Friday, February 17, 2012

Mishpatim - All Suffering is from God

In Parshas Mishpatim we read (Exodus 21:18-19):
And if men fight, and one strikes the other, whether with a stone or with a fist, and he does not die, but falls into bed: If he gets up again, and walks out upon his staff, then he that struck him shall be clean; only for his rest he shall give him, and for his healing.
If one person knowingly injured another person sufficiently that there is a risk that the injured person might die, then Torah law requires us to imprison the one who inflicted the injury until it becomes clear what will happen. If the victim dies of his injuries, then the imprisoned person is tried for murder. If, however, the victim recovers sufficiently that he is able to walk outside, then the person who inflicted the injury is freed from imprisonment, and is no longer held liable for any later developments (i.e. he is “clean”). Even if the victim later dies, we can no longer assume that the death was directly and exclusively caused by the injury.

Once the person who inflicted the injury is no longer potentially guilty of murder, the case shifts from a criminal case to a financial case. If the court holds the person who inflicted the injury to be guilty, then he is liable for damages. Among the damages that he must pay are the cost of the injured person's lost wages and the cost of medical care.

In a famous passage, the Talmud (Bava Kamma 85a) derives from this verse the principle that Judaism is not opposed to medical care:
The school of Rabbi Yishmael says,  “[The verse states,] 'for his healing,' from here we see that permission is given to a healer to heal.”
Why would we think otherwise? Rashi, in his commentary on the Talmud, explains, “We do not say, ‘God has stricken him and he (i.e. the doctor) heals him?’” In other words, being that all illness and suffering comes from God’s decree, we might believe that medical care is an inappropriate interference with God’s will. The Torah teaches us that this is not true, in that God has permitted the use of medical care. While we are required to believe that all that happens to us is from the will of God, we are still required to function within the natural framework that God has created. Among many other things, this would include medical care.

The Chofetz Chaim
The Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan d.1933) ספר ח"ח עה"ת)) points out that the context in which this lesson is taught provides an additional important lesson. People sometimes argue that, while suffering that comes from natural causes comes from the will of God, suffering that is inflicted upon us by other human beings does not. God gave human beings free will, and this, the argument goes, means that a human being has the power to inflict harm on another person even if God does not will it so. The Chofetz Chaim points out that it is specifically in the context of harm being inflicted by one person upon another that we are taught that medical care is permitted. This indicates that even in such a case, the argument that “God has stricken him and he heals him?” would still apply if not for the fact that the Torah permitted medical care.

Even when other human beings inflict harm upon us, we must still recognize that this was only possible because God decreed that we should endure this suffering. This is an important principle in Jewish thought that underlies many other concepts. For example, the Sefer HaChinuch (241) writes that this is the underlying concept of the prohibition against revenge. A person must recognize that everything that happens to him, good or bad, is from the will of God, and that no man can harm him unless God so decrees.

The Shach
Throughout the generations, it was this concept that gave the Jewish people the strength to endure the most horrific suffering under the hands of their enemies. In the aftermath of the Cossack massacres of Jewish communities in Poland and the Ukraine, the great Torah sage, Rabbi Shabsai Kohen (d.1662), better known as the Shach (after his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, Sifsei Kohen), wrote a lengthy poem commemorating the victims called Megilas Eifah. One of the communities he mentions is the community of Homiah (the following is a loose translation – some of the less easily translated terms and phrases have been omitted):

Let it be known in truth and perfection,
That the Jews of the village Homiah
Sanctified the name of God more than the other righteous and wise Jews.
For there too the impure barbarians came as violent dogs,
In collusion with other immoral people,
And the Jews were given into their hands.
They were driven out of the city upon the fields and orchards,
And they were surrounded and stripped naked,
And they were forced to sit upon the ground and the Jews were embarrassed and ashamed.
They were driven like a lamb to the slaughterer and like an ewe to the shearer.
Then the barbarians spoke to the Jews good and comforting words,
“Why should you be strangled and slaughtered like cattle
For your God Who pours His anger upon you without mercy?
Would it not be better for you to serve our gods, the statues and images
And we will be one unified people?
Then you will be freed from us and you will live,
And we will return to you all the spoils and you will be wealthy and powerful!”
The holy and faithful seed, who, in all the days, have been killed for God,
Had contempt for this world, young men and women, and the elderly,
They gathered together – old and young,
In whom there was no flaw,
And they cried out a great and bitter cry to God above,
“Hear O Israel, Hashem is Our God, Hashem is one!
For You, God of Israel, we are killed every day!
We shall not dwell with men falsehood and wickedness!”
And they confessed their sins and they said, “But we are guilty!”
And they justified the judgement and said, “The Rock, His work is perfect!”
And they sung many songs of mourning until their cries rose to the heavens.
When the barbarians saw that the Jews were perfect in their faith,
They began to speak to them arrogantly and threateningly,
“For how long will you be stiff-necked, and knowingly give yourself over to destruction, making yourselves into murderers?
For you are bringing your deaths upon yourselves, causing the murder and slaughter,
For you do not wish to serve our gods!”
And the Jews said to them, “Why do you delay killing us?
For we will not listen to your voice, and we will not worship gods of human manufacture,
For God is one in heaven and earth, Hashem is our God and our Savior,
You, today, are sent by Him, blessed be He, to strike down our lives,
For God brings about evil deeds through evil men, such as you, our haters and enemies,
And if you will not kill us, God has many other agents,
He has many lions and bears to attack us.
But you are the one that He has prepared for punishment, you are His sword to destroy us!”
Then the barbarians raised their hands against them and killed them all for our sins,
And they committed a great massacre against our brethren, the people of our covenant,
Against our sons, our daughters, our youth and our elderly.

The Torah has taught the Jewish people to recognize that all suffering, whether as a community or as an individual, comes from the decree of God, and that, ultimately, all of our suffering is intended to bring us closer to achieving the purpose of our existence, to achieve a true knowledge and attachment to God. It is has been this recognition that has given the Jewish people the strength to survive thousands of years of exile.

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