I couldn’t believe it. One of my trusted old reference books failed me for the first time.
I am an old-fashioned guy and I still use books for reference rather than resorting to the electronic high-tech alternatives. Therefore, on the shelf next to my writing desk, I have three reliable works: Webster’s College Dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, and Bartlett’s Book of Familiar Quotations. It was the latter that disappointed me as I prepared to write this week’s column.
Our Torah portion, Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16), contains the following verse: “If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the L-rd thy G-d, and wilt do that which is right in His eyes … I will put none of the diseases upon thee, which I have put upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord that healeth thee.” (Exodus 15:26)
That is how Rabbi J. H. Hertz, late chief Rabbi of the British Empire, phrases it in the translation which accompanies his excellent commentary to the Pentateuch. However, Rashi’s commentary suggests a different translation: “Simply put, I am the L-rd your physician, who teaches you Torah and mitzvot so that you will be spared illness, much as a physician would instruct his patient not to eat certain things because they may lead to his getting sick.”
Thus, for Rashi, the more accurate translation is not “I am the Lord that healeth thee” but rather, “I am the Lord thy physician.” Is there a difference between “I heal you” and “I am your doctor”? Rashi would respond there is a great difference between the two. “I heal you” means that you are sick and I make you better, whereas “I am your doctor” means that I have the ability to prevent you from getting sick in the first place.”
For Rashi, this is fundamental. The Almighty has the power to prescribe for us a lifestyle that will protect us from illness — from spiritual illness certainly, but arguably from physical suffering as well.
Rashi, of course, never knew the great physician who was Maimonides. But Rashi’s conception of a good physician as one who does not merely heal the sick, but who counsels those who are well about how to avoid disease, is identical to Maimonides’ definition of a good doctor.
Maimonides was the court physician for the Sultan Saladin in medieval Egypt. The Sultan was never ill and once called Maimonides on the carpet, as it were, and demanded of him proof that he was a good doctor. “I am never ill,” said Saladin, “so how am I to know whether you in fact deserve the reputation that you have for being a great physician?”
Reportedly, Maimonides answered: “The greatest of all physicians is the Lord, of Whom it is said ‘I am the Lord thy physician’. As proof of this, it is written, ‘I will not place upon you the illnesses which I have placed upon ancient Egypt.’ Who is truly the good doctor? Not the person who heals the sick from their diseases, but rather the one who helps the person from becoming sick and sees to it that he maintains his health.”
As Maimonides writes in one of his medical works, Essay on Human Conduct, “Most of the illnesses which befall man are his own fault, resulting from his ignorance of how to preserve his health — like a blind man who stumbles and hurts himself and even injures others in the process due to not having of a sense of vision.”
While contemplating the merits of the translation suggested by both Rashi and Maimonides, I couldn’t help but think of the old adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” My memory told me that this was another wise saying of crafty old Benjamin Franklin. But these days, I have grown increasingly distrustful of my memory and so decided to confirm the origin of those words.
Here is where the reference books with which I opened this column came into play. I reached for my trusty and well-worn Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. I searched under “prevention,” “cure,” and even “ounce,” but to no avail. Then I looked up “Franklin, Benjamin,” and found all sorts of words of wisdom but nothing about “an ounce of prevention.”
Google was my next resort. And there I indeed confirmed that it was Benjamin Franklin who echoed an important Jewish teaching when he said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
But there is more to be learned from the verse in this week’s Torah portion which we have been pondering: That the Almighty describes Himself as a healer or physician is more than just a lesson in the importance of living the kind of life that avoids the very real physical suffering that is often the consequence of an immoral life.
The metaphor of “physician” also makes a strong statement about the nature of the relationship between the Almighty and us, his “patients.”
If the verse would read, “If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the L-rd … for I am the Lord thy Master,” that would suggest that He demands our obedience in order to assert His own authority. But by urging us to “hearken to His voice” because He is “our physician,” we gain an entirely different view of why we should be obedient. As Malbim, a 19th century rabbinic commentator, puts it, “A physician, like a master, demands obedience, but only for the purpose of securing the patient’s welfare.” Thus, the divine commandments are to be seen as being for our own benefit, for our own ultimate well-being.
The image of a divine healer is one of the special gems to be found in Parshat Beshalach, which is a rich treasury of such images. How helpful it is for the Jew to experience a life of Torah and mitzvot as a gift given to him by a divine being who is concerned with his benefit, and how meaningful it is to know that the observant life is designed to avoid every manner of illness and to promote spiritual health and material wellness.