Divrei Torah Blogs

Vayechi 5767

Illness Vayechi.  The name of this week’s parsha means “And he lived.”  This week’s parsha begins by telling us that Jacob lived in Egypt 17 years, and he lived a total of 147 years.

In an echo of parshat Chayye Sarah, which means “the life of Sarah” and is about her death, this week’s Torah reading Vayechi is concerned not so much with the life of Jacob as with his death.

In his passing, Jacob brings something new to the world: illness.  In the entire Torah thus far – and we are just about to complete the entire book of Genesis – no one has ever been sick.  From Adam to Noah, from Abraham to Isaac, nowhere does the Torah say anyone got sick.  People have been killed, both in war and anger; people have been the victim of natural disasters, like the flood which wiped out the world.  But when people died at an old age, we’re simply told they died.  No illness.

The Zohar says that before Jacob appeared, illness was unknown, and mankind was perfectly healthy until their time came, when they passed away without any previous sickness.  Yilkot Talmud Torah further says that when it came time for a person to pass away, he would sneeze and his soul would exit his nostrils – he says that’s why we’re supposed to say “Chayim!” “Life!” when someone sneezes.

We usually think of old age, afflictions, and illness as things not exactly to be avoided – Lord knows it’s the lot of us all, assuming we’re lucky enough to live a long time – but they are not exactly things to be welcomed either.  Yet the Midrash tells us that we owe these three things – old age, afflictions, and illness – to our ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  As you’ll see, they each saw a silver lining in what we perceive as clouds.

The Midrash says that Abraham asked for old age.  Prior to Abraham, people lived to an old age, but no one looked old.  Everyone always looked young.  So Abraham went to God and said “Master of the Universe!  When a father and a son enter a town, no knows who to honor.  People keep mixing me up with Isaac.  Do me a favor, give me a little gray hair so people will show me some respect.”  God tells him, “By your life, you spoke well!  We’ll begin with you!”  And the Torah tells us “Abraham was old, advanced in years.”

And there can be a benefit to having a few grey hairs – you are taken more seriously, at least in some circles.  The Talmud brings the story of how there was a “palace revolt” among the rabbis against the leadership of Rabban Gamliel.  They wanted to appoint R. Elazar ben Azariah to be head of the court because he was wise and rich.  He said he needed to think about it and talk to his wife.  His wife advised against it – she said “they might depose you – look, you don’t have any gray hair!”  He didn’t have any gray hair because he was only 18 years old.  But the Talmud tells us a miracle was done for him that night, and 18 rows of hair in his beard turned white, giving him the look of a sage.  His hair probably went white from fright at the idea of trying to lead a bunch of opinionated rabbis!

Isaac is the one responsible for suffering: when his time was drawing near, Isaac said to God “Master of the Universe!  If a man dies without having gone through some suffering he faces a harsh judgment.  But if he experienced some suffering before dying, there would at least be mercy for him.”  God said, “you spoke well, we’ll begin with you.”  And so we find that no one is afflicted with anything in the Torah, until Isaac, about whom the Torah says “And it came to pass when Isaac was old and his eyes were dim.”

And now we come to Jacob, who, as we know introduced illness.  Why?  Jacob asked for it so that he would have time to get his affairs in order.  He said to God “Master of the Universe!  If a man dies without any previous illness, he doesn’t settle his affairs with his children; but if he were ill for two or three days, he would settle his affairs with his children.”  And God said “By your life!  You spoke well, we’ll begin with you…”  And in this week’s Torah portion we read “and one said to Joseph: הִנֵּה אָבִיךָ חלֶה Behold, your father is sick.”

But who really wants the infirmities and afflictions of old age, who wants to be ill?

We live in a very youth oriented culture.  It seems there’s more respect for a buff body than there is for grey hair.  We don’t like to talk about death, dying, or serious illness.  But not talking about it doesn’t make it go away.  I don’t particularly like thinking about it – one of the things I noticed with turning fifty is that death and illness started striking some of my contemporaries.  One of my doctors pointed out that the mortality chart makes a sharp unkind bend when you turn fifty.

So what are we to do with illness when it strikes?  The Talmud suggests finding meaning in your illness.  Try to find out why you’re being afflicted.  In the Talmud tractate Brachot there’s a remarkable section called “yesorin shel ahava,” the afflictions of love, which explores this idea (Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 5a).  Raba says “if a man sees that painful sufferings visit him, let him examine his conduct.”

Just like Job’s buddy Eliphaz.  When Job was miserable and afflicted, Eliphaz asked Job to figure out what he did wrong. “Remember, I beg you, who ever perished, being blameless? Or where were the righteous cut off?”

I would suggest friends like that we could all live without: Job replies “I have heard many such things; מְנַחֲמֵי עָמָל כֻּלְּכֶם miserable comforters are you all.”

No, that’s not much help.  Sometimes righteous people are afflicted with illness and suffering.   The Talmud noticed this too.  So Raba said if a person examines his deeds and finds nothing objectionable, let him attribute his suffering to the fact that he must have been neglecting studying Torah.  After all, who among us studies enough Torah?

This too, I would suggest is not such a helpful idea.  Even people who spend their entire lives engaged in the Torah get afflicted with suffering and disease.  That suggestion too would merit Job’s rejoinder, “miserable comforters are you all.”

There are all sorts of inspirational stories you can read about people whose lives were transformed for the better by a brush with a potentially fatal illness.  How they found new meaning in their lives, got a real understanding of life’s priorities.  But I don’t think that’s the usual reaction.

When I was living in Los Angeles, Marlene Adler Marks, z”l, who was then the editor of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, was stricken with lung cancer.  Being a journalist, she chose to talk about it in the most public of ways, in her column.  Her columns on the subject were always beautifully written, moving with a touch of humor (click here to read some of them).  The power of her columns is attested to by how her courage – and her columns – jump started her Catholic oncologist’s faith.  In a letter read at her funeral he wrote "[They] rekindled my relationship with God, with whom I had not been on speaking terms for quite a few years.  You see, I’d been very upset with Him for taking so many [patients] away from me."

There was one thing Marlene Marks wrote which really made an impression on me, and I still remember it today
, almost ten years later.  Frustrated with Job-like friends encouraging her to find meaning in her illness, she said “I don’t want to find meaning in my cancer.  I want to get better.”

And even the rabbis in the Talmud recognize that that’s where the truth lies – we don’t want to find meaning in illness, we want to recover from illness.  Going back to the yesorin shel ahava, Raba says that if a person examines his deeds and finds nothing wrong, if he examines how much Torah he studied and finds he studied an appropriate amount – as it is taught “he who does much and he who does a little are all the same, provided a person’s heart is directed toward God” – he can be sure he has been afflicted with “yesorin shel ahava,” with afflictions of love, as it says in Proverbs   כִּי אֶת אֲשֶׁר יֶאֱהַב יי יוֹכִיח “for whom the Lord loves, he chastises.”

But when R. Chiya b. Abba fell ill, R. Yochanan visited him, and asked him “are your sufferings welcome to you?”  Meaning, since you know that they must be afflictions of love, and you are storing up a reward in the world to come because of them, do you appreciate them?  R. Chiya replied, as I think most of us would “not them, and not their reward.”  So R. Yochanan said הב לי ידךִ give me your hand, and he gave him his hand and he raised him.

He raised him…the power of bikkur cholim, of visiting the sick, is that we can help raise the ill, at least spiritually if not physically.

Marlene Marks wrote that when she first fell ill, she didn’t want company and she didn’t want visitors.  She wrote “My initial bias was to tough it out alone, to attend my own funeral, working grimly through long months of my illness with my trusty laptop; to let one friend sit with me for the long day to watch "Silence of the Lambs."

“But even if I didn’t have Chemo Brain incapable of focus, that scenario does not fit me. And it does not adequately fulfill the Jewish principle of bikkur cholim, visiting the sick.

“Bikkur cholim is designed as a community effort, a way in which we all, sick and well, face mortality together. The Talmud states that a person who visits the sick removes one-sixtieth of the illness. Either Cynthia could visit me 60 times or 60 people can visit me once, which is what happened during my lung surgery when intensive care was filled to overflowing. It drove my surgeon crazy, but soon I was feeling fine.”

Our congregation does not have a formal bikkur cholim committee.  But we do have a very powerful informal bikkur cholim network, which is wonderful to watch.  When Yisrael Ornan (z”l” fell ill, our community did a wonderful job of helping and supporting his family, providing meals and comfort.  When Jeremy Wallach needed treatment out of town, people volunteered to help with logistics and with driving.

But perhaps instead of an informal network, we should have a regular bikkur cholim committee, which in addition to helping with logistical support when someone has a serious illness could engage in the simple task of doing bikkur cholim, visiting the sick, whether in the hospital or at a rehab center or someone confined to home.  The Hazzan and I do try to visit people who are ill – and do please remember to let us know when someone is ill and can use a visit, as we often don’t find out until people have already gone home from the hospital.  However, bikkur cholim is not just a mitzvah for clergy, and especially people who don’t have family locally I’m sure would appreciate visits from other people as well.

In fact, when someone is sick, they don’t necessarily need a rabbi anyway.  Not too long ago, a friend of mine became very seriously ill.  Knowing I’m a rabbi, his wife cautioned me against trying to offer spiritual solace – I think she was pretty fed up with a God who would let something like this happen, and didn’t feel a real use for religion at the moment.

If we look at the examples from the Bible and the Talmud we’ve been discussing this morning, we find that those who offered theology to the ill – Job’s friends, Raba suggesting one should examine one’s deeds – did not succeed in helping.  The one who helped was R. Yochanan – and all he did was to be present, offering his hand.

And in the offered hand is where we find the presence of God.  Maimonides rejected Raba’s theology, that if you get cancer you should examine your deeds.  Rambam taught that illness happens because that’s the way the world is built.  Where we find the presence of God is not in the illness, it’s in the care, the love, the support, provided by friends, by medical professionals, and by visitors.

If you would like to be a part of a bikkur cholim committee – offering a hand, a word, a visit, or who knows maybe even a prayer – to those in our community who are ill, please let me know, whether by person, by phone, or by email.

Our visits and our prayers might not cure someone who is ill – but they can definitely bring healing and comfort.  We pray to God not so much because we expect or are demanding a miracle from God – but because God is who we turn to at times of need, at times of distress.  And we turn to each other.

הב לי ידךִ
Give me your hand.

Shabbat Shalom

If you are interested in doing the mitzvah of bikkur cholim, of visiting the sick, but are uncomfortable with what one should do, or how one should conduct one’s self, Rabbi Stuart Kelman has prepared a wonderful guide to bikkur cholim which you read by clicking here.

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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