs office of Mount Sinai Hospital of Toronto: As the "site where the Ten Commandments were handed down to Moses, the name 'Mount Sinai' signifies the wellspring of moral law and the source of all compassion."

They weren't giving away too much, but I got the message. Although "Thou Shalt Heal The Sick" is not inscribed on the Ten Commandments (just as "Thou Shalt Make House Calls" was also never written in stone), there was much more to the revelatory goings-on at Sinai than just the Ten Commandments.

At Sinai, the world reached a level of spiritual perfection that manifested itself as the disappearance of all physical blemish.

The Midrash relates that for those who stood at Sinai, all their afflictions were healed -- the crippled could walk, and the blind could see. With the revelation, the world reached a level of moral and spiritual perfection that manifested itself as the disappearance of all physical blemish. The symbiosis of a healthy mind and body is fundamental to Jewish thought.

So it's no mystery why Maimonides has medical centers named after him. Besides being one of the greatest Torah scholars of all time, he was also physician to the royal court of Alexandria in the 12th century. And after making the long commute home every day by donkey, with hardly a moment to rest, he would receive his fellow Jews at home, providing answers to all their questions, medical, religious and communal. In his own lifetime, Maimonides was so revered for his wisdom and compassion that the Jews of Yemen included his name in the Kaddish prayer.*

Moses the Shepherd

What about Moses? Although he was not a doctor, he was a compassionate caregiver. The Midrash relates that, as a shepherd, Moses once chased after a lost lamb and found the animal bent over and drinking. Realizing that it must have been thirsty and tired, he picked it up and carried it back to the flock. God said that "a person who pities even a helpless beast will surely show compassion for an entire nation." At that moment, Moses merited the prophetic vision of the Burning Bush, in which he was chosen to be the shepherd of his people, to lead the Jews out of Egypt.**

Moses is noted for one particularly spectacular foray into practical healing: When poisonous snakes attacked the Jews in the desert, God instructed Moses to fashion a special healing instrument: a pole topped with the form of a copper snake. When the pole was held aloft, those who had been afflicted by a snakebite would gaze on the serpentine image and be cured. (Numbers 21:6-10) This was the forerunner of the caduceus, the snake-entwined rod which is today the emblem of the medical profession.

Snakebites today are cured with the idea taught by Moses: The source of affliction itself becomes the remedy.

The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 29) asks rhetorically: "But is the snake capable of determining life and death?! Rather, when Israel would gaze upward and bind their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they would be healed; and if not, they would perish."

Fixing their eyes on the snake alone would not yield any cure; nor was it sufficient to just ask God to save them, without the snake-on-a-pole therapy. No, the people had to gaze upon the snake and focus on that fact that only God, who created the snake in the first place, could transform that same venomous creature into a medium of healing.

Remarkably, snakebites today are cured with anti-venom manufactured from small quantities of snake venom that stimulate the production of anti-bodies in the blood. It's the same idea taught by Moses: The source of affliction itself becomes the remedy.

Prayer and Healing Today

The connection between prayer and healing is an old one, but is being rediscovered in our own time. Various studies have been conducted to determine the efficacy of prayer in healing. Although the scope of the studies have been relatively small (and therefore inconclusive), the results so far indicate that prayer has a decidedly positive effect on recovery rates from serious illnesses.

The topic has been written about in the New England Journal of Medicine and other scholarly journals.

In a report for CBS, Dr. Bernadine Healy wrote: "In scores of studies, medical research has shown that people who believe in God or in prayer generally fare better than those who do not. For example, a Dartmouth Medical School study found that older people who underwent open-heart surgery and lacked social support from an organized group, or said they received no comfort from religion, were three times more likely to die within six months of their operation than those who said they did get solace from religion."

Some studies indicate that prayer is effective even though the patients were not even aware they were being prayed for. A 1988 study by cardiologist Dr. Randolph Byrd showed significant results. And at St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, a yearlong study involving 990 coronary patients showed that after four weeks, the prayed-for patients had suffered about 10 percent fewer complications, ranging from chest pain to cardiac arrest, than patients that were not prayed for. (Associated Press, October 1999)

The Jewish Concept of Prayer

Other studies at Duke, Ohio State University and San Francisco General Hospital have likewise shown a positive correlation between faith and healing.

But studies such as these can only measure the effects of prayer; they do not explain how it can help the sick. In Jewish thought, it is more than just a matter of asking the Almighty to make the problem go away. The relationship between suffering and illness is bound up with the whole purpose of creation.

One of the secrets contained in the first verse in the Torah is that the word "Bereishis" -- in the beginning -- may be read as a compound of the words Bara (He created) and shis (a veil).*** We are being taught that God created the universe with a veil. That veil manifests itself as the forces of nature that make it difficult for us to perceive His existence. It is our task in life to seek out God in the world, to pull away the veil and glimpse the reality that underlies everything.

The Jewish concept of prayer is that by asking God for our physical needs, we thereby acknowledge that He is the only One who can fulfill them; that He is the source of life, and that anything else, including doctors and medicines, are only intermediaries. This is the pulling away of the veil of nature for which we were given life in the first place. It is logical, therefore, that God should want to grant us more life with which to draw even closer to Him.

Power of its Own

But since so much depends on the level of clarity attained, prayer cannot be regarded as a cure-all. As in the biblical account, prayer needs to be used in conjunction with some practical measure. Unlike some religious groups, Jewish tradition strongly discourages reliance on faith alone to the exclusion of medical treatment.

In our generation, however, the tendency is just the opposite. People often rely on the doctors of Mount Sinai Hospital -- to the exclusion of the spiritual teachings of the original Sinai.

We are not the first to fall into this trap; as so often happens, the ancients were there long before us. The copper snake that Moses made was preserved for centuries as a testament to that extraordinary event. In the passage of time, however, its meaning became distorted, and people began to say that the snake possessed power of its own. When it reached the point of becoming an image of idolatry, the Jewish King Chizkiyahu made the decision to destroy it.

The key in Jewish healing is to find a balance. We need to remind ourselves that God is the source of life and death, of health and illness. We must not make an idolatry of modern medicine, investing powers in the medical establishment far beyond its true capacity. Much as he may hold aloft the dazzling instruments of medical technology, of miracle drugs, laser surgery and gene therapy, the doctor's power to heal is limited to that which God wills.

In other words, Mount Sinai Hospital cannot be detached from Mount Sinai in the desert... where it all started.


"...during your lifetime and during your days and during the lifetime of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon..."
** Moses could also be tough when necessary. When he saw an Egyptian mercilessly beating a Jewish slave, he rose up and killed the Egyptian. And he stood up to Pharaoh, the leader of the superpower of that time, demanding to "let my people go."
*** Heard from Asher Wade.


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