Are You Sick? This Is How the Torah Wanted Us to Take Care of Our Souls
by Jeremy Rosen
The chapters of the Torah that we are reading now are concerned with health, and what happens when our bodies do not function effectively or normally. Why do we get ill? Are we to blame for neglecting or misusing our bodies, or coming into contact with an infectious person? Who will cure us and how?
Religions often imply that we are at fault when things go wrong, and that repentance is the only cure. If only it could cure old age. However well-meaning these sentiments might be (perhaps as an impetus for us to improve ourselves), we know full well that many illnesses as well as catastrophes cannot possibly be because of our actions or failures. Since pre-historic times, priests, magicians, and miracle workers have all tried to help, using folk cures, incantations, or spells.
The ancient pioneers of scientific medicine understood illness through the system we now call the Four Humors — Air, Water, Fire, and Earth, which manifested themselves through the bodily elements of Black and Yellow Biles, Blood, and Phlegm. The Indian Ayurveda system added ether. Examining these substances could explain why the body was getting too hot or cold, and how to stop injuries and malaise from getting worse. They used herbal parts of animals, magic spells, amulets, and charms to comfort and reassure the sick that they could get better and deal with the problems that they had.
This week, the Torah opens the subject of health with childbirth and the measures to be taken both to give time to heal and to give thanks for recovery. The loss of blood was regarded as a possible sign of danger to life. The ritual procedure was intended to emphasize the spiritual dimension as well as the physical. The priest would be called in to find out what was wrong, and prescribe a cure. At the same time, this would help people realize that there is another level of medicine, the spiritual. People needed emotional, and what we would now call psychological, help. All of this was the domain of the priests, who were supported by the community to function as doctors, therapists, teachers, and spiritual advisors in addition to their ceremonial roles.
The priest could place the invalid in temporary quarantine before deciding whether it was serious enough to warrant longer isolation to protect the community, before allowing them back. This was followed by a religious procedure of gratitude for being cured, and atonement for any shortcomings. A process of rectification (Tikkun).
The Torah’s attitude to sickness is a dual system that we might call holistic — connecting the physical to the religious, by insisting on rituals that act as reminders of moral obligations. The Talmud added a dimension of social rectification. It implied that physical sickness might also be the result of moral sickness, anti-social behavior, or destructive intentions. It linked Tsara’at to telling tales and gossip. It was concerned not just with physical failure but moral failure too, warning against destructive selfishness. This too was why they always said that historical catastrophes that befell us were often the result of our own failure. Even so, the Talmud insists that we should consult medical experts (Bava Kama 85a).
As science has developed, we know there’s a lot that it still doesn’t know. That’s one of the reasons why so many people turn even now to astrology and magic of different kinds and are often taken advantage of by charlatans. Our tradition includes physical, psychological, and all the other elements that go towards helping people cope with their problems physically and spiritually.
The Torah commands us to take care of our bodies and our souls. The detailed rituals of those times have been replaced by our daily prayers in which we thank God for our health and are reminded of our obligations to take care of our souls and bodies.
The author is a writer and rabbi, currently based in New York.