G-d as Our Doctor

G-d as Our Doctor

Who’s your doctor? Until I began working, I did not have to think about who mine is. My doctor growing up was Dr. Bruce Herman, my father. Even when I was a student in Madison and in New York, I never changed doctors, instead getting a check-up from my father when I was home for breaks.

According to Parshat Beshellach, however, I already have a doctor: G-d. After praising G-d for the defeat of the Egyptians, the Israelites went into the desert still could not find water after three days, finally discovering a source of bitter water.  They referred to the place as “Marah,” or bitter, for they were bitter about the bitter-tasting water.  They complained to Moses.  Moses cried out to G-d, who instructed him to throw a piece of wood into the water making it sweet so that the Israelites could drink it.  G-d then proclaimed to the Israelites, “If you listen to my voice and follow all of my commandments then the plagues that I set upon the Egyptians I will not put upon you, for I am G-d your doctor (רפאך).”[1]

What is most peculiar about this section is why would G-d need to “heal” the water, transforming it from bitter to sweet? Ibn Ezra’s interpretation is that for every affliction, we do not need a human healer or doctor but rather should turn to G-d, who turned the bitter water into sweetness, something that no human doctor can do.[2]  While I respect Ibn Ezra’s interpretation, as the child of a doctor I believe in the power of modern medicine, and that G-d helps those who help themselves.  Rashi has a different perspective: Torah and mitzvot (commandments) save us spiritually the same way that a healer saves us physically.  Just as a doctor tells us not to eat certain things that make us sick, so too does following mitzvot keep us healthy.[3]  Malbim, a Hasidic commentator, goes further on this point, asserting that the Torah keeps us healthy through teaching us proper behavior.  Through following the Torah’s laws, we will live a balanced and healthy life.[4]

Rashi and Malbim’s interpretations are fascinating to me because we often see health exclusively from a physical perspective.  We go to the doctor to check our blood pressure, heart rate and cholesterol levels.  We regularly check our BMI as well as the susceptibility that we have to certain conditions or diseases.  Generally we do not turn to Torah for such questions, yet our commentators are indicating that following the Torah can be a measure of our health as a person.  Our keeping Shabbat can be a way of our keeping stress under control, focusing on the moment rather than the next task on our to-do list.  Similarly, keeping kashrut can be a means of thinking about what we are about to consume and whether it is in our best interest to consume it.

My teacher Aryeh Ben-David of the PARDES Institute in Jerusalem said that in addition to getting a physical checkup from a doctor we should get a “spiritual checkup” from G-d.  I think this is a great idea.  By turning to the Torah for guidance in our daily action and behavior, we can live healthier, more meaningful lives.  Just as we ask ourselves “Can I eat this?” or “Did I exercise enough today?” so too must we ask “Do I have a proper balance between work and home life?  Do I create time for myself? Do I reflect on what I am doing, or do I just rush from activity to activity?”  Through this mindset, G-d becomes our healer and our maintainer.

Eight days ago I returned from my introductory retreat with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. This is an eighteen month program in which I work on mindfulness, highlighted by four retreats in which we experience the mornings in complete silence (besides Tefillah) while engaging in meditation, yoga and Hasidic text study. We also learned on zmirot, chanting beautiful songs and trying to get lost in the music. During the entire week we were asked not to use our phones or get any work done, an extremely difficult task for someone like me; rather we were advised to be sensitive to whatever we were engaged in at that particular moment, an approach anxieties or tension with curiosity. I felt tears well up in my eyes as I wrote in my journal that with consistent focus and attention moment-by-moment I can change my attitude and mentality for the better.


What amazes me most is how much the spiritual is connected to the physical. When we are fully engaged in the moment, we feel alive and healthy, and our body is strengthened. When we are distracted, torn this way and that, it can very easily lead to stress, weakening our bodies. On retreat, someone compared the brain to a computer and when too many widows are open, it slows down and crashes. The study of psychosomatic reactions and of the importance of holistic medicine, treating the causes in addition to the current symptoms, is not so new but it has gained focus in recent years.

This morning we want to thank our healthcare professionals who bring about for us sources for healing in so many ways. We are blessed to have in our congregation surgeons and internists, nurses and social workers optometrists, obgyns, pediatricians, geriatricians, dentists, podiatrists, chiropractors and so many more. Each of you works hard day in and day out to do what is in the best interest of your patients, often working long hours to do so, and we thank you for this.  We also celebrate that you’re not in it alone: G-d is serving as a doctor within you, guiding you to make good decisions and to be there with full presence and spirit for your patients. Thank you for being who you are and for what you do to make a difference each and every day.

[1] Exodus 15:26

[2] Ibn Ezra on Exodus 15:26 ד”ה המחלה

[3] Rashi on Exodus 15:26 ד”ה לא אשים עליך. His comment there on לפי פשוטו.

[4] Malbim on Exodus 15:26 ד”ה רפאך

No Place for Hate

When I walk into the Sid Jacobson JCC, I notice the sign “Hate Has No Place Here.” I was part of an advertisement along with other Long Island rabbis against hate speech and disturbing rhetoric and action that occurred at Charlottesville. I had also gone along with a number of congregants to the Mid Island JCC to be part of a Break the Hate event co-sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League.

In this week’s parsha, Israel is being freed from Egypt (היום יצאתם ממצרים.[1] This is great cause for the Israelites to rejoice and to wreck vengeance on their Egyptian brethren. The Egyptians are eager for Israel to leave, proclaiming כי אמרו כלנו מתים ותחזק מצרים את העם למהר לשלחם מן הארץ “The Egyptians urged the people to hurry and leave the country, ‘for otherwise,’ they said, ‘we will all die!’”[2] We learn in Beshellach that Israel leaves armed and in Bo we learn that Egypt gave Israel כלי-כסף וכלי זהב ושמלות, “silver, gold and clothing.”[3] Israel made out like a bandit in plundering Egypt upon their escape from slavery.

With all that had happened, one could surmise that Israelites would hate the Egyptians. After all, they enslaved us for 212 years (or, according to G-d’s prophecy to Abraham, for 400 years). However, at the end of his life, Moses implores Israel “Do not hate an Egyptian because you were a stranger in his land.”[4] What led Moses to say this?

Sir Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “This is remarkable. The Israelites had been enslaved by the Egyptians. They owed them no debt of gratitude. On the contrary, they were entitled to feel a lingering resentment.” He concludes that “a people driven by hate are not-cannot be-free. Had the people carried with them a burden of hatred and a desire for revenge, Moses would have taken the Israelites out of Egypt, but he would not have taken Egypt out of the Israelites. They would still be there, bound by chains of anger as restricting as any metal. To be free you have to let go of hate.”[5]

Mitzrayim means the place of constriction/narrowness. When we feel hatred (or negative emotions in general), our chest constricts, our shoulders rise and become tense, our fists clench. We close ourselves off, as opposed to the openness our body feels when we have joy and happiness.

How many of us are still bound by hatreds and resentments that we have held onto for years, unwilling to let go of? There’s a great reading in Siddur Hadash “Let us rid ourselves of hatreds and resentments which rob us of the peace we crave.”[6] By holding onto the past events, even when we were wronged, we are the ones who suffer. We cannot become whole until we let go of the past, becoming fully immersed in the present: moment-by-moment, breath-by-breath.

There’s a great video I saw at a Hebrew High staff meeting in Tucson about a father and son. The son complains about an acquaintance he had recently come across again who had wronged him a decade ago. His dad looked at him and said, “How much rent is he paying you?” The son was perplexed: “Rent, but he doesn’t live with me.” His father said, “He should be; he’s been living in your head all this time.”

When we hold onto events from the past, we hold ourselves back. When we hate someone for what they did to us in our hearts rather than forgiving them in our hearts, we hold ourselves back. When we cannot get over our hate and resentment that we feel towards another, even if we feel it is completely justified, we hold ourselves back.

The lesson that Moses is imparting is not to forget past wrongs but rather not to hate today because of them. We need to focus on what we can do in the present to make situations better for ourselves and for those we love rather than living in the past. What’s done is done and Moses recognizes that no amount of anger, vindication, upheaval or frustration will change it. He imparts on his people to not let the past in Egypt guide them but rather the future in the Promised Land. That is a lesson for us to take in as well: what can we do in the present to let go of hate, resentment and aggravation from the past, embracing a present with only love and kindness so that we will be better off today, היום, as a result.

[1] Exodus 13:3

[2] Exodus 12:33

[3] Exodus 12:35

[4] Deuteronomy 23:7

[5] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversation: Exodus (New Milford, CT: Maggid Books, 2010), p. 93.

[6] Siddur Hadash Moreshet Edition, “Peace Means More than Quiet,” p. 61.


We all get criticized for “flip-flopping.” I know I have. Yet this is precisely what Pharaoh does in this week’s portion. On multiple occasions, beginning with the plague of frogs, he says העתירו אל ה,1] “plead before G-d,” to let the plague end. Yet when it does end, at first he hardens his heart והכבד את לבו[2] whereas later on his heart his hardened for him by G-d ויחזק ה את לב פרעה.[3] Why can’t Pharaoh just stay the course and allow Israel to go? Wouldn’t this have made his life far less complicated?

At the end of Parshat Vaera, Pharaoh says one of my favorite lines: ה הוא הצדיק ואני ועמי הרשעים חטאתי הפעם,, “I have truly sinned this time! G-d is the righteous one and I and my people are the wicked ones.”[4] He begs Moses for an end to the hail. Moses intercedes with G-d causing the hail to end and the rest is the familiar story that you know: “When Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder had ceased, he became stubborn and reverted to his guilty ways.”[5]

Why is Pharaoh flip-flopping, saying that Israel can go and then changing his mind? Why couldn’t he have just let Israel go the first time? What’s he afraid of? Why after saying that he’d let Israel go does he relent again and again and again? Is this struggle unique to him or one that each of us shares?

Rashi comments that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in the final five plagues is a punishment for the first five, where Pharaoh’s own obstinacy is what led him to refuse to let Israel go.[6] Sforno however offer the opposite interpretation: G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart to restore his free will. After all, the plagues devastating Egypt put Pharaoh under overwhelming pressure to let Israel go. Had he done so, it would not have been out of free will but rather under force majeure. G-d therefore toughened and strengthened Pharaoh’s heart so even after the first five plagues he was still genuinely free to say yes or no.[7]

Seforno’s interpretation intrigues me because if Pharaoh really had free will, why in his right mind would he continue to say no to letting Israel go? Was he just “prisoner of the moment,” automatically resisting as soon as there was no plague afflicting Egypt? Was he so dependent on a free, corvee labor force that he couldn’t put his money where his mouth was and risk Israel’s departure? We often say in life “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Perhaps the uncertainty regarding Pharaoh’s release of Israel was a strong enough fear to trigger him breaking his word time after time and causing Israel to be forced to stay.

Rabbi Shai Held writes in his new book The Heart of Torah that “most of us are not Pharaoh; even if in certain situations change becomes impossible, it is nevertheless crucial to emphasize that such cases are extremely rare. Most of us are faced with the daily struggle of exercising our freedom in the midst of very real limitations, not least the limitations we ourselves have created.”[8] I read Rabbi Held as saying that often we resist change because we will need to transcend what we perceive to be our limits. As we know from Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. We can exercise our freedom but how will that choice impact our reality?

As counterintuitive as this might sound, I am much more sympathetic to Pharaoh as I get older. I recognize how easy it is to make promises and then retract them as well as how we might feel one thing at a moment of pressing urgency and another when that urgent matter has abated. Thank G-d no one has forced us into slavery or taken away our free will yet in different ways we can feel a similar tension to that of Pharaoh keeping his people free from plague yet concurrently not wanting to let go of his labor force.

Today we are honoring CPAs who have been very hard at work with new tax legislation, trying to advise their clients as best as possible while becoming abreast of the frenetic changes that they will need to implement. We honor them not only for sponsoring today’s Kiddush but more importantly for their hard work and dedication in a challenging profession, as well as for their devotion to the Jericho Jewish Center. We are so proud of the work that they do for JJC, especially our President Richard Cepler, our Immediate Past President Martha Perlson and our Chairman of the Board and fellow Past President Jay Kaplan. Thank you to all our CPAs for being who you are and for leading our congregation forward with strength.

[1] Exodus 8:4

[2] Exodus 8:11

[3] Exodus 9:12

[4] Exodus 9:27

[5] Exodus 9:34

[6] Rashi on Exodus 7:3 ד”ה ואני אקשה . In Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Covenant and Conversation: Exodus (New Milford, CT: Maggid Books, 2010), p. 49.

[7] Seforno on Exodus 7:3 ד”ה ואני אקשה. In Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Covenant and Conversation: Exodus (New Milford, CT: Maggid Books, 2010), p. 49.

[8] Rabbi Shai Held, The Heart of Torah Volume 1: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion-Genesis and Exodus Philadelphia: JPS, 2017), p. 143.

The Scepter Shall Not Depart from Judah

How does one rise to greatness in Judaism? It is not as easy as we might think. Greatness is not based upon pedigree (yihus) but rather upon hard work and merit. We see this through the praise that Jacob gives to his son Judah. He calls him גור אריה, a lion’s cub, says מטרף בני עלית, you have ascended from amidst the pray.[1] He then says לא יסור שבט מיהודה, the scepter shall not depart from Judah.[2] Rashi comments that this means that the line of Jewish leaders will never depart from the tribe of Judah, that wherever Jews live the leader, whether a king or resh galuta (exilarch) will descend from Judah.

Why did Judah merit this ascent? To get at that answer we have to go back to Parshat VaYeshev, where Joseph’s brothers want to kill him. Judah craftily says מה בצע כי נהרוג את אחינו וכסינו את דמו, “What benefit is there if we kill our brother and hide his blood?[4] לכו ונמכרנו לישמעלים וידנו אל-תהי-בו כי אחינו בשרנו הוא, “Let’s go instead and sell him to the Ishmaelites for he is our brother, our flesh.”[5]   Here Rashi asserts Judah is saying we won’t receive any profit, any money from killing him, so better to sell him and wipe our hands from his death (presuming he’ll die in slavery in Egypt).[6]

Judah descended even further in the next chapter of Parshat VaYeshev וירד יהודה מאת אחיו going down from where his brothers were at and taking a Canaanite wife.[7] Even Esau knew how bad it was to take a Canaanite wife, and yet Judah did precisely that. He also had relations with his daughter-in-law (albeit unknowingly) and when he found out she is with child he proclaims הוציאוה ותשרף, “take her out and burn her!”[8] He’s quickly ready to do away with the life of a relative again. When he realizes that Tamar is pregnant with his child, he says צדקה ממני, she is more righteous than me.[9] It is at this point that he begins to ascend through doing תשובה, or repentance, recognizing that the actions that he took were wrong and that it’s time to change course.

Of course the greatest step in Judah’s ascent was in last week’s parsha, VaYigash, where he begged Joseph to spare his brother Benjamin’s life. He states עבדיך ערב את הנער, “I, your servant, has pledged my life for the boy” and ישב-נא עבדיך תחת הנער עבד לאדוני, “let your servant remain as a slave instead of the boy.”[10] Judah has went from devaluation and degradation of human life, treating a brother as an object off of which to profit or a daughter-in-law as one to be burned, to pledging his life on behalf of a younger, innocent brother. He took a roundabout, circuitous way to get there, but the fact that he changed and evolved is why he is the son we need to emulate. G-d looked at Judah’s תשובה and said ‘I want that to be what leads the Jewish people forward.’

Normally we think the most righteous are those who are “Frum from birth.” However that’s not true in our tradition. The Talmud teaches that in the place of a baal teshuva (one who has undergone repentance) a tsadik cannot stand.[11] There is also the story of a Jew asking his rabbi about who is more holy, who is higher on the ladder in God’s judgment: A person beginning to observe the mitzvot or a person who had been observant who is now moving away from observance? The rabbi replied that God’s judgment is not based on how observant the person is, on how high they are on the ladder of observance, but rather on whether one is ascending or descending the ladder.

We have seen an example of ascent today through the hard work and dedication of our Bar Mitzvah boy. It was not easy for you to reach this day yet you did it with pride. Of course it didn’t hurt to have a great teacher-your abba-to guide you along the way. Your imma grew in her Jewish understanding, observance and commitment as an adult as many were casting it aside. Your abba came from Russia at a time when Jews had to hide aspects of their religion. Many left Russia with the status of being tinokot shenishbau, uneducated in the beauty of our faith. He has had to work hard, including through service in Tzahal, asking many questions and take steps forward each day in his Jewish learning. Unlike him you grew up in a place where people are proud to be Jewish, embracing our traditions, and ironically in environments like this it can be difficult to continue immersion in Jewish study. I urge you to follow in the example of your parents, putting in the time, effort and mesirut nefesh as you devote yourself to continuing to grow as a Jew.

Mazal Tov on reaching this joyous day! To celebrate as a congregation, let us turn to Page 841 and read responsively.

[1] Genesis 49:9

[2] Genesis 49:10

[3] Rashi on Genesis 49:10 ד”ה לא-יסור שבט מיהודה

[4] Genesis 37:26

[5] Genesis 37:27

[6] Rashi on Genesis 37:26 ד”ה מה בצע, ד”ה וכסינו

[7] Genesis 38:1-2

[8] Genesis 38:24

[9] Genesis 38:26

[10] Genesis 44:32, 33

[11] Talmud Berachot 38b