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

How will we know when this crisis is over?

How will we know when this crisis is over?

Because this crisis will end. Every catastrophe there ever was has been brought to closure at some point.

Wars have begun with shots fired on foreign shores and ended with neighbours kissing outside their front doors.

Our scientists have conquered tuberculosis, leprosy, HIV and polio. It may take months and it may take years, but they will find a cure and people will recover.

Humanity has survived ice ages, famines and nuclear meltdowns. And it will survive this. This crisis will, one day, be over.

And when it is… how will we know?

The ancient world had rituals for bringing every ordeal to a close. When the sick returned from their quarantine, they were ritually bathed seven times, given new clothes, and shaved from head to toe.1

We, too, will wash ourselves anew. We will look at water and soap differently. We will cry in the shower to produce as much water as possible, knowing that those cleansing droplets are the secret to life itself.

And we still won’t know whether the crisis is over.

The priests of the bible would perform ceremonies to indicate that closure had occurred. On recovery from sickness, they would give offerings of unleavened cakes, fine flour, oil and animal blood.1 They would thank God for their health with their sacrifices.2 They would wave their hands in the air, bringing the ingredients together, embodying their wholeness.3

We, too, will make offerings. We will return to reopened pubs and put our glasses in the air and celebrate our survival with pints of cider and drams of whiskey and we will say ‘l’chaim’ like we never knew what it meant to say ‘to life’ before.

We will be grateful. We will thank God that we were among those who survived. We will thank God that even those who did not survive would be proud to see the continuity of the world they built. We will realise that a day when you can drink surrounded by friends and family should never be taken for granted. We will truly understand that life is a gift.

And still we will not know whether the crisis is over.

Our rabbis knew how to mark transitions with words. When good things happened for the first time in a long time, they instituted that we should say “blessed are you, Eternal One our God, Creator of the Universe, who has kept us alive and sustained us and allowed us to reach this season.”4

We will do old things for the first time. We will play in parks with our children again. And they will meet new children for the first time. And we will leave our houses without a purpose just to knock on old friends’ doors and see their faces for the first time. And we will hug. And we will kiss. And we will go to cinemas and nightclubs and gyms and synagogues. Yes! we will most certainly pack out our synagogues again. And we will treasure those moments and thank God that we lived to see them.

And we won’t know whether the crisis is over.

Our rabbis knew how to mark the bad with the good. They knew that not every transition was a recovery. They knew that sometimes people died and it felt like the whole world had been destroyed. They knew how to mark it. They told us to rip our clothes and let our hair grow long.5 They knew that sometimes so many loved ones would die that we would have to shred our whole wardrobes.6

We will grieve. We do not yet know how many we will grieve. It may be only the thousands who have already died. We will learn not to call thousands of deaths ‘only’. We may lose a person whom we love. We may lose many people whom we love. We will grieve for all of them.

We will cry in the streets in funeral processions for all those who never had the chance to mourn properly on lockdown. We will wail without abandon for every life taken too soon. Every life that will be taken will have gone too soon. We will huddle together in houses and let out all our sadness and anger.

We will feel guilty. Because, after all, feeling guilty is a part of grieving and surviving isn’t always such a cause for celebration. And although we will not believe it at first, we will recover. And we will move on.

And we still will not know whether the crisis is over.

Because the crisis will not yet be over.

If we leave our houses and go back to our old jobs to pay rent and mortgages in the same houses to barely survive in the same cities, Coronavirus will not have been defeated. We will only have signed an armistice with sickness, knowing that another plague will face us again. This will not be the last virus. Any effort to return to normality will only exacerbate the problems that have gone before.

Never again will we fight each other for dried pasta and toilet roll and sanitary pads and formula milk. Never again will we stare into our cupboards and wonder how long our tinned food will last us. We cannot ever return to the days of scarcity.

Before we can begin to move on, we have to be assured that all of humanity’s basic needs will be met unconditionally. Healthcare, food, water and clean energy will be considered human rights. When we struggle for them, we will struggle for everyone to have them. We will insist on it the way that world leaders pledge at the end of wars never to pick up weapons again, only this time we will mean it.

And still that will not be enough for us to say that the crisis is over.

Never again will people carry on working when they are sick because dying of starvation sounds worse than dying of disease. Never again will people live one pay cheque away from homelessness. Never again will family homes be foreclosed. Never again will people worry how they are going to self-isolate when they have nowhere to live. Housing will be provided universally on the basis of need, so that these crises can never be repeated.

And that won’t be enough for us to say it’s over.

Because there are today vulnerable, elderly and disabled people who are saying that self-isolation was already their standard practice, and that they did not choose it voluntarily. Because there are sick people who already feel like they are a burden to society when their lives are a gift from God. Because there are families torn about by borders and there is escalating racism that makes people feel even more afraid and we know that loneliness and bigotry and fear make life unbearable. We will judge our society not by the strength of its economy but by the strength of its weakest members. Only when we are assured that the value of human life is unquantifiable will be able to draw a line under the past.

And that day will come. This crisis will end. Ever crisis that ever was has come to an end.

And we will mark it. Every human being who is alive will sign a new international constitution, swearing allegiance only to each other and to God. And we will swear to protect everything that lives and the precious planet that sustains it. And on that document we will enshrine rights we never thought possible. And it will be the benchmark for everything that comes afterwards.

And everyone, all around the world, will subscribe to it.

We will not know the crisis is over because everything goes back to being the same. We will know the crisis is over when we are certain that everything has changed.

Then we will know beyond all doubt that this crisis is over.

salah taher peace treaty

I wrote this sermon for Leo Baeck College, Parashat Tzav. I then decided to publish it early because I have too much free time. 

1Lev 14:1-10

2Lev 7:1-15

3Plaut 787

4Berachot 54a

5Rambam Mishneh Torah Hilchot Avel 7

6Rambam Mishneh Torah Hilchot Avel 8