When I was a very young rabbi in my first position as B’nai B’rith chaplain to the Mayo Clinic system’s hospitals, I met a woman from a Hasidic community during my rounds one day. As we were talking, she gave voice to a crisis in faith.
As did many people in those days, she had come to the Mayo Clinic as a court of last resort, so to speak. She had been diagnosed with a more advanced stage of disease, which took her by surprise. While the Mayo Clinic and its affiliated hospitals are truly wonderful, especially in the area of diagnoses, the physicians there could offer her no more hope than did those at home.
And so she cried out to me: “I have been observant of the mitzvot all of my life. Why am I being punished in this manner?”
This particular scenario was to occur over and over again throughout the years. In searching for the meaning of illness and other life crises, inevitably people examine their behaviors for the cause of their suffering. While people seldom ask why they deserve the rewards of life, they do not hold back when it comes to what they perceive as the punishments: illness, death and other such major crises.
“What did I do to deserve this?” they ask.
In this week’s double Torah portion, Behar/Bechukotai, we learn one of the sources of this type of reaction to crisis. In the opening verses of the second of these, it says, “If you will follow my statutes and faithfully observe my commandments … I will find favor in you.” (Leviticus 26:3-13)
The portion then continues to promise: “If you do not obey Me and observe all these commandments, … I will wreak misery upon you — consumption and fever. … I will set My face against you. … I will go on to discipline you sevenfold for your sins.” (Leviticus 26:14-18ff)
Most of us seek causes for the events in our lives, especially those that feel punishing. We seek meaning in our lives, preferring even punishment to meaninglessness. While the text seems to point to a cause-and-effect relationship between illness, death, suffering, infertility, extreme weather, and the many other crises in life and our adherence to Torah, our experience clearly does not.
When someone indicates to me that s/he feels as though s/he is being punished, I then inquire as to what deeds might have caused that individual to merit that particular “punishment.” In taking such an inventory (Cheshbon Nefesh, in Hebrew), the person comes to the conclusion that s/he is really a good person and not the sinful one first imagined.
Who transgresses seriously enough to merit a fatal disease, or even worse, a child’s fatal disease? Ignoring what ritual causes cancer, heart disease, miscarriage? The failure to fulfill which of the 613 commandments results in a debilitating disease or serious injury?
The question remains, however, as to how one reconciles Torah and the reality in which we live. For some, it may mean an explanation that these verses speak to the entire people and to the individual members. For them, it is all about the collective. For others, the dissonance between the two may push them in the direction of discounting Torah entirely in favor of reality, in effect becoming nonobservant, nonreligious and in extreme even no longer Jews.
I see a middle path in which the Torah continues to have value in my life, in which the rituals continue to provide meaning, purpose and joy, in which the discipline of Torah continues to give structure to my life.
As part of the people of Torah, my uniqueness as an individual is enhanced. Illness, death, injuries — life’s crises — are inevitable. They are part of our very existence. The question is not, “Why am I in crisis?” but, “What am I going to do with this crisis?”
For me, Torah in the largest sense of the term provides me with the tools to find meaning, structure and even joy during those times as well as during the times of “reward.”
Being ill does not mean that one has fallen out of favor with God; it is not punishment. “If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments” then you will not be able to avoid the crises in life, but you will be able to meet them.
Rabbi Josef A. Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.