sermon · theology

Why do people get sick?

Why do people get sick?

In a year when so many have experienced ill health, it is worth asking why this has happened. Throughout the pandemic, we have been reminded that some will get the virus with no symptoms; some will get the virus and recover; some will get the virus and will not recover. But what determines who gets sick and who gets better? Who decides who has to suffer and who will not?

There are plenty of medical professionals in this congregation who can answer part of that question much better than I can. Statistics, underlying factors, mitigating circumstances, health inequalities, access to medicine. All of these things certainly play a role. 

But they don’t answer the fundamental question that animates us: why? Why my loved one? Why me? That is not a medical question but an existential one. It is about whether there is a God, whether that God cares, and what a religious Jew might do to change their outcomes. 

For that, we look to the Jewish tradition. Let’s start with this week’s parashah. Here, we read one of the earliest examples of a supplicatory prayer. Moses sees his sister, Miriam, covered in scaly skin disease. He cries out: “El na rafa na la.” God, please, heal her, please. We hear the desperation in Moses’ voice as he twice begs: “please.” Don’t let her become like one of the walking dead. 

In this story, there is a clear explanation for why Miriam gets sick and why she gets better. Miriam’s skin disease is a punishment. She insulted Moses’ wife, talking about her behind her back with Aaron. 

When she gets healed, it is because she atones for her sins and Moses forgives her. She goes to great lengths of prayer and ritual to have her body restored. Sickness is a punishment and health is a reward.

In some frum communities, you might still hear this explanation. All kinds of maladies are offered as warnings for gossiping. When people get sick, they’re encouraged to check their mezuzot to make sure their protective amulets are in good working order. 

In some ways, these are harmless superstitions. When everything feels out of control, why not look for reasons and things you can do? But hanging your beliefs on this is dangerous. Plenty of righteous people get sick and plenty of wicked people lead long and healthy lives. 

If you follow the logic of this Torah story, you run the risk that, when your loved one’s health deteriorates, you might blame them for their ethical conduct, when really there is nothing they could do. It is a cruel theology that blames the victim for their sickness.

In the Talmud, the rabbis felt a similar discomfort. They decided that skin diseases were an altar for atonement. When people got sick, it was God’s way of testing the most beloved. The righteous would suffer greatly in this world so that they would suffer far less in the next.

When Rabbi Yohanan fell ill, Rabbi Hanina went to visit him at his sick bed. He asked him: “Do you want to reap the benefits of this suffering?” Rabbi Yohanan said he did not want the rewards for being sick, and was immediately healed. 

We hear these ideas today, too. People will say that God sends the toughest challenges to the strongest soldiers. But I don’t think this theology is any more tenable. How can anyone say to a child with cancer that their sickness is an act of God’s love? Who could justify such a belief?

No. The truth is that these theories of reward and punishment should leave us cold. We live in a world full of sickness and suffering, and it’s attribution is entirely random.

Maimonides, a 13th Century philosopher, saw that these explanations for sickness did not work. He was a doctor; the chief physician to the Sultan in Egypt. He had read every medical textbook and saw long queues of people with various ailments every day. How could he, with all his knowledge, think that sickness was a punishment or a reward?

Maimonides taught that God has providence over life in general but not over each life in particular. God has a plan for the world, but is not going to intervene in individual cases of recovery. He disparaged the idea that mezuzot were amulets or that people could impact their health outcomes with prayer. 

I feel compelled to agree with Maimonides’ rationalist Judaism. Sickness is random and inexplicable. So is health. The statistics and medical knowledge that I set aside at the start of this sermon have much better answers than I can muster.

So, what do we do? We, who are not healthcare professionals or clinicians seeking a cure? 

Like Moses, seeing the sickness of Miriam, we pray. We pray with our loved ones, not because we think it will make God any more favourable to them, but because it is a source of comfort to those who are sick. Praying with someone shows that you love them and care about their recovery. We do it for the sake of our loving relationships.

Like Rabbi Hanina, seeing the sickness of Rabbi Yohanan, we visit the sick. We attend to people, not because we imagine we can magically cure them with words, but because company is the greatest source of strength in trying times. We go to see people in hospital, not for their bodies, but for their souls.

And, like Maimonides, we approach the world with humility. We refuse to believe in superstitions that are false or harmful. We accept that we live in a mystery and there is much we do not know. 

In this time of sickness and difficulty, it is very Jewish to ask: “why do people get sick?” The Jewish response to questions is to ask more questions. And the most Jewish question we can ask here is: “when people are sick, how can I help?”

Shabbat shalom.

I gave this sermon at Newcastle Reform Synagogue for Parashat Behaalotchah on 29th May 2021.

judaism · sermon · theology · torah

Go for yourself

Trying to get by with biblical Hebrew with modern Hebrew speakers is difficult. Among a group in Jerusalem this summer, I tried to coax out a dog, saying “Lech lecha, celev.” The Israelis around me burst out laughing. “What? What did I say?” I asked. “Nothing,” they said. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

I had just repeated the first words of our parashah, when God instructs Abraham to get out of Haran and go to Canaan. Without context, the expression was bizarre. Phrases that were once meaningful in this language can lose their sense. But, for our commentators throughout history, this specific phrase has been perplexing. Without the vowels we might think it is emphatic – a repetition of the same verb, telling Abraham “go, go, get out.” But the Masoretic markings are quite clear. This is not “lech lech” but “lech lecha” – which could be read ‘go to yourself’, or ‘go for yourself’, or ‘go as yourself’… It is a strange construction.

Ramban suggests that it’s just an idiom of biblical Hebrew. He points to other examples in Jeremiah and Deuteronomy where similar constructions are used. But that answer feels disappointing. Why this idiom? And why here? Every idiom has a purpose, even if that purpose isn’t even entirely clear to the native speaker.

The answer I like best comes from Rashi. Rashi says “go for your own benefit, for your own advantage”. This puts the rest of the sentence into context: “and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you.” Don’t go for their sake. Go for your own sake. But when you go for your own sake, when you go knowing that you are seeking out a blessing for yourself, then everyone will receive that blessing too.

It calls to mind the distinction between charity and solidarity. That idea was summarised by Lilla Watson, an Australian indigenous rights activist, in her address to the UN Women’s Conference in Nairobi in 1985: “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Watson herself has challenged the attribution, saying that it was thinking that had come out of collective work by indigenous women in Queensland over a long period of time.

Indeed, differentiating between charity and solidarity has long been a feature of thought for oppressed peoples. Charity, seeking to help people for their own sake without any regard for your own, is surely a noble feeling. But it leaves the person who gives it feeling better than the one who receives it. For the one who gives it, it leaves them feeling helpful, assuages their conscience, and contributes to a sense that they are doing the right thing. For the recipient, it can leave them feeling powerless, pitied, supported, and not treated as a full human being.

Charity is ultimately, too, not that helpful to the one giving it. It turns human interaction into a form of sacrifice, based on guilt, self-effacement and pity. It forces people to ignore their own lived realities and struggles, and put themselves at a position of distance from others.

While charity can address material needs in a positive way, it reminds everyone of the power relations that caused the need for charity in the first place. It reminds the donor of their power and the receiver of their lack. It can even reinforce those structures, as the impoverished turn to the donors as a source of wealth rather than looking to their own talents. The donor can impose restrictions on how the money is used or on how the receiver might conduct themselves in ways that ultimately secure the authority of the donor.

Solidarity asks us to “lech lecha” – to go for ourselves, to go as ourselves. It asks us to come to problems as full people with our own issues and concerns that we need to address. It asks us to treat everybody as if they, too, are going for themselves: full human beings who have a great deal in common with us and their own unique purposes.

Solidarity requires both parties to feel vulnerable together. It asks that the person motivated to give charity considers their own interests and what stake they have in changing the current circumstances. It also asks both parties to work together: they have a common interest and need to empower each other. Solidarity places people’s self-respect and cooperation at the centre of organising change.

Rambam picks up this theme in his eight levels of ‘tzedaka’. The word ‘tzedaka’ is often translated as ‘charity’, but it shares a common root with the word for ‘justice’. The concepts of charity and solidarity are held together by this same word, so Rambam needed to spell out the differences between different forms of giving. Like the indigenous activists of Australia, Rambam puts solidarity on a much higher level than charity. He considers “empowering others with meaningful employment” to be the highest level of tzedaka. Unlike giving into the hands of the poor, empowerment such as this ensures that everyone’s dignity is preserved, and everyone benefits from the work.

So it is that G-d says to Abraham: “Go for your own sake and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.” When you go out considering your own self-respect first and foremost, it follows that everyone else can act from theirs. Abraham does not go out to save the world. He goes out to save himself. But by being prepared to take risks for his own soul, he sets an example and sets the wheels in motion that everybody can seek out G-d’s blessing.

That is how the nations became blessed through Abraham. As we approach the challenges of our day, we should seek to ask the same questions as he was forced to. What do I really need? What does G-d require of me? How can I see others as full human beings and respond to their needs? How can I go for myself, so as to be a blessing for others?

Go for yourself, and all the nations of the world will be blessed through you.

white horseman nahum gutman

I gave this sermon on the morning of Thursday 18th October at Leo Baeck College for Parashat Lech Lecha.